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Love yourself beautiful: Raising the self-esteem of athletic women

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Women are assaulted every day with the definition of what our culture deems “beautiful”. Thick or thin, curvy or flat, pale or tanned, tall or short, dressed this way or that, it seems the requirements for being beautiful morph alongside seasonal fashion.

Women participating in competitive sport have yet another obligation: to be a tough competitor while also maintaining this social expectation of feminine beauty.

“How are athletic women supposed to love and appreciate themselves while adhering to these “beauty” requirements?”

The answer: by redefining beauty altogether.

The skinny on skinny.

First off, by “skinny” I don’t mean “slender”, I mean the BMIs shown off by the likes of ultra-slim runway models, of whom many are left to wonder, “Are you sure you don’t want fries with that?” I want to make it clear that this article is NOT skinny bashing. I’m not shaming those who have a naturally slender, lean body type or intend to make fun of those who have difficulty gaining weight (there are more people in that category than you might think).

Additionally, I’d like to point out that there are a number of pro athletes who were dubbed as “too skinny” by critics but who came out on top. How does that work, you ask? It’s simple: skinny, for them, is functional. It’s the functionality of the body that athletes should be concerned with, not the shape, size, build, or weight of it. Period. If being skinny isn’t functional for you and your sport, that’s not what you should be aiming for.

Why athletic women may not love themselves.

It’s no surprise that a high number of female athletes suffer eating disorders. While low self-esteem isn’t the only factor in these disorders, it’s one of the top contenders according to a list by the National Eating Disorders Association.

"Your self-image is what other people think of you, and your Self (esteem) is what YOU think of you." - Deepak Chopra, Doctor, author, speaker.

Why do female athletes suffer low self-esteem?

  • They’ve come to believe that skinny is beautiful.
  • They’re trying to adhere to that standard while still participating in a sport they love.

In short, these athletes suffer low self-esteem because they’ve come to believe the self-image others have set upon them.

Even within sports culture, certain sports have been deemed “feminine” while others are “masculine”. Society shames the woman who loves weight lifting, kickboxing, or baseball, and applauds the one who embraces ballet and cheerleading! The woman who loves the “man’s” game is forced to “attempt to balance a feminine image with the masculine qualities associated with [her sport].”1 Similarly, a woman’s body is dubbed either “feminine athletic” or “masculine athletic”, meaning if she isn’t model-skinny her femininity is somehow less, er, feminine and, therefore, she’s less attractive, thus the struggle.

Sadly, this tells the sports-minded female she cannot have an athletic body and embrace her womanhood at the same time. It’s no wonder female athletes struggle with loving who they are.

So what’s standard of beauty that so many athletes struggle with? According to a paper published by NYU, “The standard body type for females is one that is thin, yet toned and lean, while males are expected to have large muscles that are toned and well defined.”

And if a woman has large muscles that are toned and well defined...? I wonder if we should ask Serena Williams (tennis), Misty Copeland (ballet), and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino (MMA) how they feel about that. *snicker*.

A non-exclusive beauty policy.

Beauty isn’t exclusive to skinniness or athleticism. Beauty encompasses both, and MORE.

[Tweet "Beauty is non-exclusive; it doesn’t discriminate; it’s an equal opportunistic quality #innerbeauty #femaleathletes #likeagirl #sports #athlete #strongisbeautiful"]

That makes all this talk about a lowered attractiveness for athletically-built women pure baloney. Female athletes exude all four of the archetypes that draw attraction: we’re proud of our bodies, we’re energetic, we’re driven, and we’re highly focused! Who wouldn’t be lured to a woman of such power?

And POWER is exactly the word we like to hear.

Sports culture is a microcosm of our culture as whole, one where we still equate masculinity to muscular hypertrophy and aggression, and femininity to petite bodies and submissiveness. You know, because clearly only dudes can grow muscles." - Harold Gibbons, Personal Trainer


So, here we are with a cultural expectation that skinny = beautiful. But, what about the other qualification, the one that nobody talks about? You know it and have likely heard it: “strong is beautiful”.

