“Whatever your body looks like, be proud because it’s serving you well”

How do you feel about how you look?

According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) and YouGov in 2019, 20% of UK adults said they felt shame because of their body image, while 19% admitted being disgusted. In addition, 37% of teenagers said they felt upset over their body image.

Of course, these statistics also suggest that a fairly large proportion of the British population are happy with how they look. But the fact that such a significant section aren’t is a worrying trend.

The MHF have also found that 46% of young girls worry ‘often’ about their body image. Social media, TV and other forms of media are often suggested to contribute to this because of the constant platforming of women of a certain body type and/or severe editing and airbrushing, pushing a narrative that they have to look a certain way in order to be deemed acceptable.

But with the rise in the coverage of women’s sport, this could actually provide a way of showing young girls that they can be any shape or size and still be adored, celebrated and respected.

This is an argument current England rugby star Zoe Harrison put forward during a special SportSpiel episode on body image with fellow rugby player Justine Lucas and Olympic gold medal winning hockey player Kate Richardson-Walsh.

“I think it’s really good that we’re starting to get onto TV more and younger girls are seeing us, seeing all different shapes and sizes of girls and that, if you push on and do what you need to do for your sport, you can get to where you want to be,” the Saracens player said.

“I think that’s really key for young girls to see, so that they’re not just seeing these models on these websites or TV. They’re seeing all these different girls on TV playing different sports who have all these different body shapes and sizes.”

Harrison herself struggled with her body image when she was in her formative years and, despite the fact she loved playing sport, was reluctant to go into the gym for fear of developing bigger muscles and attracting negative attention as a result.

But one conversation with an S&C coach sparked a change in her mindset and she now tries to share that same message to show girls they shouldn’t worry about what other people think; if their body helps them achieve in a sporting context then they should be proud of it.

“When was younger at school I noticed I was a lot bigger than a lot of the other girls and I was called a few names for it,” the fly half recalled.

“I tried to shy away from lifting weights and remember a year before I was going to Hartpury College I knew I needed to start getting into some S&C and start lifting some weights before going into an elite environment. I remember turning up and saying to the S&C guy ‘don’t make me lift any big weights, I don’t want to be muscly’.

“He turned around and said ‘look at Jess Ennis, she looks amazing and stunning’. It was that one person, that one S&C coach who had to tell me about Jess Ennis and how far she’s got with the body she’s created.

“If you’re going to end up on the Olympic or World Cup stage, you will have forgotten about what that one person has said to you that’s negative because you’ll be at the top of your game and living the dream.

“It’s just focusing on what you need to do and not worry what other people have to think.”

Of course it’s not just in sport where women should be able to feel confident with how they look. It’s all forms of life.

But sport could be a crucial vehicle for bringing about this societal acceptance that it’s ok to look however you want to because of its prominence and the fact people of all shapes and sizes excel.

And alongside showcasing women’s sport on TV and social media, getting these messages across in schools is also crucial.

School is a crucial place of development, not just in terms of learning academically but also developing views on the world that could be held for a lifetime.

This is why Richardson-Walsh believes it is vital that teachers encourage youngsters to become  comfortable with how they look and not put across any prejudices, something she experienced during one visit.

“I remember I cut my hair really short into a pixie crop and someone took a picture of me out in Argentina and I was really fired up, I looked really muscly, veins were popping out,” the Rio 2016 champion said.

“I struggled with that picture for a while but I used it purposefully when I went into schools to do talks because I wanted to show the girls a different image to the ones they were probably seeing day-to-day about female athletes.

“One headmaster said to me after one speech ‘couldn’t you have used a prettier picture?’ and that just said it all to me; think of the influence that he was having on the girls in his school.

“I said in front of all the girls that I was really proud of that photo, that’s me at my very best having worked hard for that body and representing that country. So whatever your body looks like and whatever it does, be proud because it’s serving you well.”

Even in elite sport though, the stigmas that surround how female athletes look – especially when it comes to fat – still exist.

For those at the top end of their sport, weight and body shape is important; you need to be in the perfect condition in order to perform at your very best. As a result, there is a significant amount of importance placed on how much fat an athlete possesses.

This is something all three discussed on the SportSpiel podcast, with Lucas and Richardson-Walsh explaining that while it is important to be in peak physical shape, this has to be taken on an individual basis, something they felt hasn’t necessarily been the case previously.

Former England prop Lucas said: ’There’s quite a big deal made around testing camps. People say ‘I can’t drink, I can’t eat, I’m getting my skinfolds done’ and there is quite a lot of anxiety. What if I’ve gone up 1ml of fat which, in reality, is nothing? There is quite a big focus on it.

“When I first came in, if you had over 100ml of fat you were almost in the ‘Fat Club’. It was quite intimidating. I didn’t even know what it meant when I first came into the system.

“You come in with not really much training training under your belt in an elite environment so of course you’re going to be holding a bit of extra fat and yes, being in a professional elite environment that’s what you’re there for – to be fitter and faster and stronger. But there is a lot of pressure put on and it does cause a lot of anxiety.

“But it’s part of sport, you need to get that balance. It’s how we get make it healthy as sports people, as sports practitioners, to talk about it in a sae environment.”

Richardson-Walsh added: “I was really lucky and had naturally a lean body type, so wasn’t able to hold much fat and put on muscle relatively easily.

“I’d still have to eat the right things and train and work hard but compared to other people in the squad, you’d look at them and think ‘they’re tiny, there’s nothing on them’ and then their body fat measurements were high.

“It wasn’t public, it was all individual but of course we’d talk to each other and we had a group who were doing extra training and going on specific nutrition plans before London 2012 and they called themselves the ‘Fat Club’. It was funny and a bit of a joke but there’s stigma there.

“It’s how we view our bodies and how our bodies are viewed by other people and it is about creating that safe environment to be able to support people because we’re all different. We’re all different body shapes, all different body types. We’re all going to view it in a different way as well. We need to be really careful and sensitive about how we deal with it with each person.”

Slowly but surely, changes are happening and attitudes towards women’s bodies in sport are changing. But there’s still a long way to go and Lucas knows that if women are going to be finally respected as equals with their male counterparts on all fronts, the athletes are going to have to continue leading the charge.

She said: “It’s down to us to push that forward and advocate that as part of being role models our sport. We could easily let that go by and ten years down the line nothing’s changed. We’ve got to keep pushing it forward. You’ve got to see it to be it.”

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