My Reality of Swarthmore Athletics: Gender, Power, and Body Image

Content Warning: This piece contains personal accounts of disordered eating.

Two weeks ago, the Phoenix released an op-ed discussing a hidden hierarchy that exists in athletics. Despite any issues with the article, I truly appreciate the author’s decision to share his perspective on unequal treatment within the athletic department. However, we need to direct our attention to the true hierarchy that is perpetuated within Swarthmore athletics—a hierarchy based on gender, class, and racial inequalities.

I’d like to share some of my own experiences competing as a Swarthmore athlete the past four years. These stories are a collection of my thoughts, perceptions, and feelings that specifically focus on issues related to gender, power and body. I have written them as accurately and as honestly as possible, and I hope to reveal just a fraction of the additional stresses and barriers that exist for marginalized groups who choose to compete in athletics. There is a hierarchy embedded in Swarthmore athletics, but there is also an unspoken pain; let's talk about both.

Safety Concerns

This past volleyball season, I learned just how hot it can get in the Swarthmore gym.

I’ve played in some really hot facilities before, but there were days when the humidity was so intense  that the walls would sweat condensation, dripping down while we tried to practice. I say “tried” to practice because there were multiple days when the floor was so slippery that after one or two players went down, we had to cancel practice or just watch game footage to make sure no one got hurt.

A coach assured us that she was trying to get our old cooling system back in place. It had been removed prematurely because the athletic department didn’t account for… hot weather. So we waited—sending emails to the athletic department and asking our coach for updates on a regular basis—but nothing changed. I felt my feet slip every time I tried to dive or run. We used to joke that someone should “sacrifice their body” for the team, so that maybe the athletic department would do something.

I stopped making these jokes when I started to genuinely fear that I would get a concussion if I continued playing. I had seen one too many of my teammates wipe out trying to spike a volleyball or take a sudden step. It’s difficult for me to describe the fear I felt in the moments after someone went down, waiting to see if they would be able to get up again (Here are just a few examples from this season, if you’d rather see for yourself.)

After a particularly hot practice, a few of my teammates suggested we email President Valerie Smith expressing our safety concerns. This felt like a desperate, futile attempt, but nine players signed the email anyways. She responded promptly, telling us her plans to ensure our safety, which was a “top priority.” The cooling system was re-installed. Think about that for a second.

We had to go to the President of Swarthmore College to get an adequate response to our safety concerns.

President Valerie Smith should never have needed to be contacted in the first place, but what would have happened if she didn’t have time to respond? Or if she decided our safety wasn’t a priority to her? Perhaps most significantly, why did I feel like someone needed to get hurt before the athletic department would have responded to our concerns?

It’s also interesting to think about how the situation would have been different if we were, say, the men’s basketball team. If they had been unable to practice half-way through their season, would they have been disregarded as quickly as we were? I’m not trying to target or blame the basketball team in any way—they work so hard and I have nothing but respect for them and their accomplishments. However, the reality is that gender plays a huge role in how injuries and safety concerns are seen by the athletic department.

It shouldn’t matter that I am a woman, and it shouldn’t matter what sport I play. My safety and the safety of my teammates should never have been something we had to fight for.

Eating Disorders

We had to count our calories my junior year on the volleyball team.

A coach thought that recording daily food intake would help us better understand how to properly fuel our bodies as athletes.

“For the duration of preseason, we will track our daily intake starting with Tuesday, 8/22.  Record everything you eat and drink immediately, even snacks. Write down the date, time and place you ate. Be specific; i.e. instead of writing turkey sandwich, write out the quantity of bread, turkey, condiments, etc.” The calculator in my head lit up after reading these instructions, excited at the opportunity to be used again.

When I first got to Swarthmore, I had just lost thirty pounds in four months. Hopping on my scale was the first thing I did in the morning and the last thing I did at night. My fingernails were tinged with blue, my hair was weak, and I was always hungry but terrified, terrified, of gaining weight.

Once I started training with the volleyball team, I realized how tired my body was when I didn’t eat enough. I wanted to do the best I could for my teammates, so I started eating more at team meals and felt like I was able to compete at a higher level. With regularly-scheduled team meals and weight-lifting sessions, my eating became more consistent and I gained about 15 pounds of muscle. I was extremely self-conscious about these changes in my body, but what else was there to do except put on a smile and pretend to be okay?

I am not asking for anyone’s sympathy, and I definitely don’t want pity. I’m just trying to provide a clear image of the state of my mind and body when this coach told us that we would have to share our food logs with her. I know that some of my teammates disregarded this request and treated it more like a joke, but I religiously updated my food log like a compulsion, something I needed to do in order to feel comfortable eating. It became impossible to ignore the stress and tensions that seemed to accompany every meal. Chugging water before meals to stop from overeating became a form of self-defense. I would look around at team meals and see bowls of cucumbers and lettuce as small cries for help, until I looked down at my own bowl and realized it was still full.

I wanted to lead by example. I wanted to eat properly for my teammates, to show them that you can be strong and beautiful. That one doesn’t negate the other. But when the thought of eating reminds me of my fingers shoved down my throat, frantically trying to rid my body of the sustenance that keeps my heart beating, it became impossible to put on a courageous face. There were practices where I felt so weak that diving for a ball made me see stars, and simple movements exhausted me. Lifting weights was torture, because a 45-pound-bar crushes you when your throat is raw and your stomach is empty.

This past season, a coach was made aware that members of the team were struggling with disordered eating behaviors. She responded with genuine concern and suggested we make snacks available to the team before and after practices. This was a good response, and I’m honestly thankful for this coach’s sincerity in her attempt to help our team heal. Many players, including myself, found this extremely helpful on numerous occasions.

