Putting an end to body shaming in sports

Zoe Litaker/Courtesy of @mynameisjessamyn

Famed yogi Jessamyn Stanley noted that: "Body shaming within the yoga world is extremely common."

What do Serena Williams, Cheryl Haworth, Rebecca Adlington and Aly Raisman have in common? If you said that they are all Olympians, you'd be right. If you said that they had all dealt with body shaming, sadly, you'd be right again.

Whether it's online or in person, athletes have to deal with the world around them attempting to dictate how their bodies should look and move.

However, for plus-size athletes, the conversation often shifts from the run-of-the-mill critiques to bonafide discouragement.

And it's not just internet trolls and street harassers.

Before she became a triathlete, marathoner and fitness instructor Jeanette DePatie had a taxing experience with a personal trainer. "He treated me with contempt from the beginning," DePatie added. "[The trainer] decided that since I was fat, I was also lazy. So he told me that he was going to beat the laziness out of me."

It doesn't only happen to fitness newbies. Dianne Bondy is a yoga instructor and the star of the plus-size clothing line Penningtons' "Who says plus women can't" ad spot, which has been viewed more than 1.3 million times. But that doesn't protect her from being stereotyped when she takes fitness and wellness classes.

"The teacher specifically told me that he couldn't slow down the class for me and that it was an 'advanced practice,'" noted Bondy. "He was so surprised that I was able to keep up and do advanced asana."

Sometimes it's not those we hire but those who hire us.

Professional personal trainer and fitness instructor Roz "The Diva" Mays explained, "When I was working for a national chain of gyms, I was told that I would never be given a prime-time class to teach because of my size."

Unfortunately, Mays isn't the only person dealing with body shaming at work.

Triathlete Jayne Williams was excited to act as a translator on a white-water rafting trip to Siberia. That was, until her boss told her, "I'm hesitant to take you on this trip because, well, we're trying to project an image of the 'American outdoors person.' And, well, you don't really fit in with that."

Often body shame looks like this: prioritizing stereotypes over people's actual abilities.

Williams wasn't about to be stopped, though. "I went on the trip, and I kicked butt. I represented my country."

But these incidents don't just hurt in the moment. They can affect us, and our participation in sports, for a lifetime. As Williams added, "That memory still burns."

Sometimes body shame comes in a more subtle package of backhanded compliments, condescension and being treated differently. This can do just as much harm, even if it's well-meaning.

For athlete and running coach Louise Green, author of "Big Fit Girl," it's not just online trolls (though she deals with plenty of those). It's also people who treat her differently than they treat every other runner out there.

"It's the inauthentic and frequent 'Good for you, way to get out there' type of comments at running events," said Green.

"I've even had someone yell out to me, 'Hey, at least you're lapping everyone on the couch.' Little do they know I am a running coach. The assumptions and judgments are tiresome."

So how do we stop this?

"My method of dealing with it is to ignore people who do not respect me or my lifestyle," said famed yogi Jessamyn Stanley. "My happiness doesn't depend upon the unhappiness of others."

In all, respect is important, and the only viable solution.

Size shaming, online trolling and street harassment needs to be seen as completely unacceptable, the perpetrators called out and the survivors of it supported. One should never make assumptions about another's abilities and intentions.

Finally, we should work to create an environment where participating in fitness activities is both physically and psychologically safe for all. That could translate to gyms, marathons, sport-focused online forums and more all developing and enforcing body-shaming policies. Nobody of any size is obligated to exercise, but everyone of every size should feel welcome.

Ragen Chastain is a speaker, writer and fathlete who is training for her second marathon and her first IRONMAN triathlon. Find out more about her work at sizedforsuccess.com and follow her IRONMAN journey at ironfat.com

Related Content