5.27.2009

"Ordinary" athletes and body image

OK, so maybe there isn't such a thing as an "ordinary" athlete. I'm probably kidding myself when I think that there are obsessive athletes and non-obsessive athletes, as if the line between them were a lot stricter than it really is. In statistical terms we would call this line a "zone of rarity," dividing one population from another, but more and more scientists recognize that these hypothetical zones of rarity may not really exist when it comes to mental illnesses. Instead, the border may be just a thin, arbitrary dividing line along a continuum from health to disorder.

Why this scientific digression? I was in a bookstore yesterday and had time to peruse some magazines before meeting my parents. I am not a triathlete, but the cover of the latest issue of Triathlete caught my eye. "BODY IMAGE: Are triathletes obsessed?" it asks, alongside an image of a very fit female athlete in a bikini. It turns out that this also happens to be the "special swimsuit edition." What irony!

The fact that the editors would dare to ask this question alongside an image of almost impossible beauty also suggests that this magazine just doesn't "get it": you can't pretend to be concerned about your readers' obsession with body image, and then promote an ideal that is so difficult to reach, without calling into question your own integrity as a publication.

If all triathletes feel that they should look like this woman (or her male equivalent), I would say that yes, they probably are obsessed with their body image. So what, if anything, makes these folks different from people with eating disorders? Where is the line between wanting to compete for the sake of the game, and wanting to compete to have this (or another) body?

I am not sure myself where this line can be drawn. In my own life, I have had to set it for itself, to know what feels healthy and what feels disordered in relationship to exercise. But I don't feel comfortable speaking for all of the athletes out there who are working to improve their performance through improving their bodies: what right do I have to draw the line for them, when I cannot claim to understand their motivations in the first place? There must be triathletes who participate in the sport for reasons other than enhancing what nature gave them; I would like to know more about how they stay focused on those goals, and what pressures they feel to have a beautiful body, apart from how fast that body is.

Any ideas?

6 comments:

Tiptoe said...

Difficult question and really does depend on each individual. I think for some athletes appearance is thought of more for functional purposes. They think thinner = faster more than equating it with beauty only. I think the beauty aspect is more of an afterthought.

However, at the same time, for some athletes, functionality may be thought of first but with caloric restriction and/or overexercise eventually turn into beauty.

On a side note, every issue of Runner's World seem to be a special "weight loss" issue which is really annoying!

Katharine said...

One time when I was bemoaning my lack of defined, toned muscles like other girls on my college crew team, my coach told me that some of her best athletes "looked like noodles." I didn't particularly appreciate what that implied about my physique, but I thought it was a good point that the best athletes don't always look like the most fit. In our image obsessed culture we equate what looks strong with what is strong. Likewise, what looks "healthy" so often isn't healthy at all.

Kristina said...

I have a friend who competes at a pretty high level (triathlete), but NOT year-round. To me, she is a great role-model because while she IS extremely fit and very competetive (anyone who can finish an Ironman is pretty awesome to me) she also looks like a "normal" woman. Whatever that means, I know. But what I mean by that is that she has curves and isn't "cut", and she seemingly doesn't care. I've known her now for 8 years or so, and her weight doesn't drop when she is training or not. I also wonder - maybe she is NOT programmed like I am.
Along this same line, I have several very athletic friends (played sports in college), and they don't focus on the weight/get fit aspect of the sport. Maybe it was the sport that they played (tennis, softball, basketball) that did not focus on being faster and "individual" performance but rather a team focus? And maybe it just depends on these women, but I love that they are so healthy about exercise, athletics, food and weight.

PTC said...

Interesting question. I think it depends on the person as well. Some are just ultra competetive and really do love performing at that fitness level, others do it for the calorie burn.

Victoria said...

I think the larger question has to do with engaging in anything to an extreme level, which doesn't seem to at the same time allow for balance, which is where I feel the road to peace and health really goes.

I ran for years and years - even after I severed my ACL in a fluke ski accident and running wasn't an option anymore. Fortunately, I stopped short of developing painful arthritis, so I'm lucky. But a number of my friends who engaged in strenuous, punishing exercise - playing volleyball on cement and competitive hockey - are starting to have hip replacements at an age much younger than just normal wearing out would warrant.

I encourage all of you young people to find balance, which does include exercise. Your generation will live longer than the generation before, and you really don't want to wear out. Get calcium while you're young enough for it to count, only get enough sun to absorb vitamin D, learn healthy but not extreme - eating habits. (Remember, it is fuel, but it's also pleasure.) The same goes for exercise.

And as far as looks go, it's true, in France you don't see fat people. But you don't see women who look like wraiths either. The only people running there are Americans.

Have a good summer. I hope you come back in the fall.

Amy B. said...

Different folks different strokes! I agree with the others here, it all depends upon the person.