Female College Athletes Have High Body Esteem

Most women conform to feminine norms, while men conform to masculine norms. But female college athletes strive to achieve both. “Past research has focused on how conformity to societal gender norms constrains and influences men’s behavior,” said Jesse A. Steinfeldt, of Indiana University-Bloomington, and lead author of a study that investigated how this dual role influenced women’s body image. “A higher emphasis placed on conforming to masculine norms has been linked to more health risk behaviors and fewer health promotion behaviors; binge drinking; and greater endorsement of rape myths and more sexually aggressive behavior, particularly when combined with problematic alcohol use.” Steinfeldt added that women who strive to achieve feminine norms are at increased risk for eating problems. “In sum, research suggests that conformity to gender norms can have deleterious effects for both men and women.”

Steinfeldt noted that female athletes are pressured to compete at a masculine level while maintaining their femininity. “By participating in sport, women often develop their athletic identity using standards of traditional male athleticism, yet at the same time attempt to manage expectations of maintaining culturally desirable aspects of femininity (e.g., attractiveness, heterosexuality, relationships).” Seignfeldt added, “Thus, while women in general face body image pressures in society, women who play sports often face unique additional constraints concerning body image based on the pressures to conform to gender norms, both masculine and feminine.”

To determine if female college athletes experienced negative body image or other negative consequences due to striving to achieve dual roles, Steinfeldt and colleagues interviewed 143 female student athletes for their conformity to male and female norms, and body esteem. The study revealed that the student athletes did conform to male norms, but saw only positive effects from doing so. “In sum, higher conformity to Risk Taking and Relational gender norms predicted higher levels of body esteem, whereas higher conformity to the Thinness gender norm and considering oneself overweight predicted lower body esteem,” said Steinfeldt. “Taken together, these results suggest that when compared to female college students who do not play intercollegiate sports, female student-athletes conform to the same levels of feminine norms, but these student-athletes also conform to certain traditional masculine norms that are associated with participation in sport.”

Steinfeldt, J. A., Zakrajsek, R., Carter, H., & Steinfeldt, M. C. (2011, May 30). Conformity to Gender Norms Among Female Student-Athletes: Implications for Body Image. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023634

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Miranda


    September 29th, 2011 at 4:17 AM

    I knew I should have played sports in college!
    College was such a hard time for me as far as getting really down on myself about my body and trying to be that “ideal” that I thought that society was looking for.
    But I let myself go as a result. I got into really bad eating habits that resulted in bouts with both bulimia and anorexia.
    This is not something that I would wish on anyone.

  • aaron


    September 29th, 2011 at 5:05 AM

    they have higher body esteem than other college girls?maybe that’s because instead of talking about being slim 24X7,they actually sweat it out!and the results would make them others’ envy!

  • Clinton


    September 29th, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    I have never seen more confident women in my life than the female athletes that I have known. And as an added bonus they have this built in sisterhood and support that really helps them too. So maybe it is the working har physically as well as the relationships that they forge too.

  • Borice


    September 29th, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    Well in all honesty, females who play competitive sports will naturally have ideal bodies just due to the amount of work and effort they put in. Playing sports will burn calories like nobodies business, athletic women realize this.

    When you have a close to perfect figure, there is no reason to be self conscious. These females know where they are where they want to be. By playing sports they likely have acquired the necessary knowledge to reach their goals. There tons of healthy, effective ways to lose weight that don’t involve eating disorders. These women have experienced how easily weight can be lost through exercise and there for don’t need to rely on eating disorders.

  • Jacob


    September 29th, 2011 at 11:51 PM

    It’s only natural that as athletes they are more confident of their bodies than non-athletes. It is a classic case of being confident and proud of something you have worked towards. I am pretty certain it is the same thing with those that work out and stay fit. they have toiled hard and they are proud, simple.

  • Marcus


    September 30th, 2011 at 4:23 AM

    You might want to think about this again and maybe it depends on the sport that the women are involved in. While some sports might make them feel strong, what about all of those gymnasts who talk about how horribly they were treated and the eating disorders and stuff. Seems I have heard just as many stories about how athletics have ruined lives as I have about those who have benefitted from it.

  • R.T


    September 30th, 2011 at 10:32 PM

    Although the great workout that sports provide do play a big role in body esteem,what’s also responsible for high body esteem is the great mental health that all the working out and sports provide.It really does help in boosting one’s image of herself.

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