Female Athletics in the Wake of COVID-19

July 21, 2020. By Emma Astrike-Davis.

Emma Astrike-Davis
2019-20 NC Fellow

It’s easy to imagine the frustration of millions athletes and sports fans right now. The spring season has ground to a halt before it even began, and opportunities to practice most sports are extremely limited.   While we have all been temporarily side-lined by the pandemic, we are granted an opportunity to reflect on the aspects of our sports that we miss and those that we would rather leave behind.

In the last year, numerous brave female athletes came forward to report mistreatment and body shaming.  Mary Cain’s allegations against the Nike Project sparked a nationwide response, giving volume to a problem that permeates women’s athletics. Cain’s description of broken bones, missed periods, and suicidal thoughts from disordered eating are heartbreaking, and unfortunately not unique. As a four-year, cross country and track and field athlete at Division 1 university and now a second year medical student, I have experienced these issues firsthand.  I have seen too many women sacrifice their well-being to meet performance objectives through an unhealthy body weight.

Athletics was encouraged in my family as a vent for adolescent energy and way to celebrate our bodies for their capabilities rather than their appearances.  I aspired to run in 5ks, half-marathons, and eventually marathons, to follow in the footsteps of my mom and my aunt — the two strongest women I know.  When I joined my high school cross country team however, I found that among my teammates, strength was a quality only extolled for public benefit.  Over locker room conversations and shared calorie-less lunches, I learned that thin bodies were the true goal.  We all wanted the washboard abs we saw in sportswear ads, and we mistakenly associated gained speed with lost weight.   For the most part, these dangerous tendencies went unnoticed by our coaching staff, even when half of our team suffered stress-fractures in a single season.

Coming to college, I hoped that the problem would disappear. I joined a team where the women looked and acted strong.  As we got to know each other, it was clear that many of my teammates had come from high schools and other college teams where coaches had instilled weight loss as a component of the training program. Even though we were lucky to have a college coach who did not promote that message, the mindset remained ever-present. Despite spending my undergraduate studies in nutrition, I convinced myself that our habits were healthy. I found myself inspired by the All-American athletes leading our team as they ran 10-15 miles a day and ate less than 1500 calories.  I let their actions become my truth and my aspirations, even though it opposed everything I learned.  After a year and a half of college athletics, I had a BMI of 16 and my first stress fracture.

 I would like to say that this wake-up call cured my own disordered eating and exercising patterns, but it’s not that easy. Post-collegiately I’ve leaned on other female athletes to remind me to prioritize strength and health in all of my activities. Positive role-models and engaged coaches are the key to fixing this problem.  We all have a role in dispelling the dangerous misconceptions about “competition-weight”. While we are limited in many of our actions by precautions against COVID-19, we can commit to a return to healthy competition in the not too distant future. With the Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for 2021, let’s use this opportunity to take a socially distanced huddle and commit to supporting female athletes at all levels with the strength that they deserve.

Emma Astrike-Davis is a 2019-20 NC Albert Schweitzer Fellow and a UNC School of Medicine student.