“Fat Doesn’t Fly”: Inside the Culture of Body Shaming in Figure Skating

Female athletes competing in aesthetic sports, such as figure skating, experience so much body shaming it’s the equivalent of emotional abuse, according to a recent University of Toronto study. This isn’t news—but Skate Canada and individual coaches are finally trying to change the culture.

“Fat doesn’t fly.”

Tara McDougall, a former competitive figure skater who has been coaching young skaters since 1992, remembers hearing a high-level American skating coach casually drop this statement. It was during his presentation at a seminar for competitive skaters about 12 years ago and he clearly thought nothing of making this sort of body-shaming comment to a “packed room of skaters, coaches and parents,” she says. Worse, “some parents and skaters accepted that as something that needed to be addressed.”

It was a startling throwback to her own days as a competitive skater in the ’80s. She didn’t experience the overt body shaming that many young skaters did, but the attitude that thinner was better was hard to avoid.

“I had more of an athletic physique, so while there was no direct pressure to be thinner, you felt it,” she says. “What surrounded me was subtle. I often competed against very slim, petite teenage girls. Now I appreciate and love having a fit body, but back then it felt like they had the advantage, as they were ‘pretty’ and had nice lines on the ice. You felt that those with slimmer bodies were rewarded by the slimmest of margins.”

That’s entirely possible. Figure skating is an aesthetic sport; as in gymnastics and diving, judges for these types of sports evaluate an athlete’s performance based on their appearance and artistry as well as their technical skill, which means preconceived notions of what is “pretty” can skew the results. According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, “these sports are [also] considered lean sports due to the pervasive belief that a lower body weight results in more favorable judging.”

That’s why it’s common for coaches to tell their athletes they’re “too heavy” to perform the jumps that yield the highest scores during competitions, or to demand they follow restrictive diets. Rinkside conversations between parents might revolve around skaters’ body measurements, and skaters themselves regularly compare their bodies to their peers’.McDougall remembers her competitive program instituting weigh-ins, though the parents soon put a stop to that. In fact, she considers herself lucky to have been surrounded by supportive coaches, friends and family who encouraged her to use her strengths to her advantage. “I skated in more of a dramatic fashion and got really into the music, which I learned was also appreciated,” she says. “I was a shyer skater, but my choreographer Kevin Cottam saw my potential. [And my] scores, friends, other skaters’ parents and strangers also expressed this.Even when the jumps didn’t work, they still enjoyed watching me skate.”

She aims to be just as supportive in her own coaching. Now a national-level skating coach at Minto Skating Club and personal fitness trainer at Rideau Sports Centre in Ottawa, she believes it’s important to treat skaters sensitively—especially as they enter puberty.

“Body image always comes into play. Young girls experience a lot of changes in their bodies and often that can bring struggles with skating. It is important to have patience and help them to understand what is happening and that they will adapt,” she says. “I never talk about body weight. It is important to simply be fit for one’s natural design.”

Unfortunately, McDougall’s experience as a skater was all too rare—and her style of coaching, while far more common now, hasn’t totally replaced the previous approaches. In fact, when it comes to body image, not enough has changed in organized sports in general. This is particularly true in the aesthetic sports, like figure skating, which require technical skill and artistry as much as power, speed, endurance and flexibility. Coaches, members of an athlete’s team, judges, parents and other adults often still focus on weight and appearance, creating a body shaming culture in the name of elite performance. This focus has serious, long-term effects on female athletes’ mental and physical health—and it creates a system that is long overdue for change.

According to a study of 850 female high school athletes, which was published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy in 2011, disordered eating was more prevalent among aesthetic athletes than those who played other types of sports. What’s more, young female athletes who reported disordered eating were more likely to experience injuries than those who reported healthy eating behaviours—and aesthetic athletes in particular had the highest percentage of self-reported injuries, at 78 percent. A 2021 study by University of Toronto researchers in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education concluded that female athletes in aesthetic sports experience degrading comments and other forms of body shaming that are equal to emotional abuse and can cause long-lasting harm.

“It seems like it doesn’t matter which particular aesthetic sport and which era, there always seems to be a focus on your body. It’s [not just] how well you can perform but how good it looks,” says lead author Erin Willson, a PhD candidate at U of T and a former Olympic synchronized swimmer.

