Weighing In On Sizing Up Our Athletes

Is it appropriate to weigh our athletes?

Someone recently asked me my opinion on weigh-ins for athletes, given my history with an eating disorder. I considered this question because I think, in some cases, it may be necessary. Perhaps for wrestlers participating in a specific weight class, measuring water weight loss or gain, or for monitoring health issues, weighing athletes may be required.

For the majority? Weight is just one indicator of health, strength, and fitness… so, weighing athletes, in my opinion, may not be necessary.

I recall that my 10th-grade gym teacher announced on a Friday that we would weigh in and calculate our body composition on Monday. My 100-pound gymnast friend was unbothered. She was used to tactics like this and likely knew exactly the numbers she would see. I was bothered quite a lot, actually.

Even though I was a well-respected athlete and have never really cared about the number on the scale, I still knew that I may be way heavier than every other girl in my gym class. Would that be okay? Would I still be considered a good athlete even though I was so heavy and may have more fat than an elite athlete “should” carry? I was honestly unsure what it would mean for me.

The weekend before the dreaded weigh-in, I ran and worked out each day… and I never ran longer distances. I became worried that because it was more difficult for me to run 2 or 3 miles at a time that weekend, versus 10 sprints, maybe I was out of shape? It’s all I could think about for days… What would MY weight tell me about myself?

When Monday rolled around, I weighed in and the gym teacher, who was also a football coach, looked at my numbers and said, “Eh, it’s never accurate for athletes.” He meant, or what I heard was, my weight was over the Body Mass Index (or, BMI) for my height.

I was both relieved and terrified of what my numbers might say if I actually wasn’t an athlete. If this was my body with hard work, what would happen if I took a day or week or month off of intense training? Even though I understand now that the number on the scale doesn’t tell you how much muscle you have, if your blood work looks good, if you can win a game or race, or how happy you are, I didn’t always. And, I didn’t then.

When that person recently, a coach, asked me if I think that weighing athletes was appropriate, they were trying to target one person who they thought to be overweight. They wanted to weigh everyone to make a statement to one person. That (unspoken) statement was something to the effect of, “Look how unhealthy you are and out of shape you are.” I hesitated.

What they actually said to me was, “I don’t see [Insert Name] ever having a problem with an eating disorder.”

Why? Because she’s overweight? Did you know that eating disorders come in many forms – binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, orthorexia, and many others? And, contrary to popular belief, you can’t tell if someone struggles with an eating disorder just by looking at them.

When I first started my path to self-destruction, guess what? I was not underweight. Some might say I was a few pounds over my “ideal” body weight (whatever that is).

I understand the reasoning behind weigh-ins: “If they’re not at their ‘peak weight,’ their performance might suffer.” And, “We need to see if we’re pushing our athletes too hard, or not hard enough.”

But I see the message that athletes might choose to hear: “Your weight is more important than anything else.”

I have never watched a top-level player perform his or her sport and say, “Wow, if only she was 10 pounds less…” Rather, I have evaluated athletes on skill and talent, and never placed the reason for being good or bad on his or her weight. “He doesn’t jump well,” – not because he is too heavy, but maybe? It’s just like saying, “She’s fast,” but not necessarily because she’s the skinniest kid.

A weight stigma (the internalized beliefs and attitudes we hold toward one’s weight, especially among those who might be targeted and discriminated against because he or she is bigger or smaller) becomes attached to the person, and the beliefs are reiterated each time he or she steps on the scale. We learn that “One number is ‘good’ and if I’m not there, I must be ‘bad.’ I want to be good.”

So, I’m not sure weighing an athlete tells us exactly what we want to know. We, as adults, coaches, and professionals, should instead focus on the message of, “Let’s tackle your weaknesses and build up your strengths.” It could be fitness. It could be nutritional education to all body sizes. The athletic hinderance is not necessarily about weight.

I used to be an athlete who struggled with her weight. I would have fought, tooth-and-nail, to never step on a scale. Yet, my curiosity always took over, or, I fell into a setting where I was required to be weighed, and I always regretted it.

At any stage of my life, weighing myself never gave me anything good – if I saw it was “too much,” I’d beat myself up; too little, and I was scared it might tip the other direction. Struggling with the scale didn’t mean that I was always trying to lose weight, or was significantly out of shape or overweight. No.

I struggled with my weight, in that I always thought about it. I always cared about how I looked in my uniform and compared myself to my teammates. I thought about what I used to look like, as well as how I should or might look one day. It didn’t always look like I struggled, but I did. There was emotion and confidence tied to that number and many times, the number I saw dictated my days.

I cared so much at one time that I would have rather not eat something, even if it was “healthy,” than feel uncomfortable in my spandex shorts. I would have rather not worked hard later to “burn it off.” I would rather be on the extreme side of the deficit than be part of the group that stayed after practice to run extra stadiums.

I struggled so much that when I became underweight, I didn’t see why that was a problem. I used to be heavier, and now I’m not. Aren’t I good?

We can see the problem in other people, and we are quick to judge him or her. Whether we believe it or not, sometimes it goes deeper than appearance and into someone’s habits and character. I’ve seen it with my coaches, and now I see it as a coach with other professionals:

If she’s overweight, she eats poorly. Maybe she likes to party. If you can’t see his muscles developing, he is lazy.

Just like there is white privilege, there is weight privilege. We might be impressed by a thin girl: “Wow, she ate her whole meal, plus dessert – where does it all go?”

In the same situation, we would say, “Ugh, no wonder she’s so big,” about an overweight person. When they’re too skinny, or maybe naturally have the genetics to become toned quickly, we deem them disciplined and hard workers. They are focused on their sport and prove it with their supremely fit bodies. They are the privileged.

We judge, and we write off athletes for not being dedicated enough. What we often don’t consider is that both types of athletes – those over- and underweight – might both have personal issues and struggles surrounding their weight and struggling to juggle every expectation on their plates.

As a culture, we seem to always carry this with us, and weight seems like it’s an important characterization of who we are. I’ve been there. I’ve felt this way, and I am with you still. I am amongst professionals who size up athletes, ensuring their performance is top-notch, teaching them how to get there, and reporting on their status.

I see athletes struggling with what I did, too, and I empathize. My opinions as a former struggling athlete are muted as other professionals (try to) convince me that weekly weigh-ins are necessary for the benefit of the athlete, team, and coach, who is paying their way through school.

But, I only ask you to consider why you do it, why we weigh athletes and what they’re getting out of it? What are the messages we’re telling them, and what aren’t we talking to them about when they see a number flash back at them?

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