Body Image as a Female Athlete

with LINDA INDERGAND, Liv Factory Athlete

After I won bronze at the Olympics this year, I was asked to do a question and answer on Liv’s Instagram page. Someone asked if I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable with my weight because many female cross country mountain bikers are quite thin. At first I didn't want to answer this question, because it's very personal. But then I realized how important the subject of body image is, especially as a female athlete, and wanted to share my experience.

There was a time when I was actually told by many people that if I were a little lighter, I would perform better. Of course, I was aware that I was not the thinnest rider in the field, but I was also not unhealthy. However, since it was mentioned again and again, I decided to lose weight in the off-season.

I’ve always loved dairy products and saw them as a good source of protein, and I didn't really want to give up my pasta, but I was advised to avoid gluten and lactose products. I mostly avoided carbohydrates and ate salad, vegetables and meat. I reached a point where I didn't really know what to eat anymore. But the kilos went down, so everything was just the way everyone wanted it.

So it went on over the whole winter. When I arrived at the first training camp with the national team, I could keep up with the fastest riders and achieved good results. I received compliments on my new look and many asked me how I had done it. I told them that I had changed my diet and they were satisfied. But was I?

Sure, on the one hand I was faster, but on the other hand I was more tired than ever. I normally loved eating, but suddenly had no desire to eat at all. I only ate because I knew I had to eat something and not because I was hungry or felt like it. It also affected my mood; I became tired and listless. For a long time I didn't have my period anymore, which used to be regular. At that time, many of my sports colleagues had no periods during the season. So it seemed normal. My season ended, but my period did not come back. My body was sending alarm signals, but I turned them off or downplayed them.

From the outside, I was never perceived as unhealthy or sick. Most people did not notice I was unwell until the house of cards collapsed. A good friend of mine approached me about why I had been listless about eating and asked me what was wrong. I admitted that I just wanted to do everything to be fast and I thought I had achieved that goal. But I realized that something was wrong and I was no longer myself. My family was a great support during this time and they finally got me back on the right track.

Now I enlist professional help from a nutritionist and we have adapted my diet to my training. If the training is intense, I will eat more and if there is a rest day on the program, then I’ll have a little less carbohydrates. I consciously don't give up anything completely, because if I forbid myself something, I only want it more. So I eat everything that tastes good to me in an appropriate quantity. Pizza, hamburgers, french fries and sweets are all part of my diet.

Athletes of all levels are all-too-often under scrutiny for their appearance, especially women. We’re either too big, too small, too muscular, not muscular enough… That feeling of self-doubt begins with what we’re told by people who we think are in our corner and what is shown to us in the media. We develop an image in our head of what an athlete should look like and begin comparing ourselves to others.

After having struggled with my body image, I’m now proud of my figure and my weight. Regardless of my size, I am a super mountain biker and I am super fast. Above all, I love my body and I am healthy. There is no one perfect shape for a woman or an athlete, so no matter what shape your body is, I hope you are happy and healthy.