Strong is beautiful.

That’s the title of the WTA’s 2011 campaign to promote positive body image in tennis. As well-intended as the campaign was, it stirred some controversy with a film short of tennis’ best in heavy makeup, oiled skin, untied hair, and flowing, sexy clothing that wouldn’t normally be worn during competition. However, while WTA may have gotten flak for their commercial, that doesn’t mean they were off the mark with the slogan altogether.

It’s important to remember that beauty is simply ONE feature of a person as a whole and our energy shouldn’t be spent focusing on that one feature alone. Perhaps the trouble isn’t in the feature, after all, but the focus.

"Focus on what you want your LIFE to look like- not just your body." - Sarah Failla, Life Coach

The difference between beautiful and functional.

What an athlete needs her body to be is functional. You’re an athlete. You have high (really high) standards for yourself; those high standards are what make you a fierce competitor. You lose that, you lose your edge, and you may as well retire from competition altogether.

The word “beautiful” doesn’t mean anything aside from the judgment of the cover. It doesn’t say anything about what a powerhouse you are; it doesn’t speak to what your body can physically DO that other bodies can’t. We can get so stuck in the loop of trying to build a body that is desirable for other people that we forget what is desirable for ourselves.

[Tweet "Being a powerhouse of muscles and beauty by #LovingMyselfBeautiful with @PositivePerform."]

Skinny in and of itself isn’t anything an athlete needs from her body in order to reach her goal of being an accomplished athlete. Strong is. Functional is. Fit is. And, as Natasha Hawkins points out, “If you do a little homework you will see that being fit and being skinny are not the same thing.”

Stop thinking about being skinny and think about the work your body needs to do. That function should be your focus.

Taking a Different Approach

Let’s change the focus from feature to function. You are developing the body you want, that is, a high-performance machine. Your body isn’t for anyone except you, and YOU like—nay, you LOVE—your sport.

To put it bluntly: screw everything else.


4 Steps to Loving Yourself Beautiful

#1. Watch your self-talk.

What are you saying to yourself that makes you feel you’re not beautiful? Words and how you say them matter. If you find yourself judging your shape and size (“My thighs are too thick” or “My biceps are too defined”), stop yourself, re-analyze what those parts of your body mean to your performance as an athlete, and rehash that self-talk into self-love! (Ex: “My thighs are amazing – they make me quick on the field!” or “My arms are so strong – that play today was incredible!”)

#2. Reframe the situation.

Everyone fails; without failure, success would be immeasurable. So what if you eat a pizza? Does that change who you are?

Absolutely not! Don’t let your self-esteem suffer over one hiccup in your regimen. Forgive yourself and move on, making a correction in your mind and in your action not to repeat the mistake again.

#3. Treat your body as a piece of equipment, not as a trophy.

Trophies are for looking at: they’re shiny and pretty and meant to be put on a pedestal. That’s boring.

Equipment is for getting stuff done, like winning. Equipment needs to be made of strong, powerful material; it needs to endure like stone, cut like steel, be flexible like carbon. Equipment is beautiful in its strength alone. In that strength, there’s power, and power is an unmatched temptress.

#4. Focus on what your body can do, rather than how it looks.

Avoid degrading self-talk (and those who degrade you with their talk) and you’ll soon find that you’ll love your body exactly as it is, with its every sinew and tendon and muscle, wherever they’re placed on your frame and in whatever bulk and form they’ve been given to you.

Strength isn’t about the way you look.  It’s about the way you feel.  It’s about the way that you perform in the things that matter the most to you. Strong is not the new skinny, because strong isn’t a look. Strong is performance."
- Harold Gibbons, Author

And performance is what we’re all about.


  1 Paloian, Andrea. The Female/Athlete Paradox: Managing Traditional Views of Masculinity and Femininity, Online Publication of Undergraduate Studies (OPUS), NYU Steinhart, Department of Applied Psychology. Web: 07Apr2015. 2 Quote from


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