We need to stop judging athletes on their appearance

Amy McNeel

When I was little, I looked up to strong female athletes. I idolized Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Serena Williams. They were everything I wanted to be: strong, powerful, graceful and passionate. As I grew up, I played a lot of sports and surrounded myself with athletes who pushed me and inspired me. I pushed myself not only to play as well as others, but to look as good as them, too. I wanted to be an athlete, and I wanted to look like an athlete. 

But what does it mean to look like an athlete? I used to think that to be an athlete was to be skinny, strong and lean, with a flat stomach and visible abs. I used to think that if I didn’t look that way, I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a competitor. As I look back on this belief, I realize now that it was silly to be worried about what constituted an “athletic” appearance, but I also realize that this is an issue many athletes face. What if an athlete isn’t lean? What if an athlete is “too muscular?” What if an athlete doesn’t fit into the physical framework that society has created for them?

Oftentimes, we associate athletes with extreme physical activity. We know they work out a lot and need to be in shape to fulfill their jobs. Basically, we expect them to be skinny and lean because they are more physically active than most. Because of this, young athletes (and society as a whole) develop an image of what they are supposed to look like. According to a study conducted by Eirini Koidou in Clinical Nutrition ESPEN, teenage female athletes with a normal body mass index (BMI) are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction and are more motivated to lose weight than those who are not involved in sports. 

This body image issue begins at a young age, and while it alters and changes over time, it never really goes away. It can be hard to be an athlete when you do not feel strong enough or skinny enough or toned enough. What people don’t realize is that there is not one athletic body shape and, likewise, there should not be one singular ideal image of what an athlete should look like. Having one “perfect” athletic image only sets people up for disappointment and failure. A female athlete will either be too thin or not thin enough, too “masculine” or not muscular enough. 

After her baby was born, Serena Williams wrote a letter to her mother. She said her daughter had her strong, muscular build and that she was scared for her. She wrote, “I don’t know how I would react if she has to go through what I’ve gone through since I was a 15-year-old and even to this day. I’ve been called a man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said that I use drugs. It has been said I don’t belong in women’s sports—that I belong in men’s—because I look stronger than many other women do.” Here, we see arguably the greatest female athlete of all time describing what it is like to be constantly scrutinized for not fitting into the “normal” physical framework of a female athlete. 

It seems that a female athlete cannot win. We socialize our younger generations to see athletes in a certain way, and we scrutinize them when they don’t fit the model. This ideal image is not only unobtainable for most, but the very idea is long-lasting and toxic. Athletes should not feel obligated to look one way or another, and their athleticism shouldn’t be judged on appearance. An athlete is not an athlete because they look a certain way. An athlete is an athlete because they work hard to push their own physical and mental boundaries.