Body Image, Health and Wellness in Adolescent Equestrians – Reader Response

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Photo by Lauren Mauldin

BY KIRBY L. WYCOFF, PSY.D., NCSP

The May 22, 2018 article by Rennie Dyball entitled “Riders, Body Image and ‘The Look” struck a chord with many in the equestrian world. Ms. Dyball bravely and candidly shared her thoughts and personal experiences around the thin ideal and body shaming in equine sports. She shared a personal experience during a recent tack store visit when a well-intended clerk called her “curvy” and suggested a longer jacket to cover her rear end. Like many other readers,  I experienced a whole host of feelings as I read the article. I was proud (virtual fist pump) to see the author address the issue of body image and weight head on and at the same time, supremely annoyed at the clerk who engaged in body-shaming in a tack store, likely without even realizing it. The message in the article was one of empowerment and positivity with a clear call to action on the part of the equestrian community.

As a mental health professional who spends much of my time working with young people and their families, I want to build on this call to action. Popular parenting books were referenced in the article, noting “How do you talk to your daughter about the way her body looks? You don’t.” To this I say, “Yes you DO!” Certainly, you don’t haphazardly and insensitively comment on young women (or young men’s) physical appearance, weight, or body. However, we do want to engage in open and authentic dialogue with young people where we make it safe to talk about things like body image, self-esteem, and healthy living. The best prevention for  a whole host of negative outcomes in adolescence and beyond is a relationship with a caring adult with whom the young person can talk openly. This includes talking about weight, body image and being “curvy” in a sport that emphasizes the “thin look.”

So, what is body image? Essentially, body image refers to the way that an individual sees and feels about their body. The way one views their own body can be influenced by both internal feelings and external comments, behaviors and reactions of those around them. As many as 72% of women in the United States report some level of body dissatisfaction. The idealization of “thinness” is common, particularly in cultures where thinness is affiliated with happiness, beauty, success, popularity and youth- and being heavy is associated with laziness and lack of control. For individuals who don’t fit into this thin ideal, there is often stigmatization and body shaming.

Negative body-image and disordered eating are common in female athletes. Disordered eating is characterized by abnormal eating behaviors, caloric restriction, distorted thinking around food, excessive exercise, preoccupation with food, low self-esteem, drastic weight changes, and overall body shape dissatisfaction. This can also include self-objectification and perfectionism as well, two things that may be particularly relevant in some equine sports. Over 1/3 of NCAA Division 1 female athletes have attitudes and symptoms that place them at a risk of developing a clinically significant eating disorder, many of which appear to be performance-related. This is often connected to a belief that a reduction in weight will improve performance. Of course, there is no reason why we can’t highlight strength, balance, and conditioning for both the human and equine athlete in equine sports. But doing so to an extreme level or focusing solely on how things look rather than how they function does young people a disservice.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

Young women in judged sports are at an increased risk for eating disorders compared to young women participating in referred sport. In addition to increased risks for depression and anxiety, these young women may be at risk of experiencing the “Female Triad” which includes disordered eating, amenorrhea (an unexpected absence of menstruation) and osteoporosis (decreased bone density). Of great relevance to the world of equestrian sport is that these physical changes in the body can increase women’s risk by as much as 8x for serious musculoskeletal injury. Anyone that has ever swung a leg over the back of a horse knows that one of the inherent risks of getting on is falling off!

Despite these risks, playing sports can have a whole host of positive impacts on young people. This may include improved physical fitness, increased opportunity for building relationships with peers and the confidence that comes from mastery and teamwork. Further, the human-animal relationship can create powerful opportunities for learning empathy, teamwork and connectivity, particularly if the young person is involved in the actual care and well-being of his or her own horse. The American Heart Association reports that one in three children and teens in the US are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity now outranks drug abuse and smoking as the #1 health concern reported by parents in the United States. There is no doubt that sports in general and equestrian sports in particular can play a powerful role in the development of healthy, competent and resilient young people.

But how do we take a good thing and make sure it doesn’t become a bad thing? Where is the balance? How do we strike the right chord of body positivity and empowerment, while also focusing on healthy lifestyles? Coaches, parents and safe adults are one of the most critical ingredients we have in promoting health and wellness in young people. This doesn’t mean having one “big talk” about body image and weight. Instead focus on reflective listening and nonjudgmental communication over time.  Show an interest your child’s worldview and be willing to talk about and explore feelings. Most importantly, make sure you are not distracted and are emotionally available for connection. Take stock of your own baggage around weight, body image and self-esteem. With these in mind, we can work on building strong relationships with young people over time, that can support and contain tricky conversations like those about body image.

Additional Tips: Instead of talking about weight and sizes, try to focus on overall health, strength and wellness. Focus on function, not form. This focus on form and aesthetic happens all too often in a culture obsessed with beauty, youth and the sexualized objectification of women. The objectification of young women, whose sexuality and identity are still in development, is even more damaging. Instead of complimenting physical appearance and attributes (“Wow, you look great in those new britches. They make your leg look long and lean. I think this judge will really like your look” or “You look great, have you lost weight?”) try complimenting accomplishments and strengths (“I am so proud of how you work on connecting with your horse and finding rhythm in the corners” or “I really appreciate how your balance has improved by riding without stirrups. I notice you look more secure in the saddle. How does it feel for you?”)  In addition to building safe relationships, the second most important thing that adults can do is model healthy attitudes about body image and healthy living.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

The National Eating Disorders Association offers the following tips for how to model healthy attitudes around body image, eating, food and overall wellness:

  • Set a positive example of a healthy and balanced relationship with food.
  • Help children accept and enjoy their bodies and encourage physical activity.
  • Devote yourself to raising non-sex-stereotyped children by modeling and living gender equality
  • Build self-esteem
  • Encourage children to talk openly and honestly and really listen to them.
  • Encourage critical thinking
  • Develop a value system based on internal values
  • Teach children about good relationships and how to deal with difficulties when they arise.
  • Be aware of some of the warning signs of eating disorders.

Talking often and openly is the key to building strong relationships that empower young people to manage the inevitable challenges of the adolescent landscape in the equestrian world and beyond.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, help is available. Please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at: 1-800-931-2237. This confidential helpful is available Monday-Thursday 9AM – 9PM and Friday 9AM-5PM, EST.  The National Eating Disorders Association is a great resource for exploring these topics further. They have an excellent NEDA Coaches Toolkit that may be useful to parents, coaches, judges and others in the equestrian world.

About the Author: Dr. Kirby L. Wycoff is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and Assistant Professor of School Psychology. When she is not teaching graduate students, she is working directly with children, adolescents and their families. Her clinical work and research focuses on stress, anxiety and trauma in young people. She is also a Master of Public Health Candidate at Dartmouth College and a LEAH (Leadership, Education and Adolescent Health) Fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is an avid equestrian and former Division I Athlete.

 

References (Note, references are directly hyperlinked within the article. Listed here as well).

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