How I Came to Love my Athletic Body

It took an internet sensation to remind me why having an athletic body is awesome

Two years ago I learned a valuable lesson – what is important in life is not the shape of your body but what you are able to do with it. Despite the fact the rational side of my brain understands and believes this, I am not without my body hang ups.

Perusing Facebook I stumbled across a video the other day that really struck a nerve. 50 people were asked what one thing they would change about their bodies. The result was one of the most poignant pieces of content I have come across for a long time. Answers such as “Only one thing?” and “My forehead” came in reply.

Half way through, the video takes a different turn, asking the same question to a group of kids. We are suddenly dragged back to a time where complexes simply didn’t exist. These kids are too happy enjoying the world around them to worry about body image issues. It is completely refreshing but did make me stop and think about my own hang ups.

At the age of 16 I was scouted by a modelling agency in Dublin. From day one my agent, a loving matriarchal figure, addressed the shape of my body. I was sports mad and my body even at that age reflected that. Although a slim size 8, I had broad shoulders thanks to the several years spent swimming competitively and muscular thighs, the result of hours and hours per week on a hockey pitch. Thankfully I was assured that this was an asset: “I do not mind if you shift up a dress size, you are athletic and that is a good thing. You just need to make sure you stay looking healthy and toned.”

This was music to my ears. With the amount of sport I was playing I wouldn’t have to change a thing. As my career started to gain momentum body image was not something I ever considered. Until somebody else considered it for me. Standing back stage at a fashion show in a pair of knickers and tank top, I overheard a girl mutter to her friend:

 That girl does not have the bum to be wearing those. It is way too big. I can’t believe she is a model.

I stood there momentarily dumbfounded. The comment about my figure stung. Of course other people had commented on my body shape previously – my shoulders were too broad, I had a double chin in that shot so we couldn’t use it and so on. But it was the first time I had such negative comment from a peer or colleague.

Cyclerexic: Body Image in Cycling

Thankfully though, I was made of tough stuff. I continued to play hockey, juggling sport, university and modelling all at once. I was pretty happy in my own skin. After university, I decided to venture further afield to work in London. I knew the market over there would be more competitive and girls were required to be slimmer. But nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.

The following six months involved a stringent diet as I shed body fat and muscle in order to work in this new, daunting market. I knew the calorie content of every single item that passed my lips. I did no rigorous exercise, keen to ensure I didn’t develop muscle. As I got skinnier and skinnier I was applauded by my UK agent. It was a sharp contrast to my friends, family and even my Dublin based agent who raised comments of concern. My 5’10” frame was not built to weigh 54kgs. But I persevered. My competitive nature meant that I simply did not want to fail.

Rachel Atherton on Body Image and Cycling

Thankfully my London career was short lived as the following December I had committed to a ski season. The fresh air and freedom of the mountains brought back not just my appetite for sport but also for food. It was only as I gained weight that I realised how bloody miserable my bid to have the ‘perfect’ body had been.

It was at that point, I decided to leave modelling behind me. The fashion industry in Dublin was catching up with London, now seeking slimmer and slimmer girls. I was acutely aware of how fashionable ‘being skinny’ was becoming and I knew that I did not want to be a part of that.

It seemed no matter what industry you were in, whether it was fashion or sport, a spot in the limelight resulted in criticism about body shape and weight.

Rebecca Adlington has been received a lot of criticism about her size
(PHOTO © Nigel Farrow)

Rebecca Adlington was a prime example of the column inches dedicated to body image:

“I was an athlete, I wasn’t trying to be a model, yet pretty much every week I’d get someone comment on the way I looked…”

In the wake of a poll conducted by BT Sport last year, 80% of the 110 female athletes questioned said they felt pressure to conform, while 67% felt their appearance was more valued by the public and the media than their athletic performance.

Downstairs Dilemma: Intimate Grooming for Cyclists

These stats absolutely baffled me. Professional sports women should surely celebrate their bodies. After all look at what they allow them to do. But this pressure to conform does exist. Mountain biker Rachel Atherton has also spoken publicly about her experience of pressure from the media when it comes to pushing image over ability. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 last year, Atherton recalled a magazine shoot she took part in where the clothes they had for her to wear didn’t fit:

It makes you feel like, as an athlete, you’re not valued on what your body can do, but what your body looks like.

An athletic girl might be a size UK14. In the fashion/ media world this is considered overweight. But in reality many of the top performing athletes in the world wear UK 14 or even UK 16 due to their athletic physiques. Surely we should concern ourselves more about the bigger picture – what our bodies can do, and the enjoyment that these activities bring us.

If we as the adult population continue getting caught up about individual centimetres across our bodies and criticizing others for theirs we will never be content. But worse than that we will continue to destroy the confidence that the kids in this video possess. We will simply continue to reproduce insecurities and feeling of inadequacies.

An athletic looking Heather (far right) crosses the finished line of Slovenia AR, a 50 hour race

It was almost nine years after my first step into the modelling world that I received a compliment about my figure that I drag up to the surface whenever I am feeling low. Having completed a rigorous year competing in a wide range of endurance events including adventure races, running races, mountain biking races and even kayaking races I paid a visit to my agent in Dublin. I was the heaviest I had even been. “Oh wow,” she exclaimed. “You look fantastic. I love that you can really see exactly how hard your body works for you.” Now far too big for the modelling industry, I skipped out of there on cloud nine.

Also worth a read: 

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