NCAA and Body Shaming Regulations
By Callie Smith
This article brings to light the frequency of body shaming in collegiate female sports and the duty of the NCAA to help regulate its occurrence and deter its long term disastrous effects on athletes.
This guest post is from one of our Relentless Athletes, Callie Smith
Callie is a junior NCAA Division 1 Diver, Academic All-Big 12 Rookie Team, NCAA Zone A Diving Championships qualifier, and was a Two-time Pennsylvania state finalist during her high school career at North Penn HS
Body Shaming: Who’s Paying Attention?
Imagine being called fat or told your body isn’t good enough by someone you looked up to every day, so much so that you begin to believe it and hate your own body. Having your own coach tell you how much potential you have, if only you could lose some weight. My entire freshman year of college was filled with these types of comments.
My NCAA Division 1 Diving Coach would comment on my weight almost every single day I was at practice. I was constantly told to “cut out the carbs” or “we should talk to the nutritionist about putting you on the keto diet,” which is one of the most harmful diets for an average person to go on let alone a division one athlete.
I spent my entire freshman year hating myself. I would leave practice crying almost every single day because of a comment that was made towards me losing weight. I was forced to track every single thing I ate, sometimes eating nothing to lose the weight to make the comments stop.
The hardest part was that nobody would help me. My coach had been making these comments to his athletes for years, yet not a single thing had been done to put a stop to it. Compliance just didn’t seem to care because technically, there was no written rule by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to handle the situation.
It wasn’t until we got a new nutritionist who made it her personal responsibility to stop these rude comments that it finally seemed to end. Because of both the growing, but widely unrecognized, prominence of body shaming in the NCAA, and the deteriorating effects to the health of athletes, The NCAA must protect their athletes by putting an end to the body shaming of athletes by their coaches.
Body Shaming, Body Composition, & Athletic Performance
The topic of body shaming is becoming more and more prominent. Body shaming involves various acts such as making comments about one’s body not being in good enough physical condition. It does not always have to do with their actual health, but rather their appearance and typically involves deeming someone as “fat.” Due to the nature of women’s bodies, it is natural for them to put on fat as they grow and undergo puberty (Sheinin).
Therefore, it is human nature for a woman to not be stick thin and have extra fat on their body for when the time comes to carry a child. Because the North American beauty ideal of being tall and skinny is becoming more prominent in society, it is making it easier to judge someone for not conforming to that standard.
Women are criticized for the natural extra fat on their body. Due to the popularity of social media growing exponentially, it is becoming even easier for people to judge others for how their body looks behind the screen of a computer or phone.
Along with social media spreading images of the highly unattainable “perfect woman,” the exploitation of women’s bodies with today’s clothing trends such as booty shorts and plunging necklines continue to alter one’s sense of “perfection” (Sheinin). These trends tend to lead people to believe that only thin girls can wear them. Often, if a bigger girl is seen wearing something like booty shorts, they will endure judgmental looks and comments all day whether they take notice or not.
Diving deeper into the thin and lean body idealization, another place of interest is in athletics. Typically, when a person thinks of an athlete, they think of a lean or skinny person toned with muscle, but this stereotype needs to be broken. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes and every body is different. Because this activity is becoming more prominent in college athletics than many people realize, The NCAA needs to take a closer look as to how much it is affecting their athletes’ health.
NCAA and Lack of Body Shaming Regulations
While body shaming is becoming a common topic, the increasing commonality of it in college athletics is rarely discussed. It is important to take a look into how the NCAA is currently handling this situation. In an over-the-phone interview, an NCAA operator was questioned whether there was a policy or rule against coaches body shaming their athletes and his response was that it “is kind of a hot question actually. The answer is no, we do not have a policy against body shaming.”
Even though the NCAA claims to be massive advocates for preserving and improving the mental health of its athletes, the fact that they are currently doing nothing to punish those who are participating in the act of body shaming of their athletes seems to fundamentally refute this claim.
It is important for the NCAA to recognize and educate themselves on the situation at hand in order to be able to create some type of policy. There are coaches who are correlating an athlete’s thinness with their athletic ability, which is harming these athletes.
Two divers in the Big 12 conference who both had similar experiences with coaches telling them their bodies weren’t good enough were interviewed. They shared their experiences and thoughts about a lack of policy. The also offered what a policy being created would mean to them. It was clear after the interviews that a policy would mean the world to athletes who have experienced this terror.
