Already Prettypoll: Olympic Athletes and Body Image

This topic was inspired by an e-mail from reader Natalie:

I would love to hear your take on the impact of the popularity of female Olympic athletes on body image. I personally find watching women in the Olympics empowering – there are so many different “ideal” Olympic body types, from swimmer to gymnast to distance runner to weight lifter, and they’re all beautiful and powerful and awe-inspiring. None of them look at all like the bodies of most models or actresses, and yet they are much more incredible than the bodies we are regularly told are “ideal.” I tend to feel badly about my own body after seeing too many images of models or actresses, but I feel the opposite while watching Olympic athletes. They are a reminder that beauty, power, and talent come in many forms, and make me appreciate my own, much less athletic body.

I will admit that traveling and work have interfered with my ability to catch more than a passing minute or two of the games myself, and certainly don’t feel qualified to speak on behalf of others. So I’d like to hand it over to you:

Does watching women compete in the Olympics impact your own body image? Positively? Negatively? A bit of both depending on the circumstances? Do you feel inspired to push yourself athletically? Intimidated to see how skilled these women have become? Happy to see bodies that fall outside the socially sanctioned ideal being praised?

  • Sigi

    There certainly is a wonderful variety of bodies all competing at world-class level at the Olympics.

    I had fun at this site from the BBC, which figures out your closest Olympic athlete body match, no matter what your size and shape:

    Hey, I’m a wrestler from Guinea-Bissau! Rawr!

    • LinB

      Apparently I am French and shoot an air-pistol. Better be nice to me, s’il vous plait! mwa ha ha ha ha.

      • Viktoria

        Fun! I´m a British football (soccer to you) player.

        I think watching sports is a great reminder to focus on function and health. A body in a healthy place, lovingly cared for, is beautiful, no matter the measurements.

  • Keilexandra

    Oh, I was just thinking about this last night! I love watching the female beach volleyball players because so many of them are small-busted with undefined waists–a female body type that is rarely celebrated. Note, this is not the same as a skinny model body type which still needs enough of an hourglass to fit into standard clothing charts.

    It took a lot of mental work for me to see my boyish body in the mirror and accept that I’m just as feminine WITHOUT curves as other women are WITH curves. So it’s inspiring to see all of these strong, talented athletes who wear bikinis as their uniform. If beach volleyball players can wear a bikini every day on national television and be proud of their AA bust, that gives me courage to do the same on the beach.

    • Anonymous

      That site sounds cool! But the two athletes I get are dudes. . . which definitely doesn’t make me happy. Which is interesting in itself, I guess.

      • Anne

        I got matched with men too, but it made me curious why. I played around with the numbers: it’s because I’m tall. There are a couple of taller women that, if I weighed more, I could match. They are in sailing, swimming and canoeing. That made me happy: I love the water. The men were runners and an archer, which I guess are sports where lighter men are either advantaged or not disadvantaged. Interesting.

        • Kylara7

          Me too…my matches are all male and I think it’s because I am tall and muscular for my frame :)

  • Dawn

    One thing that athletes make me think is, oh, I could be athletic if I tried hard enough, because I doubt that every single one of these people made it by on talent alone. So that means I’m basically just not working hard enough, because I could look awesome if I just dedicated my life to it.

    Models, on the other hand, make me feel a little better. First off, eeek, visible ribs and collarbones never appealed to me. Second, they seem kind of sad, in that they only really exist to hang clothes on. I do more with my life than that.

    • Sal

      Hmm. That’s a rather narrow view of models and modeling, especially since they’re all individual people with different lives, goals, and career paths. Consider reading this older guest post from The Waves about her experience as a professional model:

    • Anna-Lisa

      If models “only really exist to hang clothes on” then I only exist to work on spreadsheets and make copies, and previously only existed to fold t-shirts and jeans on racks. My job is as mindless as theirs but nobody assumes I’m an idiot who contributes no value to the world because of what I do to pay the bills.

    • alice

      Also, I think many of these (very young!) girls come from poorer Eastern European countries and modeling is a way to achieve a better standard of living for themselves and their families. I did a little modeling myself a very long time ago, but certainly did not choose to pass up college in order to pursue it as a career. It’s a very difficult profession.

  • Lisa W.

