The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Body Comparison: An Olympic Sport?


When cheering on the elite athletes at the Rio Olympics and in other high-profile sporting events, it can be easy to lose perspective and you may find yourself comparing your physical body to those at the peak of their sport careers. Lost in these comparisons, we too often become self-critical and forget the long journeys, support communities, financial resources, sacrifices and sheer hard work that comes with being an Olympic athlete.

Olympic bodiesEngaging in body comparison not only hurts you but serves to fuel the overall toxic culture of body shaming. After all, even Olympic athletes are subject to mean-spirited remarks about their appearance. In the most recent summer games, Ethiopian swimmer Nobel Kiros Habte faced some harsh comments for not matching the “look” of his peers, as did Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno. Many others have faced similar backlash through the years.
Just as athletes are not immune from body shaming, it’s important to remember the “perfect” athletic body does not equate to perfect health. Making snap judgments about someone’s fitness or health based on their appearance is misleading – it’s rarely possible to tell, for example, if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. Athletes are not immune to eating disorders or struggles with body image. American cyclist and two-time national champion Mara Abbott has been open about her experience with anorexia. In a candid column for a cycling blog, she reflected on how it affected her performance: “Personally, having taking a hiatus from sport in 2012 due to an eating disorder, I can attest that my thinnest was definitely not my strongest. I really mean that. Please read that sentence more than once.”

As we gather around the television with our friends and families to celebrate athletic achievement, we can support the competitors, ourselves and each other by focusing less on physical appearance and more on the hard work and powerful accomplishments of these world-class athletes.  After all, Olympic bodies can be powerful, graceful, tough and resilient but they are also diverse.  From gymnastics to archery, swimming to shot put, let’s allow our athletes to be inspirations, not because of or in spite of their looks but for the attitude and spirit they project in aiming for their goals.  Let’s enjoy watching all sporting events – whether it’s a World Cup game or a pee wee soccer league – from a place of body appreciation and as part of a body positive summer.

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