Averly Hobbs, a former diver at West Virginia University, was shocked to hear that there is absolutely no policy against body shaming in the NCAA. Hobbs reasoned that “it is such an uncomfortable topic for everyone that [she thinks] [The NCAA] puts it on the back burner.” To her, a policy would mean that one day athletes would never have to experience that mental and physical pain she endured during her four years at West Virginia University. The effects of this pain continue to follow her today even though her athletic career is over.
Dana Liva is now a diver at Iowa State University after transferring from the University of Wisconsin. Dana’s former coach, who was recently fired, was guilty of mentally abusing his athletes, partly in the form of body shaming. Dana agreed that a policy should be implemented stating, “if there was a policy, [the NCAA] would see a positive effect because athletes would feel safer in their environment and succeed better in their sports.” Dana’s struggle she underwent at the University of Wisconsin took a major toll on her mental health. She agrees something needs to be done to stop other athletes from enduring similar health consequences.
The role of a COACH in the athlete’s self-perception
In a study posted by the American Psychological Association about the effects of sport-related stresses on female collegiate athletes, it was found that the comments that collegiate coaches make about their athletes’ weight and appearance, or body shaming, is the leading cause of their participation in unhealthy eating habits in order to please their coach (Anderson et al. 121-122).
The study directly correlated the pressures the athletes faced from their coaches to conform to a thin and lean body idealization to their body dissatisfaction. As a result of this dissatisfaction, they found athletes were partaking in restrictive eating habits. These habits, are not only dangerous, but very unhealthy for any athlete.
This idealization is causing many athletes stress and anxiety because of these pressures. Because of the toll taken on her health, Dana feels that creating a policy or some type of action plan to implement when an athlete speaks up about body shaming from their coach is important. She explained that this would allow athletes to feel comfortable and confident while playing their sports and prevent the mental and physical degradation that results. Restoring confidence to these athletes would not only increase their love for their sport, but it would also allow them to continue to grow in their sport.
It is easy to accuse coaches of saying rude things about an athlete’s body or appearance or blame them for an athlete wanting to be skinny. Various studies have actually proven that the pressures and comments from these coaches are the causing these athletes’ dissatisfaction with their own bodies. One study found in volume 25 of The Journal of Treatment and Prevention about eating disorders was done to see what contributed to athletes and non-athletes’ eating disorders. It was uncovered that athletes that developed eating disorders did so due to sport-specific factors including various activities such as pressure from coaches such as comments and team weigh-ins (Arthur-Cameselle et al. 210).
Meanwhile, the non-athletes’ eating disorders were found to develop from family issues or bullying (Arthur-Cameselle et al. 211). The difference in triggers found in this study is very important. This helps to support that the comments these coaches are making are clearly negatively impacting these athletes’ choices. These negative impacts are not only harming the athletes’ self-esteem, but also their eating habits and overall health.
A website found about a woman advocating against body shaming in college athletics, further proves the affect a coach’s comments can have on an athlete. The former collegiate track and cross-country athlete spoke about her own personal experience.
Rachael Steil discussed a camp she attended for collegiate runners whom developed dangerous eating disorders due to the comments their coaches had made to them. Steil stated that “it broke [her] heart to hear about the comments made by coaches that triggered the destructive relationships with food in many of these young women.” The coaches are causing their athletes so much pain and making it difficult for them to be satisfied with their bodies simply because the coach feels their athletes must look thin and “healthy” to be a considered a good athlete (Steil). It is also making it difficult for these athletes to enjoy their sport because they are so focused on losing weight. Meanwhile, the athlete who may ultimately look healthy because they are thin, is actually starving them self to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Long Term Consequences of Body Shaming
Although these coaches are the cause of body dissatisfaction because of their body shaming comments, this situation has become more than that. A common thought may be that, a coach is supposed to tell you what to do and how to look. What this thought doesn’t address, however, is the actual effects of these comments on an athlete’s health.
The mental and physical deterioration of these athletes is quickly becoming a bigger problem than the NCAA may realize. The main physical health concern is the common path followed that leads to developing an eating disorder. Whether it is restricting calories, or anorexia, or the binging and purging of bulimia, these comments are leading these athletes to develop an extremely unhealthy relationship with food. This unhealthy relationship ultimately leads to malnourishment and other health complications.
The development of this unhealthy relationship with food is draining. Averly admits that she was “exhausted by the time [her] senior year came along from adding extra workouts and eating as little as possible.” The unhealthy eating habits she adopted due to her coach’s comments almost every day at practice caused her to lose 25 pounds in an extremely unhealthy way.