    After watching gymnastics and track events last night, I think it’s interesting how similar the body types are within each event, yet, that profile of proportion, muscle and sinew alone does not determine outcome. I encourage my school aged boys to watch these events with me, to appreciate what athletic women look like and can achieve at the highest levels of physical prowess. Looking at their bodies does not inspire me to compare myself to them at all since there’s no comparison, but to cheer their beauty, grace and strength. Empowering!

  • Cynthia

    The Olympic athletes themselves don’t make me feel bad in any way. I know I am a huge shot of ambition away from being able to be that athletic, and I wouldn’t want to work out the way they do, so I can’t exactly covet their body types. What gives me the rage though is sports commentators and jerks who comment on news articles from their mom’s basement (in their ill-fitting underwear no doubt) calling perfectly healthy athletes “fat”. Yeah show me how fast you can swim or STFU, buddy.

  • LinB

    Yes, I find them entirely empowering. The female weightlifters might be dismissed by many in our culture, at first sight, as “fat” and “lazy.” Instead, they are among the physically strongest specimens of our species. Their single-minded dedication to a sport that most consider “unfeminine” is very appealing. (I mean, what does it matter what dress size you wear, when you can clean and jerk over 300 pounds without internal injury to your major organs and joints?) The female swimmers have amazing lung capacity. Gymnasts’ sense of their place in space is uncanny. Each one of the rest of us, whether clumsy or graceful, frail or sturdy, can rejoice that it is okay to be who and how we are, too.

    • Kylara7

      Amen! My partner and I watched the women’s weightlifting on the internet and we were both blown away…me by their technique and strength and him by the fact that they can lift way more than he can :)

  • Chan

    Watching the Olympics has revved up my workout mojo, actually. I really admire athletic bodies, and while I’m athletic myself, I’m obviously not elite. I’ve caught myself making comments about how I wish I had someone’s body, but not in a despondent sort of way – more in a goal sort of way.

  • SamiJ

    I find the actual competition to be empowering. But the media coverage/magazine stories are always so not empowering. Many of the photos go out their way to sexualize the female athletes. And I am not thrilled that the men volleyball players (indoor & beach) get to wear different uniforms that the women players do (why don’t the men have to wear tight boyshorts or bikini bottoms?). I dislike that comments on Gabby’s hair even were made. But yay that the US had more women competing than men, showing that regardless of barrierrs, women do perform and do compete.

    • Anneesha

      I read a comment from one of the players (possibly Misty May herself) saying that they did have the option to wear other clothing, but that they grew up in bikinis and bikinis were also the most comfortable because less place for sand to get in! So if they have the option to wear ’em, more power to them!

    • CW

      AMEN! I am appalled at all the media coverage focused on what a gymnast’s hair looks like, how much a female weight-lifter weighs, or a swimmer’s “big” feet. And all this negativity seems to revolve exclusively around female athletes, many of them still in their teens! Can you imagine being a teenager, showing your incredible talent to your best ability, representing your country with pride, and all anybody wants to talk about is how your body looks? I didn’t notice anyone commenting on the size of Michael Phelps’ feet….

  • Karen Bowers

    I’ve actually written two blogs inspired by Gabby Douglas’s thighs!

  • Linnet
    • Jen

      Wow, this is great!

  • sigourney

    I have no tv set anymore but happened to watch the swimmers’ contests at my mother’s. I LOVED IT. I could have jumped right in with them and it reminded me of what a rush strength and speed can be. Absolutely empowering.

    In doing sports you feel yourself and don’t give a f*** about how people see you.

  • Jenny

    I agree, entirely empowering! I would also love to mention that despite the constant stream of annoying, repetitive commercials, I have enjoyed the set of Nike ads, with the tagline “find your greatness” — the idea seems to be that most of us at home will never have the drive, talent, or ambition to be Olympians or Paralympians, but in our own way, shape, size, ethnicity, and nationality, we can be great athletes, too, doing whatever it is we do.

    • Natalie

      I love those commercials, too!

  • Cee

    I really enjoy watching it. It’s great to see women’s bodies being the centre of attention because they are bodies which DO things, rather than bodies which look a certain way. I don’t feel inspired to get sporty myself (ok, maybe the gymnastics do make me want to play on a beam) but I feel so much admiration for what these women can do.

    Only two things dampen my spirits: the disparities of coverage and sponsorship between male and female athletes, even within the same discipline.

    Secondly, the coverage of the women’s volleyball has disgusted me, as ever. It gets the most attention because it involves the fewest clothes, not due to the effort of the athletes. I was listening to the radio yesterday, and one presenter had been to watch the final. He said, “Oh yeah, I was a bit skeptical of it as a sport….but these women are ACTUALLY amazing athletes.” He sounded so surprised that these women were there to compete, rather than to display themselves, that it just made me sad.

