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Teasing, self-objectification, and body image for adolescent athletes

By Steph Anderson

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Growing up, I loved being active: climbing trees, riding bikes, building obstacle courses, you name it. If it involved dirt, even better. I loved testing my body’s limits, not to mention my parents’ nerves (but that’s another story). Once I was old enough to play an organized sport – basketball in particular – I discovered my passion for being a part of a team. On the court, I loved the challenge: Could I run faster? Jump higher? Make a three-point shot? Dish out the perfect assist? Although the passing genius Steph Curry wasn’t around yet, I like to believe that our shared namesake destined me to become a point guard. That, and I’m pretty short…

Although I played on the basketball team in middle school, high school was where it was at, where the real competition happened. Unlike many areas in the US, where girls’ sports aren’t considered as good or important as boys’ sports, where I grew up – in southeastern Michigan – girls’ basketball was BIG. So big that a section of the local newspaper was dedicated to covering the latest action of our games. Hundreds of people – students, community members, parents – would come to watch our games. It was the best.

And then during a game early in my freshman year I heard it: “Hey, piggy! Piggy!!” A group of boys from a rival school taunted me: “Have some more Cheetos piggy!” They harassed me not only at this one game, but also in several games to come.

I’m not going to pretend that before this hackling I had never been self-conscious about my body. Puberty already feels like a time of bodily betrayal, and like so many other girls, nothing ever seemed quite right. My calves were too big; my thighs rubbed; my lady six-pack was nowhere to be found.

But “piggy” hit deeper.

See, I was the “fat” kid growing up (read: I was kinda cubby), cursed with what other kids decided were “chipmunk cheeks.” So being called “piggy” in high school wasn’t necessarily anything new. But, at age 14, I had hoped to escape my chipmunk days. . I was devastated, not to mention humiliated, to learn that my body still invited critique. I wondered to myself, If these boys think this, surely others do too? I loved playing, but the thought of continual public shaming paralyzed me.

Thinking back on this experience makes me wonder how it is today. How do girls feel about their bodies while playing sports? Are they teased, and if so, by whom? How does teasing affect them?

Researchers, Slater and Tiggemann[1] had similar questions. They wanted to know if being teased about how we do physical activities relates to the types of sports we choose and how we feel about ourselves. They also wanted to know if experiences of teasing carry different consequences for boys than for girls.

To find out, they asked 332 girls and 382 boys (ages 12-16) to answer questions about the types of sports and physical activities they do and if they’ve been teased while doing them. They also asked questions about how they feel about their bodies and if they’ve ever had body image concerns.  

What did they find?

First, they found that although a large percentage of both girls (66%) and boys (78%) participated in an organized sport, girls were more likely to be teased while playing. For example, girls were more likely to be laughed at because of how they looked or made fun of for not being coordinated (think: “you throw like a girl!”). Girls were also more likely to be stared at or called names related to their weight or size than boys were (much like those boys called me “piggy”).

What effects does being teased have, you might ask? Well, perhaps not surprisingly, for both girls and boys, the more they were teased, the more likely they were to feel ashamed of their bodies or to think about their bodies as objects (self-objectify). This rings true to my experience big time. For me, being called “piggy” made me self-conscious about how I looked –so much so, that I used to stare at myself in the mirror in uniform thinking about how I probably looked playing basketball.

But unlike my experience, girls in this study reported that both boys and girls teased them. So they weren’t just being made fun of by people watching them, they were also made fun of by girls who were playing alongside them – their teammates.

Once girls reach puberty they are less likely to remain physically active.[2] Although we don’t yet understand all of the reasons why, being made fun of for how they exercise, criticized about their weight or bodies, or other types of taunting may help explain why girls withdraw or quit. It seems that even though playing sports is good for us in lots of ways,[3] it is not always a “safe space.”

Despite being bullied – or perhaps to spite those who bullied me – I remain active, and I still play basketball. Being taunted didn’t make me quit, but it certainly made it harder to concentrate and to love my body. We all know what they say about sticks and stones, but I know words can hurt, especially when they come from our peers. So instead of tearing each other down, let’s help one another to feel the power of our bodies when we put them in motion.

[1] Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2011). Gender differences in adolescent sport participation, teasing, self-objectification and body image concerns. Journal of Adolescence34(3), 455-463.

[2] Caspersen, C. J., Pereira, M. A., & Curran, K. M. (2000). Changes in physical activity patterns in the United States, by sex and cross-sectional age. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, (32), 1601-9.

[3] Fox, K. R. (2000). The effects of exercise on self-perceptions and self-esteem. In S. J. H. Biddle, K. R. Fox, & S. H. Boutcher (Eds.), Physical activity and psychological well-being (pp. 88-117). London: Routledge.

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