Her coach believed he knew what was best. He often told her to “cut out the carbs completely,” which for an athlete is extremely detrimental. An athlete needs these carbs to be able to expend energy during the expected 20 hours per week of physical activity. While she is lucky that she was able to make it through her athletic career without any serious health problems, not everyone is that lucky.
Eating disorders can lead to death. Fortunately, Averly wasn’t one of them. Dana had a similar experience. The coach at the University of Wisconsin attempted to put her on a “nutrition plan.” The coach, however, used this as a cover in an attempt to put her a diet. In this “plan,” Liva’s nutritionist would dictate every single thing she ate. If she had done this, it easily could have led to a restrictive eating disorder and a fear of food.
In Steil’s article about her experience as a collegiate runner, she explained while talking to other athletes that were there with similar problems, she found the horrors that lied beyond even just eating disorders. She noted that the mental abuse she and the other athletes endured had many effects on their physical health.
Their coaches’ “innocent comments” lead to the athletes sacrificing health, fighting hunger/cravings, suffering from low energy, difficulty concentrating, amenorrhea (when a woman’s menstrual cycle stops), high risk of injury, eating disorders, strain on relationships, and possibly death (Steil). Overall, the seemingly harmless or intentionally vulgar comments these collegiate coaches are making are clearly taking a huge toll on the physical health of student athletes across the country. No matter how hard they may try to ignore it, the NCAA can’t deny these affects.
Body Shaming and Mental Effects
The mental degradation is another important effect to consider in the argument of whether or not a policy should exist. The NCAA has recently been advocating for their athletes’ mental health as depression is beginning to grow, but what is actually going on behind the scenes? While building her legal case against her former coach at the University of Wisconsin, Dana found that 50% of all college athletes have depression after they graduate and of that 50%, 80% didn’t have a diagnosis before beginning college athletics.
Not all of this is attributed to body shaming, obviously, but it is one of the causes. These comments cause lasting mental effects. Dana’s former coach would make small comments such as calling her weak or mentioning if she was lighter she would be able to perform harder dives. But no matter how small these comments may seem, after hearing them every day, “these comments become burned into [their] brains and eventually [they] began believing them” (Hobbs). It can cause someone’s mind to physically alter the image they see in the mirror. This change caused them to appear larger than they are to themselves.
In the study “Effects of Sport Pressures on Female Collegiate Athletes: A Preliminary Longitudinal Investigation,” it was shown that a coach’s remarks and principle that skinny athletes have improved performance largely contributes to athletes’ decline of mental health and altered view of self (Anderson et al. 129). It has been demonstrated that the mental health of these athletes is clearly declining, yet the mental health advocates in the NCAA aren’t punishing those responsible for this decline.
These negative comments from these coaches are also changing these athletes view on their own bodies. Ms. Hobbs stated that “[she] had never questioned how [she] looked until stepping onto the pool deck with her Coach.” It wasn’t until he began making comments that she began to question her body.
A dissertation done by Catie Greene, a now licensed counselor with areas of interest in student athletes and the causes of eating disorders, found that the source of negative body image in male and female athletes who participate in the NCAA was largely traced back to their coaches and not within (152).
The effects of these coaches’ comments towards the young minds of their athletes is causing angst. It is not fair to them hat they are coming to hate their own bodies they have been blessed with simply because someone else does not approve of how they look.
While these comments cause the health issues to begin with, according to Hobbs, they continue to haunt her even after she has finished her athletic career. Averly mentioned that while she knew that starving her body was wrong, her actions were praised on the pool deck by her coach for the last four years. Hobbs has since retired the cap and shammy, but she said while “[her] post athletic career has been good, [she] still find that those horrible things her Coach said to [her] are still in [her] head and come up often.” The words of these coaches are continuing to cause problems for these athletes even after athletics.
Rachel Steil makes a point in one of her articles on her website that other coaches defended a track coach who was fired due to body shaming his athletes. They vouched for the fact that “he was ‘nice’ and ‘charismatic,’ as if these qualities alone prove he should never feel the ‘devastating effects’ of losing his job.” She went on to say how there are a few devastating effects on a coach, but the devastating effects on the athlete are much worse. Steil discussed the state of emotional distress she underwent along with her battle with depression. She, along with the other runners she met with at the retreat, continue to feel the lasting effects of the eating disorders they developed.
