Simone Biles: A powerhouse against body shamers

Four-time Olympic gold medalist and gymnast Simone Biles is one of many female athletes to experience the hurtful words of body shamers. Biles recently posted a picture on Instagram of her in a bathing suit and cut-off shorts. A user’s comment criticized the Olympian, saying, “You’re so ugly Simone Biles, even I look better than you.” Occurrences like these are not uncommon for athletes in today’s society. Such comments can lead to dangerous health outcomes particularly for female athletes, research shows. In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, more than one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms of disordered eating, placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. Additional research indicates that female athletes, specifically those in judged sports, have a 13 percent prevalence of an eating disorder compared to three percent in the general population. Although the research puts emphasis on female athletes, Sarah Katula, advanced practice nurse in psychiatry at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill., says that females and male athletes alike are prone to disordered eating and eating disorders. Additionally, Katula states that regardless of gender, the nature of the sport — whether based on how you look or how much you weigh — can have a major effect on athletes. “Sports that look at and judge the individual — weight lifting, crew, running, ballet, synchronized swimming and gymnastics — can lead to an increased risk for female and male athletes,” Katula says. “At an early age, these athletes are directly exposed to the ideals of thinness, dieting and cutting weight, and when not monitored, a negative self-appraisal and problems with food can result.” Coaches and parents can also have an impact when it comes to monitoring and raising their athlete in a healthy way. For example, in 2013, Biles was told by a male coach that she was fat. However, she told People magazine that his comment actually made her embrace her body more for what it is. “It was really hard because growing up I never felt overweight or fat, so it shocked me like, ‘Why would he say that?’” Biles said. “But in a way, it actually shaped me for the better because it just taught me to rise above and love my body no matter what.” Katula says that it is important for everyone involved in an athlete’s life to be trained and educated in how to prevent and intervene on a potential risk for an eating disorder. She emphasizes that coaches are key and can have a tendency for “fat talking” or “size teasing” their athletes. “When these types of shaming are said to athletes, perfectionism can arise in them, which can create an eating disorder,” Katula says. “For example, when an athlete goes through puberty, this can have an effect on his or her performance. But when coaches understand the changing bodies of their athletes, and embrace and support this change, athletes are then surrounded by the healthy, positive attitude they need.” Katula advises coaches and parents — the ones closest to the athletes — to accept and praise the power within the athlete. They can help by being educated in potential risks of eating disorders and live their own healthy life for the athlete to replicate. Biles defends herself against body shamers by saying this to People magazine: “You can judge my body all you want, but at the end of the day it’s MY body. I love it and I’m comfortable in my skin.”