    • Natalie

      Yeah, the way women’s beach volleyball is covered bothers me. I love the sport (I grew up in FL, and my university had large sand volleyball courts that were packed every night with people playing). The athleticism involved amazes me, and I think volleyball with just two teammates is more interesting and exciting to watch. But much of the commentary I’ve heard has focused on how it’s not a real sport, or all about Carrie & Misty May’s bodies, or how it’s a shame they’re allowed to wear clothes other than bikinis this year, or other such nonsense.

  • Sarah

    SO INSPIRING!!!! I love watching the Olympics and “listening” to my own chatter in my head while I’m watching has been an eye opener! I hear myself saying that their bodies are incredible and I admire them and they are so different from the usual bodies that are presented as ideal that usually make me feel bad about myself. I need to take a lesson out of my own textbook and be kinder to myself.

    I was never an athletic kid…last year I started doing a boot-camp style work out and it’s been hard, but rewarding and I find I watch sporting events with different eyes these days.

  • DeeDee V.

    Yes! Positively – I love it. Watching weightlifting yesterday with my sons was a wonderful teaching moment. Elite athletes come in all shapes and sizes. We can get out and be active; have fun and enjoy our bodies regardless of our own shape, weight, size… I find it so empowering.

  • Lynn

    I love the different bodies who are all so competent in their sports. I also agree with the sexist comments of the media as well as the bias as to what is covered. My solution is to watch with the sound muted!

    Also love the BBC app — who would have thought I am an Argentine hockey player!

  • WendyB

    I find it very inspiring — love the powerful legs on the gymnasts!

  • Wanett

    I find watching them amazingly inspiring! As you stated, the different body types are such a wonder and a joy to see. What really intrigues me is the different ways that their bodies have adapted due to their rigorous training in their disciplines. The power of gymnasts has always fascinated me and it’s easy to see how strong sprinters need to be, but I was really able to appreciate some other sports for the first time. For instance, volleyball is quite tough! And more exciting to watch than I would have guessed.

    I am not particularly athletic, at least I always thought so and no one disabused me of the notion. Now that I’m older, I really enjoy playing catch and baseball and kickball with my children. And, HEY, I’m actually pretty good at it.

  • Alison

    This, from a young British Weightlifter who did brilliantly but still has nasty things said about her on twitter is interesting

  • Eleanorjane

    I haven’t watched a great deal of it, but I’m really inspired by the women pushing the boundaries for example, the Saudi Arabian Judo fighter and the fantastic weight lifter who wrote a blog post hitting back at idiots who mocked her body. It’s great to see women being celebrated for being strong and fast and powerful!

  • anna

    although i find it just as intimidating as ultra thin women, because i know i will never be as fit as the women in the olympics, i’d always rather see powerful women’s bodies held up and praised rather than the weak and sick i see in the magazines. (not to say that thin women are or appear weak and sick, but in the magazines models are almost always shone in passive, weak, and/or objectified poses which, when combined with their persistent and extreme thinness, seems to fetishize weakness in women)

  • Cat

    You know, I’ve been loving the diversity available. And the positivity – I genuinely haven’t seen any sexist coverage. At all. But then, the only Olympics-related media I have consumed are the BBC (all hail its umpty channels and live streaming and lack of adverts!) and Twitter.

    Did you see this, from one young British weightlifter, in response to criticism she and other weightlifting women had received?

    Because that’s the other thing – these women aren’t silent, like models, or speaking someone else’s words, like actresses, for the most part. They have voices.

  • Sonja

    I haven’t seen much of the Olympic Games, no time, but I’m a bit torn about the body-thing.
    On the one hand I find these people and their bodies so impressive, I’ve seen about 5 minutes of swimming and 10 minutes of gymnastics, and in both disciplines it has impressed me so much how dedication can form a human body. I also find it motivating and want to get into exercising a bit more once I’m back from my holidays.
    What I find scary and sad is that these people are training and specalizing so much that it actually harms their body. I read an article about a German discus thrower the other day, and one of the quotations read: “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to lift up my grandchildren.” Wow.

    • MM

      It’s better to wear out than rust out. Plenty of people can’t lift their grandkids for reasons other than throwing a discus in the Olympics, like heart disease, obesity, and osteoporosis.

