Addressing The Taboo Topic Of Constant Physical Comparison Among Female Swimmers

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Kaylee McKeown (AUS) celebrates after winning the women's 200m backstroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports - swimmers

Addressing The Taboo Topic Of Constant Physical Comparison Among Female Swimmers

By Sadie Jones, Swimming World Intern

“Am I skinny enough?”

“Does my body look like hers?”

“Do I look okay in this bathing suit?”

“How can I get my body to look like that?”

“Why can she fit in the smaller suit and I can?”

“Does she think I look fat?” 

These questions are the reality of what goes on in the mind of a female swimmer. Not only are girls competing and comparing their times inside the water, but they are also comparing themselves based on how they look physically. Swimmers from a very young age are accustomed to being in a swimsuit every day and wearing it like a jersey or uniform. There is nothing special about it and it isn’t anything to think about for many young swimmers. But as girls get older, they become more conscious about how they look and feel in a bathing suit. They also get the idea that others are judging them for their appearance on the pool deck. 

If athletes look focused on the outside, their appearance is routinely on their minds. This sense most likely stems from wearing swimsuits and having a lot of your body exposed while also being around athletes of the same age. While it may seem like an insignificant problem to the outside world, body image is a major obstacle female swimmers have to face. 

Another perspective to consider on this topic is that of coaches and male swimmers. To these individuals, it really does not matter how the girls look. In their eyes, we are strong, we are athletic, and we are on the deck to compete. To coaches and male teammates, we are not seen for our bodies, we are seen for our talent.  Admiring this mindset and learning from it is something more female swimmers should try to adapt into their daily lives to stop the constant comparison. Realizing that there is a much bigger picture outside of physical appearance is vital to solving this internal conflict. 

Building good relationships and stressing the importance of welcoming team dynamics is another strategy to extinguish this issue. Knowing your teammates and respecting them gives female athletes the reminder that it does not matter what is on the outside and puts more emphasis on getting to know your teammates for what they have to offer on the inside. Comparison and body image problems might never fully go away, but being comfortable with the athletes that you encounter every day is a step in the right direction. 

The biggest way to solve the problem of physical comparison is within yourself. Giving yourself the grace and time to learn how to respect and appreciate your body is the best gift you can give yourself as a girl growing up in the culture of a sport like swimming. Being secure in yourself and your skin first is how you learn to embody those ideals and encourage others around you to have the same mentality. 

As a female swimmer who has competed in the sport for the past 11 years, my biggest advice to young girls, women, and even myself is to be confident in who you are. If you have to look yourself in the mirror before every practice and tell yourself you are strong, do it. If you have to swim in a lane with all boys because you just don’t want to face the internal battle of your body image that day, do it. If you need to take a step back to realize what’s most important, do it. Do what makes you feel comfortable and stop comparing yourself to everyone around you. You are capable, you are strong, you are an athlete, you are beautiful, you are worthy…and none of those things are reliant on how you look in a swimsuit. 

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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NZ Swimmer
NZ Swimmer
2 years ago

I agree that these comparisons are dangerous, and self-critique can undermine an adolescent (and adult!) swimmer’s confidence. However, I think this comment really needs some more thought:
‘Another perspective to consider on this topic is that of coaches and male swimmers. To these individuals, it really does not matter how the girls look. In their eyes, we are strong, we are athletic, and we are on the deck to compete. To coaches and male teammates, we are not seen for our bodies, we are seen for our talent. ‘
Unfortunately I have known and known of, more than one male coach who has criticised the bodies and weight of his teenage and adult female swimmers, and focused on body shape/size as being a barrier to improvement rather than thinking about the other complex physiological/maturation/metabolic matters that may be affecting performance and progress.

I’ve also known young female swimmers diet and exercise excessively (outside of team pool and gym sessions) to lose weight. We’ve even read about Olympians doing this, not just because of their own inner critique, but because of external pressures, often coming from coaching staff.

2 years ago
Reply to  NZ Swimmer

Thank you. I clearly enjoyed parts of this piece, and perhaps the sport has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. However, in the 26 years I spent competing in and coaching the sport, coaches were by far the most damaging to body image. I could give many many examples, but will refrain from doing so. Male counterparts were also not helpful, from name calling to mooing. I do so hope the environment has changed.

2 years ago

An important topic – one that has triggered significant psychological and physical suffering.
Deserving of a considered approach.

2 years ago

As a male swimmer body composition used to worry me when I was younger, I know that there are times when you are fit, amd times when you are super fit and my body composition reflects that that. However the culture was to pick out any scenic of fat and exploit it as a laughing point. Scary for an insecure teen.

For females body image is more of an issue because of 1. Social media and in the past more fashion magazines and industry.
2. For women it makes a huge difference to times, as to the size amd shape of hips and chest area leads to more resistance. That is brutal. Really brutal.
3. When you have a swimmer tell you I want it, I want to make it. They are doing everything right l, however one piece of the puzzle which not only makes you faster but will give you more confidence is your body composition. Nothing screams ‘I mean business’ like being super prepared and looking the part.
4. Paired with all of the other pressures, performance can be so fickle. I know that when I was fit and had low body fat, I looked the part and was signaling to my peers that I was in shape. Personally, it gave me more confidence, and that gave me better performances. As a coach you need to tread very lightly around this topic. I have had a swimmer or two ask me to help them with fat loss specifically. And I suppose that’s my strategy, ask the athlete what they think it is that they need to perform at the level they want to. This is the buy in, and should be motivated by the athlete. It has always worked and turned out to be a positive for my swimmers amd me.

The fact remains. If you are carrying extra weight, you will create more resistance, have a lower power to weight ratio and it can limit your range. Is being in a sub optimal (I mean way off not just off a target weight, which to be clear needs to be determined with results) weight going to help you perform at your best? Science would say no. Coaches see it this way. Otherwise physical appearance is irrelevant. It’s not the issue unless YOU make it the issue. That takes a mature approach.

2 years ago

Curious why/how an article with a dateline of 28 Jan 2022 has comments dated from October 2021?

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