Olympic athletes are performing at the very peak of human ability. Every limb, every muscle in their body, is toned to perfectly execute their chosen sport. And yet, depressingly, female athletes still face body image issues.
Michelle Carter just became the first American to win a gold medal in shot put. But she told the New Yorker that many women still shy away from her sport based on a fear that it’s unfeminine. Parents and coaches often ask her to talk to younger female throwers—not for advice or inspiration, but to reassure them that it’s ok to be strong.
“The parents say, ‘Can you talk to my daughter and say that it’s O.K.? That she can have muscles?’,” she says.
Of course, having muscles isn’t just ok, but absolutely necessary to throw a ball 20.63 meters, as Carter did at Rio.
“You have to understand everyone’s body was built to do something. I was built to do something, and that’s how I was built. I think the world is realizing we were promoting one body type and there have always been many,” she added.
Carter’s attitude is entirely positive. She has the confidence to wear her false lashes on the field (she’s a professional makeup artist) and says she refuses to fit to others’ standards. But it’s disheartening that female athletes still feel they need to justify their commitment to their sport, or explain why they embrace their Olympic-champion winning bodies.
Other shot putters have also spoken about this judgment. In 2012, Jillian Camarena-Williams told Wired that it was especially difficult when she was single and dating. “People don’t quite understand it,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes when you step on the scale and you’re like, “Oh geez!”
Instead of celebrating her achievements, Camarena-Williams said that people tend to judge her and other shot-putters as “these big brutes, these aggressive women.”
“But it’s not about brute strength,” she added. “Yes, you have to be strong. But there’s a lot of finesse to the event, timing and speed and grace. There’s a lot more to this than just beastly women.”
Women throwing javelin, hammer, and discus must also have exceptionally muscular bodies to succeed in their sport. Hammer thrower Amber Campbell told Indy Star that it took time to accept her physique. “I realized, it’s not about how I looked, but how I felt. I was able to look in the mirror and just appreciate what God made me physically. And mentally I started to accept it,” she said.
But it’s not only muscular athletes who face these issues. As Indy Star points out, a 2015 study found that more than a quarter of female athletes don’t eat enough to fuel their athletic lifestyle.
Swimmer Rebecca Adlington has won two gold and two bronze medals at the Olympics. But after the 2012 Games, when she was a contestant on a reality TV show, she was reluctant to wear a bikini alongside a Miss GB winner. Though her body has made her one of the greatest athletes in the world she was insecure about the way it looks.
The sole purpose of female bodies is not to pose on magazine covers. As these athletes show, women can throw, can swim, can run. They can do so with excellence, and that does not mean doing so “like a man.”
Carter believes there’s slowly more acceptance of strong female athletes. But as Olympic champions’ image insecurities show, this can’t come soon enough.
“I think now, it’s like, ‘You know what? We’re girls and we can throw heavy balls and be in the dirt and we look good while we’re doing it,’” says Carter. “I think it’s bringing more attention to the sport and girls are realizing, Hey, I can do this and it’s O.K. to do this as a girl.”