England goalkeeper Mary Earps and Birmingham City’s Siobhan Wilson open up about the pressures of being a woman athlete, and how they learned to feel comfortable in their bodies
Body image is something that many of us spend our lifetimes grappling with, and when you’re an athlete it can often add a complex layer to the already about-to-burst can of worms. Sports and movement allow our bodies to become the doer, taking us further from being the inanimate, disempowered subject that our image-obsessed culture can often make us feel like. But it’s a double-edged sword, with sports making us even more aware of our body’s limits and hyper-focused on its function and appearance. When you’re a professional football star this is further intensified, as self-scrutiny is magnified by the public eye, and sometimes even the coaching team around you.
In June last year, former England midfielder Fara Williams opened up about the culture of fat shaming and the resultant eating disorders at national training camps and in Women’s Super League clubs. “I felt as if I couldn’t eat certain foods because I was being watched,” she said, describing how players would be tested and put into “fat club” if they were not under a certain fat percentage. On the other hand, Lioness captain and Arsenal defender Leah Williamson has shared how football “saved” her from developing body image issues as a teen.
“Female athletes, in general, have better body perceptions and higher body satisfaction than non-athletes,” a 2021 study by the University of Grenada looking into these dual aspects of being a female athlete found. However, “sportswomen, in addition to the strict societal canons of feminine beauty, also experience specific body-focused pressures due to the sport they practise”. Last year, research by Loughborough University found that 36 per cent of England’s top female players displayed eating disorders symptoms.
“I think [body image] is a really important topic”, says Mary Earps, goalkeeper for Manchester United and the England national team who won the UEFA Women’s Euros last year. “Most people I know have had a journey with body image, all women in general. But I think as an athlete, it’s so intense. Because you know, especially now we’ve won the Euros, you’re going on the front of magazines… you’re open to critique from the masses. Also, with the growth of social media, I think there’s more pressure than ever before to look a certain way, which portrays this unrealistic version of what society views to be attractive.”
Away from the glare of the public eye, there’s also a focus on nutrition and body composition. The men’s game is similar, says Earps, although it is less publicly spoken about. “In the men’s game, players have been fined if they come in after preseason and their skinfold measurements [a body fat indicator] have gone up. In the women’s game, there are things that have happened that are similar to that, but not in the same capacity because we don’t earn anything like [what they do]. But there is a definite pressure to look a certain way.”
The way we experience our bodies will always relate to both our comfort in a space, as well as how much we’re being included in it. With women’s football having only recently begun to be taken seriously as a professional sport (it was banned from 1921 and 1971), for years women were playing in kits designed for men that did not fit them or their bodies. It’s something that continues to this day.
“I think one of the main differences I’ve seen over the past couple of seasons is that the clubs have started to do women’s-fit kits, which has helped massively,” says Siobhan Wilson, defender for Birmingham City. “It’s only recently that I’ve started wearing women’s-fit kits, and it just makes you feel a lot more comfortable in your own skin. I remember having to wear men’s shorts and having to roll them up about five times because they’re too big.” Last season, when Wilson was playing for Crystal Palace, she says they only had the women’s fit for the away kit. “Obviously we were going to wear the home one a lot more. I think the new kits have just helped women in general just feel a lot more confident playing football.”
On the question of how we define our image in sport, Earps describes a feeling of conflict. “Often looking at yourself as a woman and feeling like a human being, and then looking at yourself as an athlete, they don’t mix very well. It’s like oil and water. Sometimes you can’t see both, you just have to accept that there’s going to be some things that you can’t do.”
As the University of Grenada’s study describes, this is the paradox of the female athlete. “Female athletes in sports such as soccer navigate two opposed realities in their day-to-day lives, one in which their bodies are perceived as too large and muscular for the sociocultural standards of female beauty,” the study states “and another one in which their bodies are not cultivated or powerful enough and could be even more big and muscular for performance enhancement.”
“Of course,” Earps says, “we all look in the mirror and wish we could change some things. But I don't believe in seeking that perfection. I think that’s what we should be encouraging people to try to find, is that security and happiness within themselves. (..) I just try to celebrate the fact that my body can do incredible things and I try to set an example for young girls watching me. I think what we should be encouraging people to try and find is that security and happiness within themselves that they're not desperately trying to change things all the time, rather than trying to fit into what society says we should look like.”