The Struggle Retired Athletes Face with Body Image
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Retired athletes may face an inevitable truth: their body will not remain as it once did when they were in their peak athletic performance and physique. However, since many athletes view a large piece of their core identity as stemming from their physical capabilities, the transition period between sport and non-sport life is tumultuous.
There is a high likelihood that the physical appearance and capabilities will not be sustainable once in retirement, and with that comes a lack of body acceptance. The experience that a retired athlete may face regarding body image/body dissatisfaction is termed “athletic body transition” and is contributed by active and passive factors. Buckley, Hall, Lassemillante, Ackerman, & Belski (2019) explains that this transitory period may lead to “maladaptive behaviours related to food, exercise.”
Factors that influence a negative Athletic Body Transition:
Former athletic body ideal pressure
Body composition genetics
Retirement body composition changes
Level of continued athletic identity
The culture surrounding the elite athletic experience is one of grit, determination, pushing past and persevering over pain, and ultimately, striving to be the best. This culture, ingrained in the mind of an athlete, carries over into other aspects of living, permeating across the thin barrier between sport and life. Once retired, an athlete will continue to push themselves in other areas, to be the best version of themselves. The frustration arises when there aren’t enough resources readily available to them when they feel discouraged.
The prolonged influence of sport on an athlete’s life is present long after the competition ends. Former athletes may find themselves still defining themselves as an athlete, and trying to find ways to justify them as such. It is tremendously difficult to break habits created in sport, like consistent weighing, body checking, calorie counting, pushing exercise past exhaustion and through illness and injury. This body dissatisfaction and grief were described to have broader effects on “self-esteem, self-worth, physical condition, competence, and attractiveness” (Buckley et al.). It may be shocking to hear that some of the most well known athletes struggle with their body image, even while competing, not just once the competition ceases.
Rosie MacLennen, 27 year old former Canadian gymnast, says that she recalls her time at the Olympics comparing herself to her female gymnast competitors.
“I remember warming up and looking at the other athletes, and looking at myself, and feeling a little bit uncomfortable,” said MacLennan, speaking about her 17 year old past self, competing at the Olympics. “It’s not what you should be focused on before you get up and jump on a trampoline 20 feet in the air” (Doorey,2016).
In aesthetic and weight class sports, like gymnastics, rowing, wrestling, or figure skating athletes are expected to have, build, and maintain the ideal physique for that particular sport. Additionally, certain team sports, like football or cross country running have certain body types that dictate whether or not the athlete will be successful based on their position.
A study conducted by the Institute of Biomedical and Epidemiological Research in Sport (IRMES) in Paris, France demonstrated that “retired weight-class athletes gained less weight as they aged compared to age matched controls up to 50 years after retirement, despite retired athletes describing heightened levels of body dissatisfaction.” (Buckley et al.) Additionally, although 75% of retired gymnasts and swimmers were classified in the ‘healthy weight range’, 55% were still dissatisfied with their current body and a further 60% were engaging in weight loss practices.
It has been found consistently that the support from athletic governing bodies in a post-sport era in an athlete’s life has been lacking, if not non existent, after they “hang up the cleats.” In order to better acknowledge the athletic body transition, realistic expectations must be established prior to and during athletic retirement. This can assist the positive transition to post-sport life.
Our call to action is simple: the acknowledgement of this difficult transition by sporting organizations and health professionals and the subsequent assistance that can be provided for retired athletes so that they are supported in their relationship with body image.
“Life’s way too short to be constantly chasing “the perfect body.” And don’t get me wrong, having goals is GREAT but I encourage you all to focus on finding the balance between healthy and happy. And I encourage you all to remember to love yourself despite your insecurities and to please give yourself a little forgiveness when you aren’t perfect because trust me NO ONE is.” - Amanda Barnhart, CrossFit Athlete
Amanda Barnhart is an incredible role model for young athletes to see themselves in through her words. She is empowering others by showing herself unfiltered, leading the way through athletic body acceptance.
Buckley, G. L., Hall, L. E., Lassemillante, A. M., Ackerman, K. E., & Belski, R. (2019). Retired Athletes and the Intersection of Food and Body: A Systematic Literature Review Exploring Compensatory Behaviours and Body Change. Nutrients, 11(6), 1395. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11061395
Doorey, Jacqueline. “Don’t Let the Gold Medal Fool You: Even Olympic Athletes Struggle with Body Image — CBC Sports.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 17 July 2016, www.cbc.ca/sportslongform/entry/olympic-athletes-struggle-with-body-image