    • alice

      I agree with you. You’ll notice that most gymnasts pretty much retire by the time they’re in their early 20s because their bodies just cannot keep up with the stress of the sport. I’m amazed by what all these women and men can do, but for the most part I wouldn’t say that their level of training is exactly healthy or what I aspire to.

  • Eudoxia

    I am LOVING all of the positive coverage of women athletes in the media (I’m in the UK). It is so amazingly refreshing and WONDERFUL to have all of this celebration of women and women’s bodies and minds for what they can do, how fast they can run, how accurately they can throw, all of this sort of thing. And it’s wonderful to hear women being praised for determination and hard work, rather than being praised for looking nice (nothing wrong with looking nice but it gets a totally disproportionate amount of media attention). I am definitely feeling inspired and empowered.

    I think it also helps that it is so, so obvious that these women are spending a huge proportion of their lives devoted to training and of course this has a huge impact on how their bodies look. I think that with actresses and models, although of course they do spend a lot of their time doing things (exercise, choice of food, etc) that have a huge impact on how they look, it’s easier to forget (especially if they’re e.g. acting in a sitcom where the character doesn’t do those things) which can make it easier to think “oh, why don’t I look like that?” when watching them. Whereas watching a female shotputter I don’t think “why don’t I look like that?” because part of the answer is obviously that I don’t do any shotput; I think “WOW, look at how POWERFUL she is!”

    • Natalie

      This, yes. I agree with you that one of the reasons I don’t feel badly about myself for not looking like the Olympic sprinters or gymnasts or swimmers or runners or volleyball players is because I know I’m not expected to look like them – I don’t train hours and hours a day like they do. And yes, the focus of (most of) the media attention and my attention is on the amazing athletic feats they’re accomplishing with their bodies, not how their bodies look.

  • Danielle

    I was utterly transfixed by the sheer athleticism of the women competitors, but couldn’t help noting how unconventionally beautiful every one of them is. It was inspiring! However, since I am not overly athletic myself, I did occasionally feel somewhat insignificant in comparison. I had to remind myself that I am just a strong and talented as they are, just in different arenas. Then today I found, a photography website of unretouched nudes of everyday women (Please promote this! It’s unparalleled in loveliness!) and experienced a whole new level of awe and love for the human race. :)

  • Nadine

    I am LOVING the Olympics! My tiny country (New Zealand) currently has 3 gold, 1 silver and 4 bronze – yay! And I am really grateful to all those gorgeous female athletes for showcasing such strong, purposeful beauty. I have very little bust/waist/hip definition, and I have short muscular limbs, so watching the Olympics is making me feel wonderfully normal. I just love that so many women all in one place have very small busts, and strong well developed abs instead of hourglass waists, and are all running around DOING THINGS and GETTING STUFF DONE with their entire legs in full public view. Everyone’s got their hair off their face, no one is carting a fancy purse or wearing high heels, they are all so active, and it’s a brilliant and much-needed counterpoint to the ‘fashionable femininity’ we get shoved at us every day. (I’m not an athlete, I’m a dancer. But I LOOK like an athlete rather than a dancer!)

  • Megan Mae

    I’m probably in the minority, but I don’t tend to judge my own body up against any person. I know I’ll never look like someone else because I’m not anyone but myself. I’m sure there are some things that influence my personal reflections, but I am also a person who judges myself by how I feel, not how I look.

    I wish I was more athletic if only to keep myself healthy, but I deal with a lot of physical pain that keeps me from being as fit and in shape as I once was as a teen.

  • Jackie

    I was an elite swimmer and love watching the Olympics, but red flags go off in my head about all the super-thin bodies there. Eating disorders are SO common in elite sports, and I can’t look at some of the athletes without feeling so sad for them and the tyranny many of them live under. Just because swimmers are strong or muscular DOES NOT mean they are treating their bodies well. Also, someone commented with a link to their post about Gabby Douglas’ “big” thighs and how they admired them. Ummm, that is crazy. She does not have big thighs. You can see her thigh muscles because she has no fat. They are not big.

