What Wins You Gold Medals: Athleticism & Body Image
Updated: Feb 3
With Shanti Pereira & Smriti Menon
Written by: Abigail Goh
Edited by: Brenda Tan
Designed/Illustrated by: Angelia Gan
CONTENT WARNING: Mentions EDs, body image and mental health issues.
Image Source: Stanley Cheah, Revit Photo’s
‘Why do you walk like a man?’
‘Run like a man?’
‘Look like a man?’
When these questions are asked, people are questioning:
How can you be a strong, successful athlete and be a woman at the same time?
Why does society focus on women’s looks over capabilities and achievements?
In society, there is a relentless obsession with body image—especially women’s bodies. From a young age, girls are often taught that fitness, athleticism, and exercise are aimed to make one look ‘thin’, ‘petite’, or more ‘attractive’ for men’s pleasure (see the Male Gaze). But, more often than not, this message that women have to be ‘skinny’ to be attractive is a hazardous one. The repercussions of this pressure - to look, speak, and act in specific ways - on body image are dangerous (i.e. eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression, trauma).
Body image is one example on how the patriarchy puts women down. There are stark differences and values placed on different genders regarding the body. For girls/women, physical activity in the arts, sport, and work drives to create a more ‘feminine’ appearance; a less muscular body. ‘(This is because) muscle is associated with male bodies and therefore with masculinity. A muscular woman doesn’t conform to acceptable codes of femininity. (Instead, she) challenges what it means to be a “real” woman or a “real” man - the assumption that all men are big, strong and powerful and that all women are smaller, weaker and dependent.’
On the other hand, boys/men are put to uphold the patriarchal values of being ‘manly’, ‘strong’ or powerful’ if they ‘bulk up’. (This leads to ) men feeling pressure to have muscular bodies, and that influence can lead to symptoms of eating disorders, the pressure to use steroids, and an unhealthy preoccupation with weightlifting. These Ideals based on patriarchal ideas are dangerous to both genders. Nevertheless, building muscle and strength or trying to lose weight (or other forms of altering your appearance) are not inherently harmful behaviours.
Bottomline is you can want to change your body and be healthy doing it.
Exercise in all forms should be encouraged—a way to stay healthy and build strength, and confidence. However, our society has created and assigned dangerous gender roles (i.e. skinnier and unmanly) onto the image of athleticism. Worst of all, this ends up ‘preventing women from (doing) physical activity in the first place’.
A recent Sport England report found that 75% of the women they surveyed wanted to participate in sport, but was inhibited by fear of being judged on their appearance and ability. While the United Nations has suggested that sport will play a leading role in the journey to equal rights for women and girls.
In 2017, BioMed Research International did a study to investigate such harmful pressure and the effects on Highly Trained Female Athletes: Female athletes experience both sociocultural and sport-specific pressure to change their weight, body, and appearance. (They run the risk) of developing dissatisfaction with their body. Body dissatisfaction that involves negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body in relation to the ‘ideal’ body size, in turn, creating a moderator for eating disorders among athletes. In short, this negative internalisation of body image is ultimately harmful.
How should we go from here? In 2015, fitness instructor Anne Poirier created the concept of body neutrality. It proposes that instead of focusing on how our bodies look, we should instead focus on what our bodies can do for us.
While there may always be things we want to change about ourselves and our bodies, body neutrality encourages us to be mindful and accept who we are today with an appreciation for the function of the bodies we are in.
This term also opens up into accepting the many different body types in the world, such as people with disabilities. The concept also captured the attention of Jameela Jamil who advocates for body neutrality by encouraging mindfulness practices in her community through podcasts and videos (iWeigh). This concept allows us to accept and recognise that it is human to have ‘imperfections’ in our physical bodies.
Nevertheless, far too often, female athletes face immense pressure to excel in their sport, often at the expense of listening to the things their bodies need to sustain a high level of activity. This, combined with societal pressure to conform to bodily ideals (or bodily ideals within their sport), can result in immensely harmful and dangerous behaviours.
Being a woman in athletics is not an easy path. Masculine traits in women are often shunned (i.e. not ‘desirable’) and strong athletic women face microaggressions and discriminatory comments which can be discouraging. ‘Why do you walk like a man?’ is one of such comments received by Smriti Menon, an Ex-Singapore sprinter that spoke to us in the spirit of this month’s theme - Body Neutrality. Also, Shanti Pereira, Singapore’s fastest woman, graciously shared her experience of her relationship between body image and being an athlete. ‘Telling women to simply love their bodies isn’t fair because as women and athletes, we’ve been told the opposite our entire lives,’ says Franki Mastrone.
'A body neutral mindset is so important for women in sports because it allows us to recognise those feelings of dissatisfaction, but takes power away from them.'