Eating disorders are serious mental conditions. They stay with you for the rest of your life and even though someone can be recovered from an eating disorders for years, there is always a risk of an unexpected relapse. The mental deterioration caused by coaches criticizing their athletes’ appearances is dangerous. If the NCAA is supposed to be big mental health awareness advocates, why are they sweeping this growing cause with various detrimental health affects under the rug?
Body shaming is continuing to grow in the NCAA. Because of the disastrous health effects on student athletes, the NCAA needs to further investigate the body shaming of its athletes by their coaches. Many athletes are beginning to lose their love for their sport because they no longer feel accepted based on the comments made by their coaches. While deteriorating their love, the dissatisfaction with their own bodies also developed due to their coach’s opinion of how an athlete should look. This dissatisfaction is quickly diminishing their mental and physical health as well.
The time for change is NOW. Awareness needs to be built for this heinous act so the NCAA cannot continue to sweep this under the rug. If nothing is done, more and more athletes are going to show signs of serious, and lasting, health conditions that may go above and beyond eating disorders. If you are an athlete experiencing this horrid act, know you are not alone. It’s time to join together and take a stand against allowing others to dictate what an athlete should and shouldn’t look like. Advocate for student athletes across the country who might be too afraid to stand up for themselves.
Let’s make it the beginning of the end.
Anderson Carlin M., et al. “Effects of Sport Pressures on Female Collegiate Athletes: A Preliminary Longitudinal Investigation.” Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, vol. 1, no. 2, 2012, pp. 120-134. EBSCOhost, DOI: 10.1037/a0026587
Arthur-Cameselle, Jessyca, et al. “A qualitative analysis of factors related to eating disorder onset in female collegiate athletes and non-athletes.” Eating Disorders, vol. 25, no. 3, 29 Nov 2016, pp. 199-215. 10.1080/10640266.2016.1258940
Greene, Catie A. “College Athletes’ Reflective Judgement: A Moderator between Sport and Sociocultural Pressures, Body Ideal Internalization, and Body Dissatisfaction.” Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects, Spring 2016, pp. 150-154. ProQuest.
Hobbs, Averly. Personal Interview. 24 May 2019.
Liva, Dana. Personal Interview. 25 May 2019.
NCAA Operator. Personal interview. 24 May 2019.
Sheinin, Rachel. “Body Shame: The Shaming of Women.” Healthy weight journal, vol. 11, no. 3, 1997, pp. 36-37. EBSCOhost.
Steil, Rachael. “Mistreatment and Body-Shaming in Coaching.” Runninginsilence.com, 3 June 2018, www.runninginsilence.com/mistreatment-and-body-shaming-in-coaching/.
About Callie Smith
Callie is currently a junior NCAA Division 1 Diver, Academic All-Big 12 Rookie Team, NCAA Zone A Diving Championships qualifier, and was a Two-time Pennsylvania state finalist during her high school career at North Penn HS
Academic All-Big 12 Rookie Team
NCAA Zone A Diving Championships qualifier
Placed 32nd on 3-meter at Zones, earning a score of 224.00 in prelims
Also finished 38th on 1-meter at Zones, tallying a prelims score of 203.90
Reached the finals on two boards at the Big 12 Championship, finishing eighth on 3-meter (282.95) and platform (162.15)
Finished fourth on 1-meter against Iowa State and Villanova, recording a score of 251.50
Against Pitt, she logged a fourth-place finish on 3-meter (254.48)
Placed second on 1-meter (270.15) and third on 3-meter (259.96) at TCU
Registered a ninth-place overall finish on platform at the Frank Elm Invitational (174.90); also placed 15th on 3-meter (238.40)
Earned a fourth-place finish on 1-meter against Seton Hall and Xavier (263.50)
Made her Mountaineer debut at the West Virginia State Games, placing fourth on 1-meter (212.25) and 3-meter (220.87)
A member of North Penn High swimming and diving team, as well as Imaginary Dive Club
Two-time Pennsylvania District 1 diving finalist
Two-time Pennsylvania state finalist
Part of 2016 state championship team at North Penn
Earned a career-best 392.95 on 1-meter (11 dives)
Lifetime-best score of 168.95 (6 dives) on 1-meter
Also holds career-best score of 377.40 on 3-meter (9 dives)
Daughter of Rodger and Linda Smith
One of three children
Birthday is October 25
Majoring in forensic science
Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll