Body Shaming Dressed Up as a Fitness Goal Is Still Body Shaming

The University of Oregon is known for its track and field program. The women’s team has won two national titles since Robert Johnson took the helm of the program in 2012, and the university’s athletic programs enjoy significant financial support from Nike (whose co-founder Phil Knight is an alumnus). Hayward Field, the home of the Oregon Ducks’ track, hosted the Olympic Trials in 2021 and will be the location of the World Athletics Championships in 2022.

But in late October, the Oregon women’s track and field team made headlines for an entirely different reason: Six athletes had left the team citing fears that the program’s approach to their weight and body fat percentages put them at risk for eating disorders.

In women’s sports, discussions of weight is nothing new, and has led to life-threatening behavior. Just to name a few examples: In 1988, a judge at an international competition reportedly told the American gymnast Christy Henrich that she was too fat, and her coach, Al Fong, allegedly called her “Pillsbury Dough Boy.” (The Los Angeles Times reported that Fong denied these accusations.) Henrich, who competed for the United States at the World Championships in 1989 and was a rising star in the sport, developed anorexia and bulimia, and died at the age of 22 from complications related to her eating disorders. Other prominent athletes, like the Russian Olympic champion figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya, who left skating in 2017, have retired from their sports due to disordered eating.

Today, in an era in which we are far more aware of the deadly impact of eating disorders, it’s more difficult to get away with using language as direct and cruel as Fong allegedly did. But that is not to say that the body shaming and unrelenting pressure on women athletes to attain unnaturally thin physiques have disappeared. Far from it.

The demand has largely gone undercover. “Weight loss” is now “fat loss” or “getting lean.” Women are told that of course the point is not to become incredibly thin but to get “fit.” In practice, they are one and the same.

This appears to have been the case at Oregon, where the pressure on women to lose weight — or, rather, body fat — was cast as key to helping their performance. The body-shaming that allegedly took place at Oregon happened under a veil of science.

As reported by The Oregonian, the women who left the team told reporters that they had experienced shaming over their body fat metrics, with one athlete alleging that she was told to meet specific body fat percentage requirements or risk losing opportunities to compete. Those body fat percentages were based on the athletes’ DEXA scans, a form of body composition imaging that calculates bone density, body fat and muscle mass. One athlete said that the DEXA scans became harbingers of doom. “Whenever I would eat a cookie, I would feel so guilty. I would be like ‘Wow, it’s going to make my next DEXA scan bad. I’m going to get in trouble.’”

Johnson told The Oregonian that the use of those scans and body fat percentages meant that his judgments of athletes’ weights weren’t based on appearances but on data. “When we get the numbers from our DEXA scans, we have an Excel spreadsheet that we can plug the numbers into, hit a button and it gives us a starting value for a training program,” he said. He added, “Track is nothing but numbers. A good mathematician probably could be a good track coach.” And he explained that the DEXA scans were helpful for that “nothing but numbers” approach. “That’s one thing the DEXA scan helps us do,” he told The Oregonian. “It takes our personal opinions out of it.”

But while track might be about numbers, people and their bodies definitely aren’t. Johnson’s use of DEXA scans in this manner is problematic in two ways. First, the recommendations for women athletes were concerning at best and deeply harmful at worst. And second, the “nothing but numbers” approach attempts to paper over the fact that in women’s sports, the pursuit of performance and the pursuit of an aesthetic ideal are almost impossible to separate.

The body fat percentages that the athletes were told to reach, according to The Oregonian, were often dangerously low. According to the American Council on Exercise, a healthy range for female athletes’ body fat percentage is 14 to 20 percent. One woman said that when her DEXA scan showed her body fat percentage to be 16 percent, a nutritionist told her to consider lowering it to 13 percent. Another athlete was told that she would not be permitted to compete in away meets until her body fat percentage was under 12 percent. Four of the athletes interviewed said that team members who didn’t hit the body fat percentage marker required of them by coaches frequently had to do additional cross training.

In a statement, Jimmy Stanton, a senior associate athletic director at Oregon, told me that DEXA scans are “optional for student-athletes, and individual results are not to be shared with coaches.” He added that Johnson said that the allegations of body fat metric benchmarks are “not accurate.”

Scientists who study runners have generally found that in longer-distance events, athletes who maintain a lower body weight and body fat percentage may perform more efficiently. But this research must be balanced with other considerations. In a sport as physically demanding as distance running, appropriate body fat levels are critical to staying healthy and even to having enough energy to compete effectively, as well as safely.

I spoke to Meghann Featherstun, a registered dietitian who works with endurance athletes, and I asked her if such low body fat percentages would ever be appropriate for women competing in endurance sports. In an email, she wrote “NO,” in all caps, echoing the American Council on Exercise standards and noting that women athletes need to have a certain percentage of body fat “to maintain normal hormonal function, which, as we know, cascades into all aspects of health — including bone health.”

Extremely low body fat in women can result in amenorrhea, or lost menstrual periods, which can have serious consequences for their bone density, fertility and general health. In fact, the athlete whose DEXA scan showed she was at 16 percent body fat told The Oregonian that she had not had her period for more than a year — a fact the nutritionist was aware of, she said.

Moreover, Featherstun told me, there’s no reason an extremely low body fat percentage would necessarily impart better performance for every single athlete, as some runners may perform better at a slightly higher body fat percentage than others. She added that an excessive focus on body fat percentages could actually contribute to worse performance, as athletes attempted to diet in order to hit their “goal” percentage. “A well-fueled runner is a faster runner. If runners are creating an energy deficit, leading to low energy availability, their performance will suffer.”

And despite the purported focus on “data,” the Oregon athletes’ appearances did not go unnoticed. One woman reported that during a workout her freshman year, Johnson asked her if she was on birth control because, he said, “Well, I noticed your hips have gotten wider, and that comes along with that kind of stuff.” While Johnson did not respond specifically to this allegation, he told the paper that if he asked an athlete about birth control, it would have been only to suggest she consult UO physicians about using one that had no weight-gain side effect.

Not that every coach is subtle. In a lawsuit filed last month, distance athlete Mary Cain, who shared her story in an Op-Doc for The New York Times in 2019, accused her former coach Alberto Salazar of telling her she was “too fat and that her breasts and bottom were too big.” Other former athletes with the now-defunct Oregon Project, a Nike-funded elite training group led by Salazar, said they received similar comments from coaches.

I’ve been thinking about the Oregon revelations nearly constantly since I read about them in late October. As a novice runner with a deep interest in sports and fitness — and a woman who exists in America, and thus a woman with some (OK, many) thoughts and feelings about how I look — this all feels familiar. I am constantly under a barrage of Instagram posts and magazine covers that urge me toward strength and performance goals while simultaneously implying that maybe if I meet those goals I’ll also meet an aesthetic goal, too. And maybe that aesthetic goal is more important.

Sure, Women’s Health magazine may have promised in 2016 that it would stop using terms and phrases like “bikini body” and “drop two sizes” on its covers because, to quote the magazine’s editor, “we’d rather focus on the greater benefits of getting a strong-as-hell core,” like being able to carry your kids up the stairs. But the October 2021 cover of the magazine encourages readers to “Change Your Body” and get “Sculpted Abs,” neither of which has anything to do with performance or carrying anyone up stairs.

A DEXA scan doesn’t know how fast the athletes at Oregon are, or how high they can jump. Maybe some of the athletes at Oregon would run five seconds faster with a body fat percentage that was three percentage points higher. As Featherstun told me, “There is so much more to running performance than weight and body composition.” There’s so much more to everything.

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