Sports Culture Needs to Change
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Over the last six weeks, we’ve dived in depth about all aspects of eating disorders in sports. We discussed eating disorders, seven myths vs. facts, and five strategies for supporting an athlete with an eating disorder. Suffice to say, being an athlete with an eating disorder is hard. Really hard. And we want to help athletes by tackling the toxic sports culture that promotes eating disorders.
Sports and exercise have innumerable benefits for people’s mental and physical wellbeing, and not all fitness communities are harmful. However, on the whole, sports culture promotes toxic habits that threaten the lives of countless vulnerable populations.
If we want people to reap the mental and physical benefits of exercise, we need to change sports culture now. We cannot remain silent in an environment that promotes the most deadly psychiatric disorder. We cannot remain complacent when millions of people suffer from long-term health consequences from preventable problems. We cannot remain neutral in an oppressive, discriminatory, and exploitative culture.
We’ve compiled five demands of what needs to stop in sports culture, with actionable strategies to combat them. Take this as an open letter to sports culture, and everyone involved: athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, dietitians, and psychologists. Our intent is not to shame individuals for their actions; instead, we want to raise awareness of the issues present to move towards constructive change. Leave any other “demands” in the comments below! Don’t forget to like, comment, and share this post, which will help us reach a larger audience and combat the stigma!
Stop: Body shaming and fatphobia
Even if the feedback appears “positive,” commenting on people’s bodies is incredibly triggering for those with eating disorders and disordered eating. The unfortunate reality is that weight stigma saturates the sports community, effectively leading to little body diversity. People in larger bodies are marginalized, judged, and ostracized, which only fuels fatphobia. Even for those in smaller bodies, these harmful behaviors reinforce the belief that larger bodies are unacceptable.
Start: Embracing a diversity of bodies
As a sports community, we need to prioritize including people of all shapes and sizes. They are just as capable of performing well in sports, and they deserve the same compassion, respect, and opportunities given to those in smaller bodies. Start by refraining on commenting on people’s appearances; instead, focus on what their bodies can do. Challenge your internalized weight stigma. Be an ally to those in larger bodies.
Stop: Promoting dieting and disordered eating
Dieting and underfueling are dangerous for athletes (or anyone for that matter) who have high energy needs and place intense stress on their bodies. Any form of eating that restricts certain food groups or food types for non-medical reasons is inherently disordered and detrimental to one’s mental and physical health. Unfortunately, much of this advice comes from coaches and fellow athletes with no professional dietetics training, which can lead athletes down unhealthy paths.
Start: Modeling a healthy relationship with food
Remove any judgemental language surrounding food and encourage unrestricted eating. All foods fit in anyone’s diet, and food should be something to enjoy, rather than fear. Ultimately, the healthiest diet is one where your mind, body, and soul are adequately nourished and satisfied. Instead of turning to influencers, coaches, or fellow peers for nutrition advice, consult a registered dietitian, preferably specialized in sports nutrition.
Stop: Encouraging weight loss for performance
Weight loss is NOT a sustainable means of improving athletic performance. The mental and physical repercussions far outweigh the marginal, short-term benefits of weight loss, which is often temporary and decreases strength. We need to stop guiding athletes down these destructive paths of hurting their bodies that can cost them their athletic career, or even their life.
Start: Focusing on a holistic approach to training
Instead of criticizing an athlete’s weight, take a well-rounded approach to improve their performance. Various factors influence an athlete’s abilities, including smart training, adequate nutrition, rest, and mental health, all of which are necessary to ensure an athlete’s success. When we zoom out to look at the bigger picture, we can more easily identify aspects to improve before they become problematic.
Stop: Glorifying eating disorders
Eating disorders and disordered eating aren’t a sign of self-control. Battling demons in your head every moment of the day doesn’t make someone “cool” or “trendy.” Fighting an illness that takes one in five lives isn’t “aesthetic” or “admirable.” Especially with athletes who lose weight due to an eating disorder, they are praised for their behaviors and encouraged to continue them. Eating disorders are not a joke - we need to take them seriously.
Start: Educating athletes on the facts
Learning about eating disorders is just as important as learning about technique, training, and injury prevention. YouTube and Instagram are often harmful, triggering places to learn about eating disorders. Instead, look for credible resources authored by doctors, registered dietitians, and psychologists who specialize in eating disorders. Starting early with age-appropriate content can help lay the foundation for a sustainable, healthy future for athletes.
Stop: Stigmatizing mental health
We cannot make progress on eating disorder awareness in sports without acknowledging the stigma surrounding mental health. One in four people struggle with mental illness, and athletes are hardly immune. Too often, athletes are told to tough things out to be “strong”, when in reality, asking for help requires immense courage
and maturity. By marginalizing those who struggle with their mental health, we are suppressing countless athletes’ potentials and leaving them to suffer a painful battle in silence.
Start: Opening up the conversation
Talking about mental health isn’t easy, but so is sports. We need to channel the resilience and determination we use in training to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental illness. We need to teach athletes healthy coping skills to deal with sports, academics, and life stressors. We need to normalize therapy and encourage athletes to work with sports psychologists. We need to check in with people beyond the standard “how are you?”
We hope that you enjoyed our four-part series on eating disorders in sports! We hope that this can inform, educate, and inspire the future generation of athletes to stay healthy while pursuing their passions. We still have a long way to dismantle the toxic sports culture, but change is possible. Thank YOU for taking the time to make sports a safe, supportive place for everyone!