Strength is Beauty: Teen Elite Swimmers on Body Image

 

By: Kjerstyn Jordheim, Age 15 

“Body image” is a buzzword lately. We all have ideas about our bodies, whether we like them or not. However, for lots of girls, body image is more complicated than confidence.

   As an elite swimmer, I am one of those girls. I have spent countless hours trying to accept my body for what it is: a muscular, but small, swimming machine. I may not be the curvy, seductive-looking goddess that I think is the desired look by most teens, but my body is perfect for what I do. Contrary to what some people may think, athletes struggle with body image and weight anxiety just as much as anyone else- sometimes perhaps even more.  

   Since the age of thirteen, I have battled anxiety over my body and its relation to the sport of swimming.  At times, this anxiety has been great enough to disrupt my performance both athletically and academically.  My body confidence was only regained after months of weight-gain dieting suggested by my coaches.  

   I recently talked to some fellow athletes to learn about their thoughts on body image and their relationships with their own bodies.

    Fellow elite swimmer Katie Schroeder says, “It’s so easy to look at skinny girls and want what they have.”  Most athletes are not skinny or curvy, they are fit and athletic.  From a personal viewpoint, I find it often hard to accept my body when I see other girls who seem to have “perfect” figures.  

   Personally, social media makes it especially hard for me to accept myself and the way I look.  Instagram and Snapchat surround me with airbrushed images of models and social media gurus who look nothing like I do; it can be hard to recognize that not only are most of these images almost completely fabricated, but that these women I see in my feed could not swim the way I or my teammates do.

   Gymnast and state diver Eva Arm has a similar viewpoint: “Since I grew up in gymnastics, my muscles seem to be a bit bigger and I seem to be a bit bigger.  In today’s culture, girls want to be one of those skinny girls.”  

    An elite swimmer, who would prefer not to be named, adds another point: “...if you don't love your body, you will try to changes it...being an athlete myself, I need to have my body in shape, and if I gain some weight, I exaggerate it, making myself think that I'm not in shape and need to work harder or eat better.”  

   Even in the highest ranks of sports, the struggle to accept one’s body continues to be a huge issue. When interviewing girls for this article, I noticed that the more elite the athlete, the more she had to say about the issue and how it affects her.  

   State podium swimmer Claire Schaef admits, “I will never look like the women in the magazines, that is just how I am built.  Sometimes, girls punish themselves for the strong bodies they have worked so hard to build.”  It is common for athletes to obsess over diets and weight in an attempt to “perfect” themselves.

    Despite all of these issues, there is progress being made in helping athletes with their body image.  “Once you realize your big shoulders, bulky figure, and toned calves are necessary to achieve your goals, comparison to non-athletes becomes less competitive,” Katie says.  Claire recognizes this, as well.  “...us athletes are so awe-inspiring.  Look at what we can do!!”  She adds, “I am proud of the muscle and the strength.

   Across many sports, partly thanks to outspoken athletic figures like Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Misty Hyman, girls are recognizing that a healthy body image improves happiness and performance.  Thanks to coaches who recognize the battle girls fight every day to feel good about themselves, athletes like me and my teammates are realizing that our bodies are beautiful and perfectly made for our sports. Despite an ever-constant struggle against social media and body ideals, athletic girls and their confidence are on the rise.  They will not back down.  As Claire wisely says, “It’s important that athletes have pride in their strength.  Strong is just as beautiful.

   Despite an ever-constant struggle against social media and body ideals, athletic girls and their confidence are on the rise.  They will not back down.  As Claire wisely says, “It’s important that athletes have pride in their strength.  Strong is just as beautiful.

 

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