Body Image in Sports

Graphic by Rebecca Levy

By Noy and Gil Alon

As student athletes pursue perfection and excellence in their respective fields, the pressure of conforming to an ideal body type blocks their athletic efforts and progress.

The presence of this pressure to change varies from sport to sport, along with the body type that is idealized by the athletes and coaches.

Wellesley High School Graduate Taylor Braunstein, who currently attends Vassar College and has studied ballet for 17 years across different schools like the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and Boston Ballet School, has excessive experience with body type-oriented communities.

In ballet, the ideal body is a tall, very thin dancer whose legs are longer than his or her torso. Braunstein believes this idea has developed over years of rigid tradition.

“I think the directors and everybody who is the top class of the ballet world just sees it as that’s the way it has to be,” Braunstein said. “That’s the way it’s always been. It’s like a certain aesthetic that used to be changed, but it’s hard to get people to see that it can be different but still good.”

For so long, the idealistic dream of the ideal ballet body perpetuated the single acceptable body image. The mindset that thinner is better is locked into the minds of directors and teachers, and students are unable to escape.

Now, as the system has been in place for decades, change seems almost impossible. The snail pace of change seems discouraging to young and elite ballerinas alike.

“I feel like people want to make a change towards accepting more different types of body type in the ballet world, but really it is very much an uphill battle,” Braunstein said. “For me in the modeling world and the media, there is this movement towards accepting all different body types, but in ballet there’s been some resistance to that just because it is an ingrained tradition. But people, they think it looks better on stage.”

The customary beauties of pointe shoes and classical music symbolizes the importance of tradition in ballet. A dance that emphasizes classical beauty is much more stagnant than the fast changing pace of the fashion world; even as acceptance becomes popular in mainstream society, ballet stays behind in its regal ways.

This stagnation of change trickles down the pressure on young girls, looking up to their dreams of becoming ballerinas.

The halt of progress comes from the habit of the status quo. In addition to ballet, other sports put pressure on the body of their athletes. In wrestling athletes, are required to be in weight classes where they compete against other wrestlers that are more their size, thus athletes either need to lose or gain weight to remain inside their class.

Many wrestlers decide to cut weight in order to compete against easier opponents in a lower weight class. Thus at a high level of competition, the norm is for wrestlers to cut down on their weight, losing pounds in order to get ahead.

“In college, everyone, all these people are on such a high level and are so used to it,” junior and captain of the Newton South wresting team Joe Vedensky said. “I don’t think that there’s going to be a coach that’ll say ‘you know what, you don’t have to cut 30 pounds’, because if you really want to be a national champion at your 133 pound weight class, you are definitely cutting at least 25 pounds.”

Quickly losing large amounts of weight can be dangerous when taken to extremes. With competitions looming, wrestlers feel the pressure from coaches to fit into their weight class and do whatever it takes to stay there.

in the modeling world and the media, there is this movement towards accepting all different body types, but in ballet there’s been some resistance to that just because it is an ingrained tradition. But people ,they think it looks better on stage.

Even though many wrestlers face this pressure from coaches during college, high school students work to remain in their weight class and to build muscle mass.

“[In high school] no one would ever tell you to cut weight,” Vedensky said, “but if you do decide to– like for me, it’s my own decision before the season. I have already decided how many pounds I am going to allocate to the cut.”

The trickle down pressure from colleges and elite levels leave students to put the pressure onto their own shoulders. Even with a more encouraging environment of high school athletics, wrestlers still strive to slim down or bulk up, displaying how intrinsic this culture is in wrestling.

This ideology is derived and persistent today over the question of safety and fairness in the sport.

“Well, it’s because probably because of safety too, but it’s like having the playing field even, so, like, if you are in the same weight class or the approximately same weight class, in theory that’s what you’re doing, that’s the equalizer and then from there it’s more about your skills when your strength, conditioning, and stuff like that might win,” Alan Rotatori, the wrestling team coach at Newton South, said.

There is no alternative to ensure that athletes are competing at a fair level and not just winning because they are larger. This allows for the sport to focus on the athletic ability of the athlete and not just pure size.

However, even though weight classes were created in the name of safety, the culture they have created contradicts the narrative of safe sports.

“One of my coaches, he was a division one wrestler. He would weigh 165 pounds and he would have to wrestle at 133 pounds the next week,” Vedensky said. “That’s when I think it gets dangerous and excessive, but I think people are forced into that in college because there’s that high expectation and realize this person this is the average.”

Graphic by Noy Alon
Graphic by Noy Alon

In addition, this constant body pressure alienates prospective athletes from joining.

“I mean we have a hard time convincing kids to come out for wrestling because they have to wear a singlet by rule, and you know [the outfits are] kind of skimpy to be honest with you, and so if you’re not confident in your body image, that’s a pretty big issue,” Rotatori said. “Of course, if you have a great physique the singlet makes it show even more so that could be a good draw for a lot of kids, too.”

The increased pressure on athletes to fit in and appear a certain way sometimes outweighs an athlete’s interest in the sport. More importantly, the feeling of being self-conscious when your body is on full display stops many from even trying out.

This trend is mirrored in the ballet world, where your body is under constant scrutiny.

“It definitely affects how I feel about my dancing, because I feel like skinnier people look better doing some certain moves than I do,” Jubi Lee, a sophomore at Newton South who previously danced at Boston Ballet, said.

The insecurities felt in the realms of ballet and wrestling are felt by athletes around the world. Sports put such attention on the body because that is mechanism through which the athletes perform. Even with the widespread acceptance that a change is needed to be made, no strategies or plans have been put into place. There seems to be no alternative for the body obsessed culture that modern sports have created.

“It’s a hard thing to deal with,” Braunstein, who herself wrote an essay about body image in ballet, said. “You just have to kind of develop this confidence that you can be a good dancer and you don’t have to have the body that they want you to have.”