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Body-Shamed Elite Athletes Share Their Experiences to Help Break Down Barriers for Young Australians to Stay in Sport

Elite athletes have come together to share their experiences of body shaming to help change negative body image behaviour within community sporting clubs to encourage more young Australians to stay in sport.

With the Paris Olympics just two months away, former Olympic swimmer Libby Trickett knows all too well how intense the media spotlight can be for athletes competing on the world stage.

“Over my career my body has been the topic of countless conversations, without me present. I’ve been called too fat, too thin, too fit, too muscly, all while performing at my physical peak.

“This experience isn’t unique to professional athletes – it’s something that starts when you are just a kid who loves a sport,” she says. “I’ve had so many conversations with young people who’ve wanted to quit the sport they love due to the pressure they feel about their appearance.”

As a passionate advocate for the next generation of young players, Trickett has joined forces with Embrace Kids, the health promotion charity run by 2023 Australian of the Year and body image advocate Taryn Brumfitt and international body image expert Dr Zali Yager, to host a video masterclass that helps community sports do better in this area and protect young people’s body image.

The Activate Masterclass aims to support parents, coaches and administrators to create positive sporting club cultures through key resources to retrain our language and behaviour in relation to how we discuss and react to body image – especially around our kids.

Hosted by Trickett, it brings together practical, evidence-based advice and real-world examples to show clubs how they can prevent young people dropping out of sports and other physical activity because they feel judgement, shame and embarrassment about their bodies.

“I remember when I was 16, a boy came up to me at training and told me I looked like a ‘butch bitch’, meaning I was incredibly fit and very muscular,” says Trickett. “The phrasing of this comment stuck with me and made me feel deeply uncomfortable in a body that I was still learning to understand and before I knew what it was fully capable of. But it’s not just comments from peers that can hurt. Throughout my career I’ve had unsolicited body comments from coaches, trainers, spectators, not to mention the media – and it doesn’t get easier.”

Joining Trickett in the Masterclass is Sarah Perkins, an Australian Rules footballer who played for Hawthorn, Adelaide, Melbourne and Gold Coast during her seven-year career in the AFLW. She shares her story about the importance of diverse representation in sport.

“Growing up for me was very different. There weren’t that many female athletes for me to look up to as a kid growing up loving sport,” says Perkins. “Representation in the last eight years has changed because there are

people like myself – people look at my body shape and the way that it is and they would automatically say, ‘That is not an athlete’s body’ and ‘I should not be shown as a role model’… unfortunately these are some comments that I have seen and social media’s quite brutal! But for every 100 negative comments that you read there are 1000 positive ones that can make you smile and make you realise that what you’re doing is real, and people see you for the person you are and not the way that you look.”

Perkins says that everyone involved in sport can help to create a more inclusive culture by rethinking the language that they use around young people.

“I think it’s really important for the younger generation to see multiple body shapes and body types. I’d just say to any parent or even teammate or anyone just out in the community when you’re watching sport, it’s really important to think about the language you use. Children are watching, they’re always watching and they’re always listening, especially the young ones – they’re sponges, they’ll soak up anything you say. So be who you are and be really confident in that, because you were made to be that way and don’t feel like you have to change for anyone.”

The Activate Masterclass is the latest resource in the Activate by Embrace Kids program, following the successful launch of a free Playbook for clubs in December last year. The Playbook and Masterclass combine to build on the four key themes designed to drive change in community sport: banning body talk and body shaming, representing all bodies, flexibility in sport uniforms, and focusing on food as fuel.

“Research has identified these as the key factors that impact how young people engage with sport,” says Dr Yager, who has previously implemented body image programs with organisations like Swimming NSW. “We know that if we focus on these factors and make sport a more welcoming place for more people, we can not only improve player wellbeing but also increase participation in sport and physical activity across the board.”

Later in the year, the final instalment of the Activate by Embrace Kids program will be release and include free physical resource packs that will be distributed to sports clubs around Australia including change room posters, stickers and more.

“Our sports clubs are really the heart and soul of this country,” says Taryn Brumfitt. “Embrace Kids as a whole is focused on creating change in all the places where young people live, learn and play, so we knew we needed a solution for sports clubs. But it also had to be really easy to engage with, because we also know a lot of these coaches are volunteers, and they’ve got lots of other things to do. It’s been so great to see clubs jumping on board to help our young people stay in the sport they love for longer.”

Embrace Kids is a health promotion charity that equips young people and those around them – teachers, parents and coaches – with the latest evidence-based information and resources to build better body image.

Activate by Embrace Kids is one of several initiatives they have rolled out in the last year, along with the Embrace Kids Classroom Program, the Body Blocks by Embrace Kids early learning program, Embrace Kids Live event series and more. The Embrace Kids Australia initiative received grant funding from the Australian Government.

Coaches, parents and administrators who would like to access the FREE Activate Masterclass can register here.



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