Over the past few months, increasing numbers of elite athletes have started speaking out about the mental health challenges of their athletic careers. While some of this is related to the stress of competing in high-stakes athletic events, a new study from the University of Toronto has found that for female athletes, body shaming is also a major contributor to negative mental health outcomes.
The study was led by Erin Willson, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE) and former Olympic synchronized swimmer, and published in The International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.
Emotional abuse is prevalent in elite aesthetic sports
Many horrifying cases of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in athletics have come to light over the past several years. To learn more about these trends — and what we can do to stop them — Willson and her collaborator Gretchen Kerr, Dean of KPE, focused in on the experiences of female athletes in aesthetic sports.
Aesthetic sports are those for which leanness play a role, and for which performances may be evaluated based on their artistic or aesthetic appeal. Examples include rhythmic gymnastics and artistic swimming.
For their study, Willson and Kerr interviewed eight retired Canadian female athletes, including five who had competed in the Olympics, on their experiences with emotionally abusive coaching practices. They also surveyed the athletes on how these experiences impacted their mental health.
Unfortunately, the results were grim. All of the athletes interviewed for the study reported instances of emotional abuse, most of which was related to their bodies and weight. This included negative comments about their bodies as well as extreme food and water restrictions.
“During the course of our interviews, the athletes all reported experiencing body-related emotional abuse, such as being publicly chastised for their weight,” Willson said in a press release.
Willson and Kerr went on to investigate how these experiences impacted the athletes’ mental health. They found that all of the athletes interviewed showed symptoms consistent with mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They also found that some athletes in the study developed occasional disordered eating habits, as well as diagnosed eating disorders, as a result of the emotional abuse they faced.
“[T]he effects of emotional abuse described by the athletes we interviewed resembled symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Willson said.
“[This required] all eight of them to seek psychological assistance at one time or another to help them recover from their experiences.”
While Willson’s work focused specifically on emotional abuse in elite aesthetic sports, other recent studies have found that emotional abuse by coaches tends to co-occur with sexual abuse as well.
The power imbalance of the coach-athlete relationship makes athletes particularly vulnerable to abuse, and the normalization of emotionally abusive behaviours in elite sports makes it difficult for athletes to report sexual abuse when it does occur.
Aesthetic sports need a culture shift
Willson hopes that her study will help shine a light on the severity of emotional abuse in athletics and encourage a culture shift in aesthetic sports going forward. Body shaming practices are dangerous for both physical and mental health, and it’s important for athletes to be aware that these are not acceptable coaching techniques — and to have mental health resources available if they’ve been victims of emotional abuse.
“There is a culture of acceptance of these behaviours in many sports,” Wilson said, “when instead they should be recognized as problematic and harmful to the health and well-being of athletes.”