Body Image for Middle School Female Swimmers
This article was a collaborative effort with middle school deans, psychologists, coaches, and teachers. Thank you to those at Sacred Heart who contributed their time, experience, and knowledge as we work to help young girls learn lifesaving water safety skills and build confidence in and out of the water.
As we begin another school year, teachers and parents are preparing for the return of students to the classroom. Those classrooms also take the form of gyms, fields, and pools. Even club swim programs are gearing up to welcome swimmers back from a hiatus. And per usual after any Olympic summer, participant numbers in the pools are expected to be high.
As the Aquatics Director at a prep school, I have the privilege of teaching swimming as a part of our PE curriculum. Every year, we teach young girls to swim through our carefully-designed program, starting with safety instruction when they arrive for Pre-Kindergarten and progressing them through skills in competitive swimming and alternative ways of aquatics exercise (such as water polo, synchro, etc). It is a true joy to help instill in our students a very tangible piece of education, the truly life-saving, empowering experience of swimming.
However, for many students, it is not a joy. In fact, after nearly a decade of teaching and coaching, I have come to see many young girls experience tremendous anxiety about swimming. For some, walking onto the pool deck is a mundane, routine task. For others, it can be an anxiety-provoking experience. So much so that it deters them from participating in our sport, or even worse learning to swim to begin with. The cause of these issues that has arisen again and again is body image.
Background & Purpose
Body image is a pressing issue not just in the swimming world, but in our consumer culture in general. Growing into one’s body can be traumatic for every adolescent, but especially for girls going through tremendous bodily changes. This trauma can keep girls from (1) learning the lifesaving skill of swimming and (2) enjoying a lifelong wellness activity.
The purpose of this article is to equip teachers, coaches, and parents to help girls gain confidence and increase their comfort around the pool. The premise here is that swimming is important. It is a skill that can save lives and an activity for both leisure and sport that can take one well into older life. Research shows there are psychological benefits to being in or even by the water. And while I want everyone to catch the passion for swimming that I have, ultimately it’s not as much about how much you love the water as how safe you can be around it. My goal here is to help girls in particular be more confident and comfortable in their bathing suits, no matter the level of swim skill. How can we as teachers, parents, and coaches support our girls in times of discomfort and get more buy-in for swimming?
At the root of all this is a sense of shame over one’s body. Appearing on deck in a tight bathing suit, with lines and busts on display for all to see, can stir fear in even the most advanced student in a class. Like students who learn at different paces, bodies develop on different timelines. Some girls develop breasts quicker, others have periods earlier, and still others have hair that doesn't fit into traditional swim caps. There is a fear in not just the unknown in ourselves but the unknown in others. The temptation is to compare and contrast with friends what we look like in bathing suits; or, perhaps worse, to scrutinize one’s appearance against the sculpted bodies of professional athletes or filtered images on magazine covers or social media. The fear of being judged and to be found lacking is palpable around the pool.
Today, we want our girls to feel empowered to try new things, brave new adventures, and cherish their personal sense of femininity. Uniqueness is good, and our bodies are temples to be honored and enjoyed. We all want to own that joy, and teachers and coaches in particular commit their professional lives to helping youth grasp a fulfilled life. It’s ok to not like swimming, but it’s not ok to not like yourself. And by approving of ourselves in vulnerable situations (e.g., in swimsuits), we will accept ourselves in many other life endeavors.
Addressing faulty mindsets
There are three faulty mindsets that contribute to potential shame in young girls’ minds on the pool deck.
- Wearing skimpier uniforms/bathing suits is cool.
- Thinness equals Perfection.
- “Perfection” is attainable.
Throughout our culture, we see images marketing products that will supposedly make us feel cool and accepted as part of the “in” crowd. Particularly in middle school, students become more aware of what others think of them, and that becomes important to the individual. Anytime we come off of a “beach season” we see the impact of these experiences.
Finding a bathing suit that makes you feel comfortable and confident at the beach and on the pool deck is important. Swimmers often wear smaller suits to reduce drag and swim faster. Courtney Howard, a writer for Eating Disorder Hope, discovered that swimmers wearing these suits can develop a distorted body image, as your features are exposed and compressed in extreme ways, particularly when wearing tight-fitting suits.
Swimming is an individual sport, so it can feel lonely and isolating. On top of the competition against one another, all of us in the pool are battling against ourselves physically and mentally. This can be a bad place to wrestle with issues concerning body image. Female swimmers, in particular, struggle as early as childhood, which can lead to serious life-long issues such as poor body image and disordered eating. The challenges only mount when navigating these complexities in bathing suits. Jennifer Carter of Ohio State Medicine says, “We know that the negative body image in either context can be a risk factor for eating disorders.”
So how do we as coaches, teachers, and cheerleaders of our sport intervene to help these young girls engage in a more comfortable way? Here are four prescriptions to consider:
1. Help students understand that identity comes from more than their body and be comfortable in their own skin...
We have to help them move beyond the physical, not just in how we view our bodies but how we view food. Olympic gold medalist Misty Hyman said, “What I discovered when I gave myself permission was to eat what I wanted and not worry about my weight and not worry about my physical performance. I did gain weight at first — and then I realized that people still liked me, that I could still perform on the job, that I was still a productive human being, that I could still have a lot of fun, that I could still have this really rich and fulfilling life.”
Jenn Hand of the Huffington Post reinforces this notion: “You can’t hate, criticize, and berate your body enough to create lasting change. When you do accept where you are, that’s when you can begin to change.” Even if you want to add some muscle or lose a few pounds, beating yourself up will get you nowhere. Many swimmers who struggle with their body image have only one big enemy: themselves.
So we need to help all swimmers appreciate the body for its function. We can help them redefine what beauty is - that it goes beyond skin deep –and to feel strong and confident.
2. Help students move beyond ego-centric mentality...
Referring to her own awareness of body image, Olympian Dana Volmer said, “I realized that the other girls couldn’t care less [what I looked like]. That the (pressure) was all coming from me.” Everyone is so concerned about how others perceive them that they have little time or attention to judge others.
While you can often be your own worst critic, you can also become your own biggest cheerleader through improving your self-perception and seeking help. It is common for adolescents - both boys and girls - to look at their peers when judging themselves. It is natural to be curious, to compare, to be tempted with fear and judgement. In these circumstances, it is critical for us to equip these young girls with the ability to promote self-awareness, to be mindful of any comparisons being made, and to talk themselves into a message of body acceptance. Our bodies are made just for us, not for anyone else.
3. Everyone’s body is different, and unique is beautiful.
As mentioned above, swimming is a very individualized sport. Just like all swimmers’ training is different, so are their body types. With that, we should encourage adolescents to wear types of suits that are comfortable to them (e.g., rash guards, shorts, etc). In fact, many companies like TYR and Speedo are offering these types of coverings to swimmers of all ages. At a recent event for our school, all of the middle school swimmers wore rash guards in the pool while the older girls were in their bathing suits. It was a way for them to be more comfortable.
In addition to body sensitivity, hair image is also a unique factor in the world of swimming. We have come a long way from traditional caps and suits, but there is still a long way to go, as evidenced in a recent decision by FINA to disallow a larger, nontraditional swim or “soul” cap for a swimmer needing such an accommodation for her hair. At our school, we have large caps for girls who want them. For black girls, this an extra sensitive issue, and since introducing the option of the larger cap, we have seen tremendous buy-in from girls who were once hesitant to swim because their hair kept falling out of the traditional latex caps.
We recognize that everyone has their own journey and timeline, both with their body and with swimming. As leaders in the sport and facilitators of youth development, we can help adolescents walk their own path.
4. Finally, find a support system…
Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin said, “It’s something that we make fun of now,” Franklin said. “We all joke about how we eat 5,000 calories a day. We joke about how we can’t fit into anything with our shoulders and how we’re breaking through the seams of shirts. Everyone knows what it’s like, and everyone’s also at that point now where we all understand that our bodies are our greatest gift and our greatest asset in the sport that we do every day. We’re all just going to own it.” The key word here is we.
It’s important for young swimmers to have an adult they feel comfortable talking to about navigating puberty/hormones. As a coach for female athletes, I see menstruation and bodily changes discourage many swimmers from participation. I see it more frequently in middle school, and I want to help. Most good coaches do, but many of those good coaches are male. As a male coach, I am less equipped to engage with girls about their periods. Moreover, most Catholic schools have rigorous policies on discussions around menstruation, deferring to the home to address that topic. While it can be a positive avenue for coaches to go down with athletes, our administration decided it was not our place to discuss such personal issues like tampon use with our students. So, I gently work with the support staff to connect our girls with people (parents or others) who can effectively educate and encourage them through their natural stages of development. This is the best option, rather than having it be an excuse to not swim or just sit out. Finding a way to engage is a life lesson to be implemented well beyond the years on a pool deck.
It is also important to acknowledge that it may not feel good being in a bathing suit. That’s ok! Swimming isn’t for everyone, but water safety is. We want these young people to learn to cope with discomfort and practice resilience. To do so, we help teach them coping skills to move beyond discomfort. Skills like self-talk, cheerleading ourselves, and remaining focused.
In summary, my role as a swim coach and teacher is to help my students learn water safety skills that will take them far in life, both as a life-saving skill and lifelong exercise activity. Not all of them will like swimming or have the talent to become the next Lia Neal, and that is okay. But I want them to feel comfortable as they learn to swim. In our middle school, there is less self-selection, and they are required to do swimming through a certain grade. The pressure to take swim class can trigger issues and cause anxiety. This doesn’t have as much to do with swimming per se but being on deck in a bathing suit. Instead of taking it personally, I can use this as an opportunity to teach them self-growth tools to apply to their lives well beyond the pool deck.
Finally, a few footnotes for those supporting the educational swim piece at schools or clubs.
For the parents… We as teachers and coaches are often only supporting what is going on at home. Parents need to reinforce a positive body image mindset. By sending positive messaging around swimming, it will help girls see the pool as a safe place. But if the parent is scared of the pool or sees it as dangerous, the child will too. It’s important for younger girls and teens to find someone they are comfortable speaking with about issues relating to their body…
For other teachers... Be on the lookout for small comments between or from students on their bodies. Directly challenge any negative talk about comparison or self-defeating attitudes and redirect their messaging to one of acceptance.
For peer students… Use your own experiences and knowledge to talk to middle school students about body image and comfort on the pool deck. Every year at Sacred Heart, we do mixed practices where the varsity team works with the middle school swimmers on stroke technique and fun competition. It’s a perfect setting to show the younger swimmers how various body types can be comfortable in bathing suits, no matter how fast she is or how different her body may be.
Warren Perry is in his 8th year as Aquatics Director and Head Coach at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. His girls team has captured their conference title six years in a row and was state runner-up in 2020. Previously, Warren competed for the University of North Carolina and coached at East Carolina University.