    • Kylara7

      Good point, Jackie. I think I’ve finally figured out that when many women say “I don’t want to lift weights because I don’t want to get too big”, their version of “too big” usually means “too defined”…they react more to the visible muscles than the size of the muscles. We’re used to visible muscles on men because of their lower body fat, but when we see a woman who has low enough body fat (like an elite athlete) to reveal the musculature underneath, many people associate that with something that is only masculine, despite the fact that we ALL have the exact same muscles on our bodies :)

    • Natalie

      That’s a good point that I hadn’t really thought much about recently. I’ve read that eating disorders are much more common among female athletes than male, which makes me think pressures about body image rather than athletic performance alone are related to this problem. I was a pretty good high school runner and cyclist, and went through a period where I thought I should lose weight to improve my running. Luckily, my dad quickly squashed that by pointing out that the best runners and cyclists weren’t stick thin, like I wanted to be, but muscular, like I was. But I can see how easy it is for athletes – especially female athletes, with all the added pressures we receive from media about our bodies – to go from healthy eating for optimal training to over-dieting.

  • shebolt

    I’m an athlete, and I am inspired when I watch women compete at that level. It makes me want to work harder in my own training. I hate hearing comments about the beach volleyball players being covered up, as if the only reason to watch is because they are in bikinis. I’m probably biased because 1) I’m not a man, and 2) I’m a former volleyball player, but I enjoy watching women’s beach volleyball for the volleyball. I know, crazy, right?

  • Kyra

    They affect me positively in a lot of ways—as inspiration, as beauty, as examples of how real bodies (as opposed to airbrushed images) work.

    I’ve started weight training about eight months ago and become fascinated with strength-using activities and physical work, and am happily seeing increases in muscle size. I’ve loved the look of muscles on women for a long time, and been aware that that is often viewed negatively, so I adore seeing so many strong and muscular women doing things that use their muscles, doing things where strong and powerful bodies are the POINT. The track athletes and the gymnasts especially stand out to me—that’s the look that seems more and more within my grasp, that I could look like that with some further training. That’s a huge thing for me, that these are OLYMPIC ATHLETES and I can look like that.

    One interesting thing is seeing the athletes in competition as well as in magazines or posed photos—there’s a difference in muscle definition. Posing and making pictures actually shows more defined muscles, less of a softening by the tissue that covers them. We think of utterly ripped muscles as being more of an indicator of strength and power, but a body in good condition for competition and producing that power is more hydrated and otherwise less drained, and so the muscles are a bit softened, more muted. I watch my own body change appearance, the muscles sometimes more defined, sometimes less; dehydration, for example, produces the fitness-magazine ripped look, but other times I don’t have that, and watching athletes compete, rather than pose, helps me to recognize that as a normal body fluctuation and not an indicator of being out of shape if I’m not ripped 24/7. Seeing women who shape their bodies’ condition around performance rather than looks is helpful with that.

    This afternoon, having spent the morning moving heavy stuff around in the heat, I came home, flipped on the TV to the Olympics, and stripped down to underwear (sports bra and boyshorts) to cool off. Women’s track and field was on, and I got up and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I LOOKED LIKE THEM—outfit and muscles combining so that I could fit in pretty well with the women on that track. It was a wonderful moment, that recognition that my efforts in that direction were having real effect.

    I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around in my underwear pretending to be an Olympic athlete. :)

  • Michelle

    Last Olympics, I shared online how inspired I was by female athlete’s bodies. I was soundly trounced and informed in great detail how many of them have eating disorders to look like that and to keep their weight down.

    No thank you!

  • Courtney

    Watching the gymnasts was sticking–I think they epitomize what those at the highest level of competition sacrifice to get there. They have bodies and voices like those of pre-teens. This isn’t a negative thing, but it made me realize that us civilians shouldn’t worry too much if we look athletic enough.

  • Quinalla

    Very inspired by all the beautiful and powerful female bodies that are all so different than each other . There was a great photo of one of the USA swimmers standing next to one of the gymnasts that really made the differences pop. And yes, it does make me want to work out more, lift some weights, etc. as I know my body can be more powerful than it is now.

  • Brynn

    As I have developed more and more body acceptance and positive self-esteem (I still have more progress to be made, though!), I have been able to appreciate the beautiful range of strong, muscular, capable bodies around me. Watching the Olympics this year has been so great for me. Instead of looking at their bodies and nitpicking and comparing, I see how the athlete’s bodies are really shaped by their sport, and I LOVE IT. Even within sports, you see such range, which I also think is great. To see all different kinds of bodies, all healthy, complete vigorous activities is beautiful to me. Rather than feeling bad about my body, it makes me feel empowered and realize that I can do so many things as well.

  • Natalie

    Thanks, Sally, for posting this! I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and different takes on females athletes.