The discussion we had with Shanti and Smriti was particularly helpful as their experiences were able to show that acceptance is a process. Body neutrality and acceptance of body-image is something that is discussed in tandem with one another. Microaggressions that attack skin colour (‘too dark’) and body shape (‘too muscular’, ‘big muscles for a girl’) all contribute to a negative image that may cause some to give up on athletics. When asked to give advice to younger people, they encouraged them to stay focused on what they want to achieve performance wise and to ignore the negative comments around appearance. Having ‘big muscles’ as a young girl, with ‘guys telling you, you’re more muscular than me’ is something she should not want to ‘feel bad about’. After all, Shanti notes ‘muscles help win you medals’.
Embracing your body and realising what you can achieve when building strength, speed, and endurance are focusing on what our bodies ‘can do for us’ rather than ‘how they look’.
Furthermore, Smriti added that when people told her to stay out of the sun by spreading fears about getting too dark did not deter her as she continued to train and represent Singapore. ‘No matter how big your achievements are, some people will still feel that your looks are most important’ (Smriti). The unfortunate fact remains that female athletes’ image remains unglamorous to some, especially when they project beauty standards and belittle hard work, strength, and accomplishments. These beauty standards around body shape and complexion dismiss the talent of these athletes. It portrays unrealistic expectations around what all women should look like by asking for them to be more ‘petite’ or ‘fair’.
Smriti: Female athletes are seen as women first and athletes second, women get more questions around their sexuality and their body. And it’s kinda sad because the muscles and body shape are what’s helping us beat records and get medals. Instead of looking at the value of that, people use that to compare us to the ideal body standard. It’s a shame.
Although both Shanti and Smriti had not felt immense amounts of stigma and shame around their body image in Singapore, we were able to talk about the issues women face in other contexts where the media does not #CoverTheAthlete (watch the campaign here). Serena Williams’s case being questioned why she was not smiling (US Open, 2015) sparked a conversation around sexist questions that female athletes are faced with. Women are often only valued for how they ‘look’, rather than their achievements, whether in athletes, business, politics, or any industry. Shanti further adds that she still feels there are preferences over ‘better looking’ athletes. This emphasis around looks tends to become the leading discussion when the focal point should be on performance and thus acknowledge the hard work these women put into their field.
Image source (left): The Straits Times, Sports
Image source (right): The Olympics
Discrimination against female athletes in Singapore has changed over time and improved with positive images of athletes in recent years. Other examples of regional and international achievements are seen in Yip Pin Xiu, 2016 Paralympics, and Joseph Schooling, 2016 Olympics. Their gold medals have improved societal stigma around pursuing a career in athletics locally. For athletes like Yip Pin Xiu, her intersecting identity poses multiple challenges on top of gender, ‘but over the years, we have seen more support, more recognition, and people being inspired by para-athletes’ (Yip Pin Xiu).
Image source: The Straits Times
Shanti adds that ‘being in a room full of people that don’t look like you’ and being compared to other women was a challenge in the past. However, over the years, she learnt to embrace who she was, and ‘make it as if it's cool that I’m different.
I’m enjoying it so if having bigger muscles and darker skin is what I have to do to get it, then so be it’.
Smriti added on additional advice ‘not judging yourself too harshly’, and that having ‘role models make a big difference’. Being able to look up to successful women who are owning their skin, their bodies and ambitions play a huge role in combating the negative stigmas around being a woman in athletics. Shanti has become a role model for young girls, boys and people of all ages as one of the fastest in the region. Her achievements, records and medals are all possible due to her passion, hard work, and support from her family and friends. Sharing her journey through the Children’s Book ‘Go Shanti Go’ inspires kids to chase their dreams.
Having role models in athletics and different industries is essential as young people should see representation and diversity- but this is only part of the solution. Education around body image and mental/physical wellbeing needs to be worked on to prevent the consequences of developing a negative body image. Moreover, it is a significant wellbeing factor in puberty. Negative body image is related to low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. Body dissatisfaction expresses dislike for a person’s body or certain parts of his/her body. It is considered a dynamic situation that can cause powerful emotional, perceptual, and psychological reactions. Therefore, addressing that young girls and women about tackling negativity with mindfulness and acceptance around body image is pivotal.
As a recent development, body neutrality provides a mindful alternative to society’s negative stereotypes and unhealthy mindsets that body positivity can cause.
We hope that body neutrality will serve as a tool to
un-shamelessly achieve greater satisfaction and empowerment in your chosen arena, whether it be in athletics or anywhere else in life.
Go for Gold!
In this interview with two athletes, we gained insight into ambition, encouraging healthy physical activity as well as embracing your body-image (check out the full interview here).
Please follow @WomenUnbounded to join in on the conversation, and Shanti (@v_shantipereira, @goshantigobook) & Smriti (@smritsmenon).
More about Shanti and Smriti:
Both athletes are pursuing their studies. Shanti is studying Accounting at SMU and Smriti majored in Life Sciences for her undergraduate at NUS and is currently studying veterinary medicine at University of Melbourne.