Rachel Atherton talks to BBC Radio 5 about women’s body image and cycling

Double World Champion downhill mountain biker Rachel Atherton took to the airwaves this morning to discuss body image and the pressures placed on female athletes by the media. 

Rachel Atherton joined BBC Radio 5 Live host Rachel Burden to discuss the results of a recent BT Sport survey

Chatting with BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Rachel Burden, their discussion centred on the results of a recent survey of female athletes conducted by BT Sport, which Atherton participated in.

110 athletes from a wide range of disciplines including cycling, swimming, snow sports, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and triathlon were asked to complete the survey, which included questions around their body image, behaviour, and where they felt pressure came from. The full results make for interesting reading, and you can find them on the BT Sports website.

The survey was triggered by the comments made by Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington on the television program ‘I’m A Celebrity..’.

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…

89% of the female athletes surveyed said they empathised with the feelings of insecurity felt by Adlington.

Nearly 80% of the athletes also said they felt pressure to conform to a particular body image, and felt the pressure came mostly from the media (65%), fellow athletes (60%) and social media (41%). Some of the comments respondents made included;

“It is really depressing when the size you fit into seems to have a reflection of your fitness, e.g. plenty of world class sportswomen fit 14-16 dimensions due to body shape, yet this is touted as fat!”

“Female athletes’ appearance is also widely commented on, often either critically or with a sort of lecherous admiration. This barely ever happens to male top athletes, who are valued on their results and (sometimes!) personality and media relationship.”

Rachel Atherton talked about the some of the experiences she herself has had. Copyright Phil Hall

Rachel Atherton herself has experience of pressure from the media when it comes to pushing image over ability, reflecting on a magazine shoot she took part in where the clothes they had available for her to wear didn’t fit her.

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

The athletes also commented on the issue of young women and girl’s view of their own body image in wider society, with over 92% saying they felt there was a problem, but also raising many things they felt could be done;

“Promote health over beauty – make children embrace a healthy lifestyle rather than worrying about the way they look and their weight.”

“The media plays a huge role. Featuring and following female athletes of all disciplines creates a wider and more honest portrayal of women, of athletes for youngsters. When I feel unhappy or wish I was “skinny” I look to Lindsey Vonn…downhill ski racer. She is incredibly strong and built like a horse! She is a picture of a female athlete and encourages me to lift my weights proudly in the gym!”

Commenting on this issue, Atherton said:

The important thing is to have a body that can work, that can do the sport that you love, that you choose to do, and not be focussed solely on the way you look so you can perhaps get more media opportunities.

If you’d like to listen to the program, it’s currently available on BBC iPlayer. Scroll along to 2hr 11min in to hear the section.

Rachel Atherton is currently shortlisted for the BT Action Woman of the Year Award, and the voting is still open for a short while if you want to give her your support. The results will be announced on a special edition of The Clare Balding Show on BT Sport 1 on Saturday 25th January at 9pm.

If you’d like to read more about body image and cycling, please have a look at the article by Total Women’s Cycling contributor Collyn Ahart, commenting on the phenomenon of the ‘Cyclerexic’.

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