How to Prevent Body Image Disorders

Trusted adults can promote positive body image in many ways.

Be a positive role model:

  • Look at your own beliefs. Think about your own feelings about food and weight, being fat and being thin and the ways that you cope with stressful situations. Are you feeling good or bad about the way you look? How do your attitudes and beliefs impact athletes in your care? Strive to be a role model for positive attitudes about food, weight, and body image.
  • Have a healthy relationship with food. Eat well-balanced non-restrictive meals and snacks when you are hungry. Eat foods that you enjoy. Stop eating when you are full. Consider all food “good food” because all food contains energy and nutrients to fuel your activities. Make comments about how delicious food is and how good it makes you feel. Eat all sorts of foods without guilt, including those with fat and sugar.
  • Demonstrate a positive self-image. Show that you accept yourself and your natural body size. Receive compliments with a gracious “thank-you”. Think about the messages that you send yourself about your own body. Comment on your positive attributes when you look at and think of yourself.
  • Express your feelings. Say what you mean. Talk about how you feel. Model ways to deal with difficult emotions (stress, anxiety, anger, and fear) in ways that are beneficial to your health.
  • Feed emotions by expressing and dealing with them in positive ways; feed hunger with food.
  • Promote participation in sport for fun, personal development, and a love of movement rather than weight control or winning.
  • Affirm yourself and those around you. Show that you believe the value of a person comes from within. Take any opportunity to compliment attitudes, actions, and effort in your athletes, rather than appearance. Encourage the person you are complimenting to keep eye contact and say thank you.
  • Spend time with athletes outside of sport. Help athletes gain a sense of themselves outside of sport by building success and mastery in other areas of life. Let them know how important they are to you by sharing stories, making eye contact, playing, learning, and having meals together.

Inform yourself about body image:

  • Know the warning signs and detection of disordered eating.
  • Be knowledgeable about the Female Athlete Triad. One of the most important roles a trusted adult can play in the prevention of injury and ill health among female athletes is to be aware of the Female Athlete Triad. As a key influencer, you play a strong role in knowing the menstrual cycle and food intake (when appropriate) of your athletes. Both of these conditions are instrumental in detecting and preventing the Female Athlete Triad.
  • Understand that sports with weight restrictions leave athletes at greater risk of developing disordered eating.
  • Don’t be biased against gender. Men do have eating disorders and body image disorders. Become aware of the warning signs specific to males Become aware of the help resources available for male athletes and encourage men to use them.
  • Know what resources and professionals are available. You will need support dealing with these issues. Find out who is working with athletes experiencing disordered eating in your community. Refer your athlete to them for help, guidance and assessment making sure you don’t gender stereotype. Men have eating disorders too. Learn what you can about disordered eating, weight preoccupation and body image issues for athletes but do not take on the role of counselor or therapist. Begin a list of professionals who are qualified to help athletes with disordered eating issues.
  • Read the 10 BodySense Basics and learn more about what you can do.

Be sensitive to outside factors:

  • Be aware of the impact of many changes at one time. Transitions (like changing schools, moving, and divorce) are stressful, especially for an athlete who is also experiencing the changes of adolescence. Listen for any changes that an athlete may be experiencing and offer support during times of transition.
  • Watch for disordered eating attitudes and behaviours ‘spreading’ among other athletes. If an athlete who is naturally thin is performing well, others may believe they need to lose weight to do well. Be aware that competitive thinness may be part of your sport environment.
  • Think of disordered eating as a coping mechanism. Consider and respect that the reason an athlete is using food to cope is because there are deeper underlying issues and concerns. Help the athlete find healthy coping mechanisms and lead them to a professional for guidance. Praise the athlete for taking action and trying to cope with difficulties.
  • Consider the athlete’s investment in sport. Is sport the positive and healthful place it can be? Are others’ expectations making it difficult for the athlete?

Work with athletes to develop a safe sport environment:

  • Avoid taking an athlete’s body measurements. Weighing (especially weight groups), body composition tests, body fat calculations, strength-to-weight ratios, and similar measurements can have an adverse effect on athletes. They make athletes anxious about their physical size and weight and increase the risk of disrupting their eating habits. Given the lack of proof that these tests can be associated with performance benefits, it is strongly recommended to avoid relying on physical measurements.
  • Set a team standard that teasing and discussions promoting body ‘ideals’ will not be tolerated.
  • Listen to athletes and validate their feelings
  • Develop a "language of self". Have athleted collect words and attributes that describe personal qualities. These words can be written on sticky notes and posted on the walls of a bedroom room, or written on a poster or a mirror. Have the athlete read them every day. Compliment with new attribute words like "you are so creative".
  • Teach athletes to think critically about culture. Look at the meanings and expectations behind messages that bombard us on television, in exercise magazines, and in movies. Comment on the images that are unrealistic and be an activist if you find something offensive. For example, if you feel uncomfortable about one body size and shape being celebrated in your sport, invite a group discussion about it and brainstorm ways to make change.

Intervene if necessary:

Learn how to deal with body image disorders