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Experts, athletes, coaches, and parents agree that raising young female athletes requires careful navigation through many challenges, especially during and after puberty. We’re only starting to understand what it takes to help them flourish. Partly, perhaps, because we’re only starting to understand what it takes to help ourselves truly flourish.
In this five-part investigative report, we examine both how to #FixGirlsSports and raise a stronger, healthier next generation; as well as how to re-evaluate our own body image for the better, including the resources you need to rebuild or fortify one of the most important relationships of all—the one with yourself.
Early experiences form the bedrock of your body image. However, your self-perception continues to evolve over time, and even shifts in different contexts, says Riley Nickols, Ph.D., a sport psychologist and eating-disorders specialist who heads up the Victory Program for Athletes at the McCallum Place Eating Disorder Centers in St. Louis. For instance, you might feel self-conscious in your running group but more confident out at dinner with co-workers.
This malleability is good news—even if you’re not in a positive place now, you’re not doomed to feel awful forever, says Marci Evans, R.D., a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based dietitian. In fact, she’s so certain change is possible she calls herself a “body image healer,” just as dedicated to revamping client’s self-perceptions as she is to advising on their eating habits.
Dozens of variables influence how people feel about their bodies, she says. Some you can change, while others remain outside your control; still, recognizing them proves powerful. Here are the six big factors that affect your body image.
Factor 1: Peers
Friends, co-workers, running buddies, romantic partners—everyone in your orbit matters to your mindset. It’s human nature to compare, so if everyone in your social circles is the same size and shape, you’re going to feel differently about your body than if you surround yourself with diversity. Plus, the way these people talk about your body, and their own, influences your thoughts and interpretations.
Factor 2: Media
Magazines and TV often portray unrealistic body types or promote “diet culture”—messages that equate weight loss and lean bodies with health and moral virtue. And social networks are double-edged swords, Leeja Carter, a feminist sports psychologist, says. Well-curated feeds offer connection and motivation, but many “fitspiration” memes echo worn-out tropes equating thin to worthy and beautiful. York University research found women tend to feel worse after viewing attractive peers on social media or commenting on their posts.
Factor 3: Background
In addition to society writ large, scripts specific to your racial, geographical, or other context also run through your mind. For instance, black women may internalize the idea that curvier bodies are more beautiful, Carter says—sometimes creating cognitive dissonance for runners of color.
Factor 4: Biology
Genetics influences not only the size and shape of your body, but also how you feel about it, according to a study in Psychological Medicine. Hormones, too, play a role; German researchers found women felt more attractive—and spent less time staring at parts of their bodies they deemed unattractive—around the time they were ovulating. Physiological events, such as pregnancy or illness, also may alter your self-perception, says Margaret Ottley, Ph.D., a sport psychology professor at West Chester University.
Factor 5: Evolution
Neuroscientists have located nine brain regions involved in processing body image, Evans says. Interestingly, many of them, including the amygdala, regulate fear and other deeply rooted responses. That may be because we’re wired to want to fit in; in the past, the more we look like those around us, the more likely we are to be accepted and protected against threats to our survival.
Factor 6: You
This is perhaps the biggest thing that affects your body image. Your response to these internal and external forces can amplify or minimize their impact, Carter says. If you’re rigid and punishing—for instance, withholding food when you miss a run or not building rest and recovery into your schedule—you’re likely to feel worse. On the other hand, if you can tune out the noise and give your body the fuel and movement it needs, your body confidence may rise as a result.