Across the world, different countries hold different perceptions of what is beautiful and physically aesthetically pleasing, forming body standards for both men and women. In the United States, and other Western cultures, a thin body is seen as ‘attractive.’ According to scientists von Ranson and Wallace in 2014, this can contribute to women “being overly concerned about [their] body and internalizing the thin body.”
According to evolutionary psychology and biology, animals with slimmer and more muscular bodies were seen as a more efficient mating choice in many species. Today, though, how do these strongly held cultural values translate into the sports world, where bodies function for performance rather than aesthetic appeal? Mary Cain, a female athlete known for her talent in track and field, came in 1st place for the World Junior Championships in 2014 and 1st in the USA outdoor track and field championship in 2014. She was only 17 years old at the time — the youngest to achieve these titles.
The New York Times recently published an opinion article and video titled “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” written by Mary Cain herself. Cain recalls her negative experiences with Nike’s Oregon Project — a group created by Nike that focuses on long distance running and athletic training. Cain in the Times article was trained by what she calls “the world’s most famous track coach,” Alberto Salazar. Wanting to become the fastest runner with the help of Nike and Salazer, Cain stated that she was “emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”
The first problem with the Nike staff in Oregon was that they were predominantly male trainers and coaches. Not only was Cain being trained by males, she was told by them that in order to be a better runner and perform at higher levels, she needed to become thinner. Ultimately, not having a female perspective was a crucial element not to be overlooked in Cain’s mistreatment.
Deeply unethical, Salazar would weigh Cain in front of teammates and shame her if she didn’t meet the goal weight he had set for her. This athletic culture of shaming others, or making a certain weight class, is psychologically harmful to athletes, particularly if one lives in a culture that values and emphasizes a lower weight.
If society is telling you that being thinner is important in order to be attractive, and your coach is telling you to become thinner in order to run faster and better, why wouldn’t you become obsessed with losing weight?
Female athletes have the dual pressure of society’s slim definition of beauty and the athletic world’s definition of performance weight. Salazar was able to tie these two worlds together, psychologically manipulating Cain into believing that the real reason she needed to lose weight was a ‘performance’ matter, rather than his own preference.
Also, in this trifecta of forces, athletes are more likely to have competitive and obsessive tendencies because of the strict routine and structure of their trainings. Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist and former national skater, commented on this phenomenon from which depression can naturally result, due to DNA as well as an athlete’s habits and practices that feed the athlete’s journey to achieve excellence.
Cain, as a result of her coach’s incessant comments on her weight and needing to lose more and more, became depressed, started self harming, and had suicidal thoughts. When Cain was clearly in distress, Salazar seemed to not care.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, this journey can include very unhealthy methods in order to perform better. Thus, an individual surrounded by a toxic and harmful environment, that already has these tendencies, is the perfect storm for this mental degradation to happen.
Other athletes have responded to Cain’s article and spoken out about their own struggles with Salazar and the sport culture itself. Amy Yoder Begley, another long distance runner and two time Olympian champion, also attested to Salazar’s making destructive comments about her body. In an article by The New York Times, Begley recalled Salazar threatening to kick her off the team for having “the biggest butt on the start line.”
We at The Griffin wonder if this entire situation would have turned out differently or been corrected earlier, had Cain had a female mentor or coach. Also, we believe that Nike, as one of the most influential sports companies, should address and help change this toxic system of body shaming in sports culture by allowing female athletes to have more support from other women. The ball is in your court Nike.