Social media is fueling eating disorders among female athletes

PARKER, Colo. — New research warns that social media is fueling eating disorders among female athletes. The study suggests that sportswomen feel compelled to achieve the “ideal” body in order to succeed. Scientists argue that images of photoshopped celebrities or stick-thin fashion models are “nutrition myths.” The widespread phenomenon on Instagram, Facebook, and other websites has been dubbed “fitspiration.”

“False information is often perpetuated on social media by ‘fitness influencers’ who are not actually qualified to give health information. With the creation of Photoshop and other editing devices, the images portrayed by media are not realistic. Many teens cannot achieve this body type without resorting to damaging restrictive eating. They feel pressured to look ideal and subsequently feel they are never good enough when they cannot replicate the unrealistic bodies seen in the media,” according to the authors of the study in a media release.

Top female competitors, including tennis champion Serena Williams, have expressed the significant pressure to maintain the “perfect” physique. Earlier this year, heptathlete Anna Hall used TikTok to criticize those who tell sportswomen they look like men.

Dr. Vidlock and Catherine Liggett, a medical student at the University of Colorado, argue that unrealistic images have a direct impact. Their book “Spring Forward: Balanced Eating, Exercise, and Body Image in Sport for Female Athletes” highlights how disordered eating and negative body image are now present in nearly all sports, particularly in high school, but are often concealed. The book was co-written with Andrew Dole, a dietitian for the New Zealand Olympic rugby teams.

The authors maintain that athletes constantly strive to fit into a body-type ideal that isn’t realistic, and education is the key to “stop this in its tracks.” Nearly a dozen female athletes share stories of how the pressure to be slim triggered their struggles with negative body image. Accounts range from swimmers to tennis players, detailing harrowing experiences such as running for five miles as self-punishment for eating a cookie, fainting in the gym after 24 hours without food, and heavy dieting following criticism about their “butt cheeks.”

One volleyball player even lost a friend, the team’s “star player,” to anorexia when the girl suffered a heart attack triggered by their eating disorder. The situation is worsened by the fact that many sports have specific body type ideals, such as runners being expected to be very thin. However, some elite runners have muscular legs that appear larger than the stereotype, leading to disparaging remarks.

Woman looking at herself in mirror, body image
(© Maridav –

Dr. Vidlock and the team are calling for promoting higher-quality performance in women’s sports, achieved through healthy eating and nutrition from secondary school to elite athlete levels. The goal is to educate teenage and women athletes, sports coaches, and clubs about body confidence, protecting them from unhealthy eating, fad diets such as ketogenic, and other self-destructive behaviors aimed at meeting unrealistic ideals.

Their book provides extensive instruction manuals on positive eating plans, the consequences of disordered eating, and how parents can spot warning signs. The authors have also devised an educational program, SPRING (Strength and Positivity Rooted in Nutrition for Girls), for high schools, which is described in the book. They are calling for programs like SPRING to be offered in schools, colleges, and among adults so that women at risk can be identified early.

SPRING focuses on increasing body image “flexibility,” which the authors define as the ability to be confident in one’s body regardless of size or shape. It involves three one-hour sessions spread throughout the athlete’s season. Data from the authors’ research suggests that SPRING has resulted in an increase of more than 22 percent in body image flexibility among cheerleaders in Colorado schools.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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