She performs stunning feats of physical prowess in front of hundreds of fans. Under the gaze of the cheering crowd, she exhibits her body’s capabilities week after week. When she falters, her mistakes, her pain, her sweat, her tears are all on display under the lights of the arena or the gymnasium.
She spends her days perfecting her art, her craft, her skill, her game. She focuses on every muscle, works each inch of her body until it hurts and until it doesn’t hurt anymore. Her body has a job to do.
She plays the same game the men play. She has worked hard for her spot on the field or the ice or the court, and she knows it is hers.
She is the female athlete, and she has a secret. Her weight.
TIPPING THE SCALES
The rosters on GoCrimson.com for Harvard’s varsity sports teams list the weights of men’s baseball, basketball, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball players. For the equivalent women’s teams, the rosters have no column for players’ weights.
This policy of publishing men’s weights but not women’s is by no means unique to Harvard. All Ivy League schools do the same, as do most colleges and some high schools.
The only women’s sports league at any level known for publicly disclosing players’ weights is the WNBA. Even there, the weight spot on the roster remains blank for a few players on almost all the teams in the league.
The athletic department’s decision to leave women’s poundage off the roster reflects a much weightier constellation of concerns about body image, eating disorders, privacy, and equal treatment of female athletes. Most women on sports teams say that whether or not they are comfortable with their own body size, they are happier with it off the internet. But for a few, the omission of a statistic that men’s rosters include represents a failure in the decades-long push for equality for female athletics.
WOMEN AT RISK
“When you’re talking to girls, one of the things you’ve always been told not to do is ask them about their weight,” says Keith Wright. As a senior basketball player, Wright says he’s used to seeing his weight listed publicly—even as a secondary school player when he worried that he needed to lose weight in order to keep up with his smaller teammates—but he would never expect the same of his female counterparts.
Assistant Director of Athletics Kurt K. Svoboda agrees, “It probably speaks to a larger issue of social conformity or norms and what is discussed and what isn’t.”
Whether they play a sport or not, college women confront images of super-thin magazine models and movie stars that set a standard for female beauty nationwide. Compounded with the intense competitive drive and the capacity to push one’s physical limits that female athletes hone, elite sports players are much more susceptible to unhealthy attitudes toward their body size than the general population. Top female college athletes are more than twice as likely to develop dangerous eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia compared to the general college-age female population, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. As many as a third of women who play Division I sports in college show symptoms that put them at risk for anorexia, ESPN reported.
With these stark statistics illustrating that many women who don Crimson jerseys might be in danger of harmful self-starvation or purging—behaviors that can cause problems ranging from stress fractures to intestinal damage to fatal heart irregularities—Harvard’s athletics staff keeps a watchful eye on female players’ body images.
“It’s the culture for women that we live in. It’s the media; it’s the modelling—the culture in our world is so different and damaging for women than for men,” says Kathy Delaney-Smith. In her 30 years coaching Harvard’s women’s basketball team, she adds, “I’ve had a lot of my share of eating disorders.”