Ian Nigh © 2011
Much has been said about the psychological impacts of media campaigns that hold women to unrealistic body image standards. Emaciated waifs are placed on pedestals by Hollywood and the fashion industry as the epitome of female beauty. The “barbie doll” look has been the only acceptable phenotype in advertising for several decades.
Understandably, women (and some men) have rebelled against this aesthetic and advocated for a more realistic ideal of the feminine, opting to celebrate beauty in strength, rather than apparent weakness. Recent advertising campaigns by leading apparel manufacturers have picked up on this, and started to question the traditional cannons by featuring more athletic women in their ads.
This is all related to a trend towards functional fitness which has gained popularity in recent years. A number of boot camp and group training regimes which exult in high levels of physical achievement have been recruiting women who have quickly filled their ranks, perhaps fed up with the bombardment of unrealistic messages regarding body image (or perhaps in an attempt to conform to the changing trend). The result is a new generation of strong and beautiful women who are proud of their muscles and highly capable of kicking butt, holding their own against your average man in traditionally male dominated feats such as taking out the trash or opening that jar of pickles.
This is generally good news, as strong is definitely healthier than skinny (and more useful in general), but are women actually freeing themselves from the unhealthy impact of unrealistic body image expectations?
Enter the Female Athlete Triad (FAT):
It is not a new phenomenon, although its prevalence and profile seem to be changing with the times. According to the Female Athlete Triad Coalition, an international consortium dedicated to prevention and awareness, it is “a syndrome of three interrelated conditions that exist on a continuum of severity, including: energy deficit related to disordered eating, menstrual disturbances or amenorrhea, bone loss and osteoporosis”.
Although more research is needed, the problem seems to be associated with a disruption in the regular menstrual cycle brought on by extremely low levels of body fat, and not enough energy supply to the body in the form of food. Although the mechanisms are unclear, it is known that this leads to reduced bone density, which is associated with increased risk of of fracture. It is not surprising that recent statistical studies have shown that female athletes are more likely to develop pressure fractures than male athletes participating in equivalent sports.
Initially, it was thought that the FAT was something that only affected high level athletes training to compete at an elite level. However, with “extreme fitness” becoming the rage, more and more women are entering the danger zone. In fact, without the aid of a team of experienced and knowledgeable coaches and nutrition advisers, your average triathlon running and olympic weightlifting housewife may be at a higher risk than an actual track and field superstar.
It seems that although the ideal female body may be evolving, the pressure to conform is as strong as ever. The fact that more women are lifting heavy weights, hitting the trails hard and learning new athletic skills is truly wonderful. But if they are not being given the information they need to keep themselves healthy, train with realistic expectations, and ensure adequate nutrition and recovery, their efforts may in fact be making them less healthy. So by all means go forth, tackle your fitness goals with intensity and joy, but make sure you are adequately informed before you do so, and next time you talk to your coach ask her or him about the FAT. If the answer is “the what?” get yourself a new trainer.
For more information, go to: FemaleAthleteTriad.org
Ian Nigh © 2011
Ian is the owner of Rock Creek CrossFit in Kensington, Md.