When I think of a female athlete, I think of a strong woman. I think of a woman that has paved the way and pushed her body to the extreme. I think about the strength and discipline that it takes to be a female athlete. Think about it, most female athletes will continue to push their bodies even when they are on their periods. Think about the female athletes that come back to their sport after a pregnancy. Female athletes are remarkable, but we also have to acknowledge the barriers they endure. The social pressures they face. We cannot turn our backs on the different views society has on female athletes compared to male athletes.
In this blog, we will explore the gender roles that are assumed and placed on female athletes, the impact of being an athlete and the impact it may have on their mental health, the body image issues that may come up, and the social barriers that female athletes face.
Gender roles are the idea that we are supposed to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct ourselves based upon our assigned sex. This is not only prevalent in day to day life, but it also can be carried out into athletics as well. When thinking about gender roles, we may see that when a man speaks out to a referee, he is being outspoken and there may not be any consequence for speaking up. Now, take a woman speaking up to a referee. She may be seen as emotional or hysterical. But, women aren’t only penalized by their verbal actions, but also how they are dressed.
During the U.S. Open 2018, tennis athlete Alize Cornet had to change her shirt due to her realizing that she was not wearing it correctly. Doesn’t seem like a big deal right? Well, she was penalized for this. Meanwhile, tennis athlete John Isner changed his shirt 11 times during his match, as well as numerous other male athletes during the U.S. Open. No men were penalized for these actions.
The impact of gender roles in general is huge. It may cause women to not be able to speak up or fully express themselves. If they fall out the ideals of femininity, this may prompt scrutiny from others.
Mental health is also associated with being an athlete. Although being an athlete requires physical strength, it also tests our mental health as well. There is so much pressure put on athletes to perform at their best. Whether it is competing individually or on a team, the mental pressures can often shed light on different mental health issues. There also may be a false impression that athletes are strong and are more capable of handling extreme stress. This idea can hinder all athletes to not want to reach out for help.
Performance anxiety, stress related issues, eating disorders, and depression are prevalent for athletes. A study has shown that female athletes were more likely to show signs or depression compared to male athletes. Depression can affect health and performance, increase the risk of injury, and can fluctuate the level of participation in the sport. Eating disorders are also prevalent within the athletic community, and it affects female athletes. Eating disorders may cause low self-esteem, anxiety, and body image issues. This is discussed in more detail below. As for performance anxiety and stress-related issues, a study on student athlete wellness found that female athletes scored lower on stress management than male athletes. This means that female athletes reported that they had a tougher time managing their stress. Stress and anxiety can hinder the female athletes ability to perform well, and can increase the risk of burn out.
Body image issues have most likely affected women in general. With athletics, body image issues are also something that a female athlete may deal with. There are athletes of all different sizes and shapes, yet when they don’t fit the societal standard of beauty, they may be criticized.
Like discussed in the previous section, eating disorders are extremely prevalent among female athletes. Not only are there societal pressures for women to look a certain way, but female athletes are also expected to meet that societal standard, as well as meet the standard of what an athlete is supposed to look like. With social media, there are images advertised of what a woman is supposed to look like. There can be hateful comments from strangers if a female athlete is too muscular or looks masculine. Our bodies need to be strong to perform at the optimal level. If an athlete is not getting the proper nutrition and caloric intake, they are at higher risk of injury.
There are many risk factors that may attribute to developing an eating disorder for female athletes. The National Eating Disorders Association discussed the different risk factors for female athletes below:
- Most athletes with eating disorders are females, but male athletes are still at risk
- Disordered eating affects 62% of female athletes
- Athletes are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder when competing in a sport that emphasizes diet, appearance, and weight.
- Aesthetic Sports
- Figure Skating
- Weight-Class Sports
- Horse Racing
- Aesthetic Sports
The affects from body image issues may cause female athletes to display symptoms of depression, performance anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. Being critiqued by coaches or teammates may cause the female athlete to have distorted thinking of their own body image. All of these can cause the the demise of the female athletes’ performance.
Women in sports have overcome a lot, but that does not mean that there are no existing barriers. Some of these barriers include representation, objectification, low income, prejudices on sexuality, and sexual harassment/abuse. These are all things that are still hindering female athletes from continuing in their sport the same way males do. That isn’t to say that it does not exist for male athletes, but it definitely is not spoken about as much, which leads us to think that it may not be as prevalent.
In regards to representation, we often do not hear much about women in sports. This may lead for a lot of girls and women to think that they may not belong in the realm of sports and athletics. Not only do we not hear about women’s sports, but there also is a lack of media coverage for female athletics. Along with the lack of coverage there is also an extreme wage-gap between female and male athletes. In the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the USA team won it all and only was given $2 million while the men’s team was given $8 million after losing in the first knockout round. The disparity of being paid between men and women athletes is common across all sports. This could cause many young girls and women to not want to participate in sports knowing that even if they were the best in the world, they still would not be paid fairly let alone be paid enough to live off of. We need to support each other and continue to fight for women to be heard and be seen as equal in the world of fitness/sports/athletics.
There still may be the idea that being athletic takes away our femininity. Along with the fear of jeopardizing their femininity, many female athletes may fear the stereotypes that come along with being an athlete. Some of these stereotypes include being called a ‘dyke’ or ‘lesbian.’ Those athletes who do identify as lesbian may then not come out due to the backlash of losing sponsors, or being viewed different due to their sexuality.
There is also a barrier of being objectified and sexually harassed/abused as a female athlete. Women are constantly being objectified, and that includes when they are playing their sport. The objectification of women can be seen when they are being interviewed and being asked questions about their dating life, their uniform choice, and other non-sport related topics. This may cause female athletes to not be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. As for sexual harassment and abuse, this is something that occurs for female athletes. A very important turning point was the Larry Nassar case, in which he was accused by over 100 female athletes for sexual abuse. These female athletes were abused under the guise that they were being treated for their injuries to perform better in their sport. Nassar abused his power, and took advantage of these women’s trust. Many female athletes may experience coaches misusing their power, and making inappropriate advances. Female athletes may then fear that if they don’t do what their coach is asking, it could threaten their chances of being a successful athlete.
Female athletes are powerhouses. They are strong competitors, despite all of the barriers they may face on and off the court. They continue to persevere when there are obstacles standing in their way. We need to continue to show our support and celebrate the strong females. Celebrate their wins, celebrate their losses, celebrate their dedication. We all need to continue to fight for their equality within the athletic realm, and every voice counts.