Willson’s study focused on the experiences of eight retired athletes, five of them former Olympians. All eight reported experiencing negative comments, body monitoring and extreme food and water restrictions throughout their careers, which led to eating disorders, poor performance and decreased enjoyment in their sport. One athlete said her coach put her on “ridiculous” diets, including instructing her to eat only watermelon on the weekends. Most talked about constant surveillance, whether that was “being weighed all the time, having your weight called out, or even seeing your teammates having their bodies picked apart or their weight determining their spot on the team,” Willson says. All of the athletes in the study reported experiencing symptoms that resembled those of post-traumatic stress disorder; they all had to seek out counselling or other mental health care.

This sounds very familiar to former Olympian Elizabeth Manley. Once considered “Canada’s sweetheart,” Manley won more than 50 national and international medals, including a silver at the 1988 World Figure Skating Championships in Budapest and a silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary. She was also one of the first Canadian athletes to publicly address her mental health—in 1983, when she was just 18, she was dealing with severe anxiety and depression. She lost all her hair, gained 50 pounds of water weight and began experiencing suicidal ideation. She had to withdraw from training, and she thought her life was over. Looking back, she says that her mental health struggles weren’t only about body image, but they did play a role.

“I’m only four foot, 11 and a half inches, and I’m very muscular,” she says. “I was constantly criticized and harassed about my weight.”

She was eventually able to compete again thanks to the help of Terry Orlick, a world-renowned sports psychologist. But the comments about her weight never stopped.

“I would go to a competition, and I would be in really good shape. And commentators or media would make a point of saying, ‘She’s lost a tremendous amount of weight. She looks great.’ And as an athlete, you go, ‘Why can’t you just focus on my triple lutz? Why can’t you focus on the great skate?’”

Even after she retired from competing and embarked on a pro career, she was haunted by questions about her body.

“[Thinking about my] weight is a forever thing. I think it was embedded in my mind as an athlete,” she says, explaining that when she signed a contract to join the Ice Capades, the now-defunct touring theatrical ice skating show, she had to commit to maintaining a particular weight—and there were weekly weigh-ins to ensure she, and all the other athletes on the roster, did. Even later on, “there have been situations in my pro career where I was terrified to go into an event because I had an extra five pounds on me,” she says. “I had people who wanted to hire me for something, but through the grapevine would contact someone else and say, ‘How’s her weight?’ You start to feel afraid to be seen and you wonder what people were going to say.”

Though their careers were separated by decades, former competitive skater Meagan Duhamel’s experiences echo Manley’s. During Duhamel’s competitive career, she won seven Canadian national titles (every year between 2012 and 2018), two world titles (in 2015 and 2016) and three Olympic medals (silver in 2014 and gold and bronze in 2018). But even in the face of these massive accomplishments, she was the target of body shaming.

“I was a very athletic skater and had a stocky muscular body. I was always aware that I didn’t look like other figure skaters,” she says. “I remember my coach taking me to the gym with him when I was 14 years old. He never said I was fat or needed to lose weight, but he’d take me with him and I’d run on the treadmill.”

It got worse from there. At 21, she had moved to Montreal for training and needed new competition dresses, which at the time ran about $1,000 each. After using them once, she says officials from Skate Canada, the governing body for figuring skating in Canada, told her they made her look “too big” and that she needed new dresses.

“I was working full-time to pay for my skating and had borrowed money from my sister to buy those costumes, so that was pretty heartbreaking and devastating to deal with,” she says. “In the end, my skating club paid for me to get one new dress that ‘fit my body better,’ they told me. But I was by no means too large. I weighed 115 pounds.”

Olympics (Image: Nikki Ernst)

Since then, Skate Canada has started working to change its culture, likely due to a confluence of factors, says mental performance consultant Judy Goss. These include coaches’ increasing awareness of body image-related issues among their skaters and better education around Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), a condition that encompasses disordered eating, missed periods and decreased bone density. Goss also cites the impact of larger cultural conversations around the #MeToo and body positivity movements, as well as celebrity athletes who have spoken out about their experiences around body image, mental health and exploitation in sports (like Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka).

“Figure skating was primed and ready for a shift,” says Goss.

In 2019, Skate Canada hosted a high-performance camp, where it came to leadership’s attention that an off-ice trainer was weighing skaters. “All of us were like, ‘You’re not supposed to do this!’’ Goss says. “We went a little berserk.”

