Promoting Positive Body Image in Women Who Engage in Sport and Exercise
As the UK moves slowly out of lockdown, outdoor sports should restart in two weeks, so we revisit this interesting research from 2019 on body image in women who engage in sport and exercise.
Women who take part in sport and exercise tend to have more positive body image than other women (e.g. Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006). Positive body image in women who exercise has been linked with a number of factors including relatively greater focus on body performance rather than aesthetics, the fact that exercised bodies tend to be closer to the mainstream cultural ideal in terms of body fat levels and muscle tone, and psychosocial benefits of sport, such as autonomy and competence, that have been linked to more positive body image (e.g. Petrie & Greenleaf, 2012).
Although women who take part in sport and exercise tend to be more positive about their bodies than other women, this does not mean that they do not have body image concerns, and body image concerns have been reported in elite athletes as well as in women who exercise for recreation and general fitness. High-profile elite sportswomen women such as Rebecca Adlington have opened up discussions around women’s body image in elite sport and in exercise contexts more generally, and have made it clear that women who exercise are faced with two kinds of pressures; cultural pressures to be slim, plus additional sport-related pressures to conform to particular body types. For instance, in sports with aesthetic components there is often pressure to be as lean as possible. In other sports, there is pressure to be muscular to confer a performance advantage. This puts women who exercise under complex sets of social pressures: to be slender-but-curvy to conform to societal expectations for how women’s bodies should look (Grogan, 2017), and also to conform to the performance-related body size requirements of their sport (Grogan, 2018).
Surveys tend to find that many women who exercise are dissatisfied with their bodies, and report social pressure to conform to a limited range of body shape ideals. For instance, a survey by BT Sport covering 110 female athletes from 20 different sports found that women reported pressure from coaches and from sports’ regulatory bodies, and 67 per cent thought the public and media valued how female athletes looked over what they achieved in sport. Some women prioritised being thin over sport performance when choosing what to eat, suggesting that these body image pressures can affect sport performance as well as body image and general well-being (Mott and Griffiths, 2014).
Women who exercise and engage in sport often spend time in environments that are highly regulated, especially at club and elite levels. Teammates and coaches may exert pressure to be slender and/or muscular. Weigh-ins and focus on diet and weight loss, requirements to wear revealing uniforms, and sport and exercise environments where body weight is a key focus, can lead to significant pressures to be lean, which can lead to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and over-exercise to reduce weight (Petrie & Greenleaf, 2012). In one study where we interviewed women who had maintained and not maintained their gym memberships (Pridgeon & Grogan, 2012), we found that a key reason women quit their gym memberships was that they did not feel they matched up to the thin and toned bodies of other women in the gym.
It is clearly important to create exercise environments where women feel comfortable and able to focus on performance and enjoyment, so they can be proud of what their bodies can do, satisfied with their appearance, and develop positive self-worth as a result of exercise. Having a strong and supportive sport and exercise community where women support each other in feeling positive about their performance and body types has been shown to enable positive body image in adult women swimmers (Howells & Grogan, 2012) and bodybuilders (Grogan et al., 2004). These women reported feeling generally body-confident in spite of having bodies that differed from the slender-but-curvy cultural ideal, showing that performance-related body confidence derived from sport and exercise can transfer to the wider social context; women continued to feel body confident outside the training environment in spite of having bodies that in most cases were more muscular than the slender-but-curvy cultural ideal.
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has recently been involved in work to encourage women of different shapes and sizes to engage in sport and exercise, with a particular focus on trying to engage women who are inactive as well as using exercise to promote mental health and wellbeing. This work presents a direct challenge to the norm of encouraging women to question their attractiveness (e.g. advertisements for gym memberships for women tend to focus on weight loss) as a way to attract new women to take up sport and exercise. In 2016 on International Women’s day, ‘sweaty selfies’ were encouraged to show the reality of exercise and feelings pre, during and post exercise. Using local level role models, such as MMU Sport staff, and scholar athletes, the aim of this campaign was to show that even women who are labelled as finding sport and exercise easy, often don’t find it either easy or glamorous. In 2017, linked with Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan campaign, and British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), MMU Sport delivered a week-long female participation programme around #BUCSThisGirlCan week, which aimed to empower and inspire women to become active. The campaign saw the thought-provoking use of body image silhouettes showing women with a range of body shapes to question what an active woman looks like (see poster image below), with the aim of challenging the slender-but-shapely norm of how active women’s bodies should look, and showing that active women come in all shapes and sizes. The 2017 campaign saw more than 200 women who had not exercised before taking part in MMU activity sessions.
In addition to focusing on sport and exercise environments , interventions based on psychological factors that may be helpful in promoting positive body image in women who engage in sport and exercise (see Grogan, 2018). Women who engage in sport and exercise will necessarily have a focus on body performance and function, but coaches and others should be aware that conflicting pressures to focus on appearance may lead to unhelpful body critique. This may be reduced through acknowledging these pressures and encouraging refocusing on performance and body function rather than appearance (Grogan et al., 2014; Homan & Tylka, 2014). Strategies to encourage body acceptance may also be important, and Albertson and colleagues (2015) have shown that a 3-week period of self-compassion (treating oneself in a caring and empathic way) focusing on body appreciation and acceptance significantly reduced body dissatisfaction and body shame, and that improvements were maintained when the same women were assessed 3 months later, so benefits do not seem to be limited to the time period shortly after the intervention.
Women who engage in sport and exercise are under complex body-related pressures. However, body-healthy environments where there is social support from within sport and exercise communities for a range of body types, and a focus on body function/performance, appreciation, and acceptance, may promote positive body image in adult women who engage in sport and exercise.
Dr Sarah Grogan is Professor of Psychology Health and Well-being at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research covers body image and related health behaviours such as exercise, healthy eating, UV exposure, and smoking.
Abi Dean is Behaviour Change Project Manager at the British Lung Foundation, supporting those who are inactive living with disease to become active. Her past experience includes Development Manager at British Universities and Colleges Sport, leading their national Physical Activity and Health as well as Social Sport strategies.
Albertson, E. R., Neff, K. D., & Dill-Shackleford, K. E. (2015). Self-compassion and body dissatisfaction in women: A randomized controlled trial of a brief meditation intervention. Mindfulness, 6(3), 444–454. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-014-0277-3
Grogan, S. (2017). Body image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women and children. (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
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Grogan, S., Evans, R., Wright, S., & Hunter, G. (2004). Femininity and muscularity: Accounts of seven women bodybuilders. Journal of Gender Studies, 13(1), 49–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/0958923032000184970
Hausenblas, H., & Fallon, E. (2006). Exercise and body image: a meta-analysis. Psychology and Health, 21(1), 33–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/14768320500105270.
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Howells, K., & Grogan, S. (2012). Body image and the female swimmer: muscularity but in moderation, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 4(1), 98–116. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2011.653502
Mott, S., & Griffiths, R. (2014). BT Sport body image survey results. Retrieved from http://sport.bt.com
Petrie, T. A., & Greenleaf, C. (2012). Body image and sports/athletics. In T. F. Cash (Ed.), Encylopedia of body image and human appearance (pp. 160–165). London: Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-384925-0.00018-3
Pridgeon, L., & Grogan, S. (2012). Understanding exercise adherence and dropout: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of men and women’s accounts of gym attendance and non-attendance, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 4(3), 382–399. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2012.712984