The following was submitted by reader Ivy Spiegel Ostrom in response to the New York Times coverage of Jessie Diggins earning an Olympic bronze medal in the individual freestyle sprint. FasterSkier published a story expressing some of the early reactions to the NY Times piece here, along with an opinion piece by our contributor Ben Theyerl here. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect that of FasterSkier’s staff or sponsors. We fully support open dialogue and encourage those who wish to share their perspective to reach out at email@example.com.)
“In a sport that has so many women with massive shoulders and thighs, Diggins looks like a sprite in her racing suit, and it’s not clear exactly where she gets her power. But the power is there, as she flies up hills, and comes off climactic turns with a burst. On the downhills, she tucks low and cuts through the air,” writes Matt Futterman in his February 8th New York Times coverage of Nordic skier Jessie Diggins’s historic bronze medal win at the Beijing Olympic Games.
A former college teammate of mine sent me a screenshot of this excerpt with an outraged, “We are past commenting on women’s bodies in sports!!”
In a response to Futterman, sportswriter Lori Nickels wrote a piece in USA Today documenting such reactions from female athletes and wondering at their intensity, when men’s bodies are so frequently fodder for sports analysis.
As a female athlete and a former collegiate nordic skier, I would like to offer an explanation to Nickels and Futterman and anyone else who may be wondering why this seemingly commonplace commentary is such a big deal.
Athletics can be an amazing tool for teaching women how to use their bodies effectively and powerfully; knowing how to become healthier, faster, and stronger is information that our society has historically neglected to teach women, to our great detriment. On the other hand, we are simultaneously receiving programming from nearly every direction that smaller is better, that women with muscles are ugly, they look too much like men, that men won’t find our shapes attractive. And in an appearance-oriented society where women seem to be valued especially for their ability to fit into an idealized category, that is no small thing. Growing up, even as they powered activities that brought me joy and self-worth, my pronounced muscles (“massive shoulders and thighs,” if you will) felt like blemishes. Some days they still do.
And that is only half of it. Nordic skiing is a sport in which strength to weight ratios play a role, albeit a small one. However, when so many other factors feel out of their control, that single, tiny factor can loom large in the minds of both male and female competitors. I know all of us have fielded comments from performance-obsessed coaches, our own parents, and often other parents concerning our body types, weights, and emphasizing the advantage of a low body mass. This adds up to a complex of emotions and ideas surrounding food. Endurance athletes are particularly susceptible to disordered eating given their tendency towards self-discipline and performance.
I am not saying men and male athletes don’t suffer from similar or analogous notions and prejudices – in fact I would love to open that conversation – but they do display a different level of intensity and contain fewer contradictions. Female athletes really sit at the nexus of a particularly overwhelming complex of ideas and judgments surrounding our bodies. And that is even before mentioning the pressures of sex and the constant threat of sexual assault that every woman feels. It makes us unsure who our bodies really belong to.
I am lucky that this dissociation with and antipathy towards my body was relatively mild, and never developed into an eating disorder like it has for many. Regardless, years out of adolescence and competitive racing, I am still trying and often failing to inhabit my own body and trust that it is beautiful no matter the form it takes, that it is my own by right, and that I can’t let others decide how I feel about it or what I do with it. And I am finally learning how hard my teammates, role models, and competitors have also had to fight to avoid this disassociation, to preserve the vital relationships to their bodies that is at the heart of their love for athletics.
Ironically, Jessie Diggins herself has been one of the fiercest supporters and advocates for those suffering from eating disorders and has been a key player in raising awareness of the issue. In her memoir, Brave Enough, she writes about her struggle to overcome an eating disorder, which threatened her health and prevented her from competing, culminating in outpatient treatment. She is hardly alone in the work. My high school teammate Julia Burnham, also an eating disorder survivor, is the co-creator of a podcast called Bodies in Motion, chronicling the stories of those – especially female athletes like Jessie – who have experienced eating disorders. A clear and consistent take-away from her discussions is that we need to stop commenting on each other’s bodies. No matter how positive or negative, direct or indirect, these comments generate the feeling that how our bodies look is more important than what we do with them or that what we do with them is more important that the relationship we have with them.
This is not meant to be an attack on Futterman. His words were poorly chosen, but we have all made similar comments regarding fellow bodies. I know I have, and I regret them all, for I have felt acutely so many times the detrimental effect of such words. Comments like Futterman’s may have sent my ninth grade self into a well of negative feelings about my body and a bout of obsessive eating. It is sensitive terrain, which means we are all responsible for being aware and careful.
So to everyone who may be reading this – and I really mean everyone – if you are ever tempted to make a comment about someone’s body, consider keeping it to yourself. Please.
About the Author:
Ivy Spiegel Ostrom grew up skiing in the mountains of Leavenworth, Washington. She went on to ski for Williams College where she majored in English and Environmental Studies. Since graduating in 2020, she has been living in her hometown, indulging in her other favorite sport of rock climbing while learning how to farm and live sustainably.