Have you ever heard someone say ‘that athlete isn’t looking fit, they need to work on their fitness’. What does that really mean? What is fitness? By definition fitness is a set of attributes that are either health- or skill-related. Fitness attributes or metrics offer value to athletes because they can help to enhance athletic performance and may play a role in reducing injury risk. Examples of some metrics that are useful to help assess fitness of an endurance-based athlete can include: anaerobic capacity, VO2 Max, cadence, rate of perceived exhaustion, heart rate changes while exercising, flexibility, power output, speed, strength, balance, and stability.
‘Isn’t Looking Fit’ Is A Weight Stigma
It is important to note that true markers of health and/or skill are not appearance-based. When a person says that an athlete isn’t ‘looking fit’ that is an example of weight stigma or weight-based discrimination. According the National Eating Disorder Association, weight stigma is discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight or perceived appearance.
Weight stigma can increase body dissatisfaction, a leading risk factor in the development of eating disorders. Not only does weight stigma increase risk for development of an eating disorder, there are many other potential ramifications, such as: depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, lower likelihood of getting hired for a job, lower pay at work compared to someone in a smaller body size/shape, treatment disparities from healthcare providers, avoidance of engaging in movement due to fear of shaming by peers or other people, and increased mortality risk compared to folks who do not experience weight-based discrimination.
Disproportionate Effects Of Weight Stigma
Further, literature has exposed that weight stigma disproportionally impacts folks of diverse backgrounds. Recent research has shown that Hispanic and Black Americans are more likely to experience weight bias compared to White Americans. But, weight bias toward Black people is not a new phenomenon. Weight discrimination has racist roots that can be traced to the seventeenth century and the slave trade.
With this information, where do we go from here? Sports have the potential to bring diverse individuals together, and offer so many mental, emotional, and physical benefits. It’s critical that we acknowledge and learn from this hurtful information about weight stigma in sports. To help foster inclusive sporting environments, the following tips can help to make athletes in larger bodies feel supported and welcome, especially in endurance-based sports.
- Eliminate language that may align with weight discrimination.
- If clothing and gear is available for athletes, make sure to offer and maintain a variety of plus-size clothing.
- Refrain from making judgements about someone’s health or well-being based on their appearance.
- Challenge the notion that weight loss or attaining a thin body is key to improved athletic performance.
- Don’t assume that a person in a larger body is attempting to, or wants to diet, or lose weight. If food is provided in the athletic environment, make sure that all people have food equity.
The next time that you step into an athletic arena, know that you can be a voice of change. Push back on societal norms that there is a “look” to being an athlete. Regardless if your body is large or small, you are an athlete if you engage in a sport. And your body is good enough.
- Casperson, C.J., Powell, K.E., and Christenson, G.M. (1985). Physical activity, exercise, and physical fitness: definitions and distinctions for health-related research. Public Health Rep, 100(2): 126–131.
- Karpinski, C. and Rosenbloom, C.A. (2017). Sports Nutrition. A Handbook for Professionals (6th Edition). Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Weight Stigma. (2022). National Eating Disorder Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/weight-stigma
- Strings S. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. NYU Press: 2019.