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Why Do Some Athletes Struggle with Body Image?

Body image issues in athletes can come from a wide variety of sources: certain sports value specific weights and body types more than others, athletes will deal with puberty in different ways, and some student athletes struggle with control in other areas of their lives, which can lead to body image issues and unhealthy behaviors around food and exercise.

There isn’t one specific type of young athlete who’s at risk. Anyone can struggle with body image issues, and it’s important for parents and coaches to understand the different ways that those issues can be triggered. Here, Melissa Streno, a clinical psychologist who specializes in athletic performance and its intersection with disordered eating and body image issues, explains what might make certain types of athletes more prone to dealing with destructive body image issues. She also offers tips on how you can help.

Girls have higher risk

"Historically, in terms of gender, I think we would we have seen higher numbers of females with the experience of disordered eating, eating disorders, and body image concerns and thoughts,” says Streno. For some perspective, roughly 80 percent of women in the U.S. reportedly are unhappy with the way they look, and 70 percent of ‘normal weight’ women report that they want to be thinner. Even between the ages of three and six years old, half of girls worry about ‘being fat.’

How to help: Establish an open-door, judgement-free policy as soon as possible with your team or child so they know you’re available to discuss problems. For coaches, pay close attention to behaviors around eating and watch for signs of bullying. You can also consider holding regular team-wide check-ins where you discuss issues like body image, either as a group or with the help of an expert like Streno.

But boys are not immune

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