That led to conversations about what kind of information the organization could provide to coaches and other ancillary members of skaters’ teams—including off-ice trainers, who are employed by individual skaters or skate clubs rather than Skate Canada itself—and how the organization could ensure that they were using the right language. At the time, there weren’t many sports organizations that had guidelines around body image; Goss reviewed Gymnastics Australia’s policy, instituted in July 2019, and U.S. Figure Skating’s policy, and then worked with Skate Canada to write their own body positive guidelines in an attempt to “set boundaries on what is acceptable practice, language and behaviour for coaches, parents, officials, volunteers and staff when working with athletes of all ages, genders and skating abilities.”

Goss helped develop the guidelines using insights from several academics, including Catherine Sabiston, University of Toronto professor, Canada research chair in physical activity and mental health and director of the Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre. Sabiston’s research has found that addressing female athletes’ body image will require a collaborative effort between coaches, officials, parents and role models (like celebrity athletes or club alumni), as well as athletes themselves. It also suggests sports organizations should offer public education and casual, voluntary support, and that revealing uniforms need to be reconsidered. As a result, Skate Canada recommends avoiding body shaming language, including words like fat, overweight, large, heavy, skinny or stick-thin, as well as words like toned and lean, which “can also perpetuate body preoccupation and should be avoided.” They ask coaches to praise skill, execution, power, strength, effort, persistence or other attributes that are not appearance-based and “emphasize factors that contribute to personal success, such as motivation and effort rather than body weight or shape.” They also include links to additional resources on eating disorders and mental health in sports, and provide scripts to help coaches give performance-based feedback that doesn’t touch on physical appearance.

Part of the organization’s goal is to protect athletes as they continued to compete, but the guidelines are also intended to keep skaters from leaving the sport entirely. According to a 2020 report from Canadian Women & Sport, one in three Canadian girls leave sports by late adolescence, compared to a drop-out rate of just one in 10 for boys.

“One of the reasons we lose them is because their bodies change and develop,” Goss says. “When skaters start, they’re usually younger and smaller, because skating, like gymnastics, is an early specialization sport. [When they go through puberty] there certainly is physiological impact in terms of your ability—your centre of gravity shifts, so I wouldn’t say it becomes more difficult to do the jumps or the tricks, but it takes some time to adapt.”

Good coaches who understand that shape or size does not dictate performance can be integral to helping skaters adjust—and therefore stay in sports.

McDougall agrees. “Skating has changed. It has become very athletic with women doing triple axels and quad jumps. It isn’t simply about how you look. It is also about speed, edges, skills—the entire package,” she says. “Support has to be there by associations and clubs to make sure all members train in a safe and inclusive environment. Coaches have a unique role in their skaters’ lives. Ultimately it comes down to us on a day-to-day basis to create that environment and help create changes if we see situations that do not support or are detrimental to our young athletes.”

Coaches are only one piece of this puzzle, though. Adults who surround the skaters must stand against all forms of body shaming. That means parents, mentors and even teammates are all part of the cultural shift away from prioritizing appearance over performance. Perhaps even more urgently, so must officials and judges.

But change has been slow-going. “I’m not sure how much we’ve improved,” Duhamel says. “Skaters are still being told to use certain dress designs to make their body look a certain way.”

Goss agrees, noting that figure skating has historically been slow to respond to the growing body of research into higher incidences of eating disorders, injuries and menstrual dysfunction in aesthetic sports. “They have been successful for a long time, so it’s kind of like, ‘Why would we change what we’re doing?’” she says. She points out that some coaches have been working for years and years and have huge value to the system, but it’s hard for them to change their ways. “So, we have some factors that make it a little more challenging, but that’s okay. I’m up for the challenge.”

This feature is part of Best Health’s Body Talk package, exploring the issue of body image in elite sports. Read more about the experiences of current and former Winter Olympians and Paralympians here: 

Olympic Legend Catriona Le May Doan: “I Worried About How People Viewed Me My Whole Career”

Bobsledder Cynthia Appiah: “I Looked Phenomenal, but I Felt Absolutely Terrible”

Speed Skater Alyson Charles: “I Consider Myself Lucky”

Alpine Skier Erin Mielzynski: “I Was Just Trying To Be Perfect”

Paralympian Brittany Hudak: “I Didn’t Think About Body Image Until I Became an Elite Athlete”

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada