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5 live sport special: Body Beautiful?

Monday 12 November 2012, 12:55

Eleanor Oldroyd Eleanor Oldroyd

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Jessica Ennis

We haven’t often been able to say this, but I believe our top sportswomen have never had a higher profile.

At London 2012, the performances of Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams, Sarah Storey and Ellie Simmonds were celebrated just as ecstatically as those of Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins, David Weir or Jonnie Peacock.

But not all the attention is welcome. It seems that our female superstars are being judged in different ways from the men.

Put the name of Britain’s heptathlon golden girl into a search engine, and the first suggestion that comes up is not, “Jessica Ennis Olympic Champion”. Instead, you’re offered, “Jessica Ennis bum”, “Jessica Ennis bikini” and “Jessica Ennis hot”.

When a high ranking UK Athletics official suggested before the Olympics that Ennis could do with losing a few pounds in weight, there was disbelief. And comedian Frankie Boyle’s alleged 'jokes' about Rebecca Adlington’s appearance were met with an outcry, from press and public.

But the jibes, cruel or just thoughtless, can have a devastating effect, particularly on young athletes with fragile self-confidence.

As part of a special 5 live programme I went to see Hollie Avil, former World Junior Triathlon Champion, who announced in May she was quitting elite sport at the age of just 22.

For six years she’d fought a battle with an eating disorder, sparked by a throwaway comment by a coach - not her own - after a competition. During a discussion about how she could improve her times, he suggested that she might like to watch her weight.

“For a 16 year old to hear that - well it was a massive shock to me”, Hollie told me.

“I was a swimmer, I had my broad shoulders, always had strong legs - but I thought to be faster and stronger you had to train harder, simple. I never thought you had to be slimmer. So it just planted a seed in my head that got me thinking in very wrong ways about how I should get thinner and how I should get lighter.”

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Triathlete Hollie Avil on how an eating disorder impacted on her athletics career.

Hollie embarked on a regime which was far from healthy for any teenager, let alone one in training as an elite athlete. She drastically reduced her calorie intake, cut out carbohydrates and concealed what she was doing from her friends, training partners and her family.

Eventually, with the help of nutritionists and sports psychologists, Hollie got her diet - and her career - back on track. But early this year, she suffered stress fractures in each shin.

“I knew it was from how I treated my body in the previous years, not eating enough, having low bone density - I’ve had tests throughout my career and I knew it was from me practising silly behaviours. It made me so sad to think that a sport I used to love had given me eating disorders.”

Hollie Avil’s case is extreme, but far from unique. Since meeting her, I’ve mentioned her story to a number of other sportswomen I know, and pretty much all of them have said, “Oh yes, I’ve been there”. Badminton Olympic silver medallist Gail Emms contacted Hollie after her retirement to offer her support, and Gail will join us live on the programme.

And when even super-fit athletes are consumed by doubts about their body image, what message does it send out to the next generation? 

According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, one of the major reasons why so many girls and young women drop out of sport is that they don’t like the way it makes them look. In their report, Changing the Game for Girls, nearly half the secondary school girls they questioned said they thought that getting sweaty was not feminine.

And intense training can change body shape for the better - but also lead to a more muscular physique which might look great in sportswear, but might make skinny jeans or a strappy evening top harder to carry off.

But for girls looking for role models, how about weightlifter Zoe Smith? After setting a new British record at the London Olympics, she said it put two fingers up to the Twitter trolls who’d accused her of looking like a “bloke”.

On those fingers, by the way, were gold painted fingernails. Who says you can’t be fit and feminine?

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Olympic weightlifter Zoe Smith on how she reacts to criticism of her weight.

We’ll hear from Zoe on 5 live sport's Body Beautiful? on Thursday 15 November at 7.30pm. You will also be hearing from Jessica Ennis, Rebecca Adlington, Jeanette Kwakye and Christine Ohuruogu amongst other.

We’d also like to hear about your experiences. Post your comments here and we’ll be taking your calls on the night, too.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    I still have issues with food after being put in the FAT group at a G.B training camp and I WAS never fat, just bigger than the rest.

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    Comment number 2.

    It is consistently mentioned how sports such as gymnastics, ballet and diving have the highest rates of individuals with eating disorders. However, I feel it is more to do with your self confidence, belief and the effects of those around you, what ever the participating sport, where comments can act as a life changing triggers for some, or are forgotten by others.
    Personally, when I was aged 7 and training regularly at a thoughtafter gymnastic club, it was made very clear how weight and how one looked was very important (even had to wear elastic bands around our waists). At the time I didn't really think much of it, but I did stop training there not long after. Looking back, I feel that those comments and emphasis' made, have resulted in an underlying insecurity of my looks and consequential low weight.

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    Comment number 3.

    Sadly you do not have to be a young athlete to endure comments about your weight, physique, looks, whatever. I went to a school that handed out Posture Badges every term for people who merely sat up straight. I was always thin and have mild congenital scoliosis. Not only was I the only person in a class of 28 not to get one of these badges, I was actively nagged about my self consciousness with regards to swimming and gym. They were the most miserable days of my life but guess what - those comments made me a strong person and I have never had an eating disorder. For me it was all down to my family support system and inner strength and sometimes people just have to man (or woman) up and get on with things and tell people their comments are unacceptable and out of order, and just get on with your life.

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    Comment number 4.

    Why would anybody want to be thin? Ive been underweight,cant put ANY weight on,and ive been picked on and bullied my entire life because of it. Talking from someone thats always been "slim" id much rather be overweight than underweight. Women have to be skinny and blokes have to be massive,so society says!!!!! But its only ever about men or women being overweight,NOTHING is ever done about being underweight,at least if i was fat i could loose some,thin people CANNOT put weight on and simply have to live with the victimization.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    Msg 4...... You may think you'd like to be overweight but I am sure you really wouldn't. We are never entirely happy with our bodies - At least if you are a smaller size you can buy fashionable clothes in decent materials, aren't called 'fat bitch' as you walk across road by a complete stranger driving past. They say that others mans grass is always greener, sometimes, it just isn't. All the best anyway.

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    Comment number 6.

    I met Zoe Smith when she was doing some signings in the Olympic Village. She was shorter than I had imagined but certainly seemed feminine...but her effervescent smiling demeanour was the real delight. Well done Zoe!

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    Comment number 7.

    @ Zelda I agree the majority of people in society are horrid things,but being a slim bloke in this society id have to disagree with you and after 46yrs of fending off "skinny" "wimp" "runt" etc and seeing that being overweight is the accepted norm in this country,,,being a skinny little wimp,id rather be overweight. Unfortunately there are NO resources or back-up groups for thin people,theres NO disability NO support for depression NOTHING! If im overweight,theres support groups,same if im black,asian,polish,a woman,a gay or lesbian etc etc etc,the WORSE thing you can possibly be in this country is a white,single,skinny bloke. Even 5live are doing it now,everythings about people who are overweight!

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    Comment number 8.

    There's not a lot of help for depression whatever the reason Neil. You aren't disabled because you are thin. Life isn't fair and it never will be. Unfortunately.

 

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