However, someone whose job requires them to regularly work with 18 to 22-year-old women should have been prepared to take a more serious, comprehensive, and direct approach to address the eating problems on the team. By neglecting to address the underlying issues, and instead only providing snacks, this coach helped to normalize a culture of disordered eating.

This response also reinforced the idea that my athletic training, and the productivity of my body as a vehicle for team success, was somehow more important than my mental health. When I wasn’t in season, I felt like my body didn’t matter. I wasn’t afraid of letting my teammates down with my inability to perform, so I felt like my eating disorder would only impact me. My eating disorder would get worse after each season ended, until the promise of a future season reminded me that my body wasn’t just mine, that my decisions actually mattered to other people. So I would stop killing my body just long enough to continue performing well as an athlete, before deteriorating again in the spring. This was a dangerous cycle of rapid weight loss and weight gain—and I’m honestly not sure if my body or my mind could have handled another year.

Looking back, it’s surprising how bizarre and warped my mindset was. Some of you are reading this and understand the exact experiences I’m describing, while others are probably wondering how my mind could have led me to believe these things. But that’s the point, right?

That I was sick. That I came forward and brought attention to this sickness. That I was told snacks would be provided, but only to ensure we had enough energy to continue training.

This August, a school dietician came to talk to our team about how to properly fuel our bodies- but let’s be real. We’ve all heard the speech a million times before.

you need protein

but not too much protein

and make sure you eat carbs for energy

but only the good carbs

because white grains are bad

and brown ones are good

and also drink lots of water

but don’t overhydrate  

As if we haven’t been told the “right” way to eat our entire lives. As if it hasn’t been ingrained into our culture—this feeling that we must eat a certain way to be successful and happy. The meeting wasn’t completely without purpose, however. The dietician told us we should be eating the carb equivalent of one loaf of bread on a daily basis. This became a running joke for me and a few teammates.

Time to get my daily loaf in!

Another permanent reminder of my inability to eat “correctly,” and the fear of what recovery would mean.

Sexualization of Bodies

When I was 12 years old, I signed up for my first volleyball clinic.

The morning of the first session, I woke up extra early to make sure I had time to find my favorite pink t-shirt (which I was convinced gave me luck). I put on some shorts and my running shoes, hopped in the car, and nervously chatted with my mom the entire 45 minute drive. I walked into the gym, excited to see what a real volleyball practice would look like, and anxious to see whether I’d fit in with the other girls.

However, I realized within moments that I was the only girl at the clinic not wearing spandex.

And when I say “spandex,” I don’t mean the longer spandex shorts that bikers wear. I mean the booty-clinging, thigh-choking, “cheeks out” spandex that comprise our uniform. My 12-year-old mind was confused how people could run around and feel comfortable with so little clothes on.

The next thing I noticed was that all the coaches were men. Luckily, little Sarah rebounded from the shock quickly and had an amazing time running around, playing games and learning new skills. The next day, I begged my mom to take me shopping for some spandex shorts. We bought a pair in black and a pair in navy blue, both long enough to cover the majority of my thighs. I didn’t like how tight they felt. I really didn’t like how my entire lower body felt exposed.

This was the first time I felt pressure to choose between what I was personally comfortable with, and my desire to truly excel in athletics. I didn’t care that I was uncomfortable, because I wanted to fit in with the other girls and make friends. I learned to ignore the eyes of boys and men that followed me at tournaments, because sometimes, humiliation and exposure is the price you pay to compete as an athlete.

After I made my first travel team, I was absolutely ecstatic. My coaches were incredible people, the other girls were so kind and funny, and our uniform consisted of a mustard yellow jersey (oof) and short Asics spandex. Wait, you might be wondering, why would 11 and 12 year old girls be required to wear tight spandex shorts that reveal the curves of their prepubescent butts in a sport dominated by male coaches? Didn’t that make me uncomfortable? Of course, but comfort isn’t a priority when the other option holds the promise of life-long friends and further collegiate playing opportunities.

My sophomore season playing for Swarthmore, a coach told me she was buying a new grey jersey specifically for my position. I was excited, since it was my only my second year on the team and this attention made me feel welcome, but the jersey was ordered in size Small, and I never felt comfortable enough to wear it in a game.

There were other times when I would try to get practice t-shirts in a size Medium or Large, but my order would be changed to a Small. Apparently, a coach saw my request and thought she knew my size better than I did. The second time my order was changed, I asked the coach why she did this.

She said it was funny that I liked my clothes “so loose” and that I acted more like a “basketball player” than a volleyball player.

If I don’t wear tight dresses or clothes normally, why would I feel comfortable performing athletic movements in front of a crowd of my peers wearing nothing but a skin tight jersey and some spandex shorts? And more importantly, why was I made to feel like I had no other option?

After a match junior year, a women’s soccer player told me we were brave for the uniforms we played in, and she was right. It takes a lot of bravery to wear a jersey that clings so tightly to your body that you can barely focus on anything except how much air you inhale so that your stomach doesn’t poke out. It takes a lot of bravery to put on a pair of spandex and get in my defensive squat when I know that literally anyone can come into the gym and watch me. But this bravery - this crazy thing where you and everyone around you acknowledges the sexualization of your body but they admire you for being able to compete regardless—that should never have been required of me or anyone else.

Body Ownership

The spring of my junior year, my eating disorder was at its worst. Daily cycles of binging and purging, combined with an increased weight-lifting schedule (shout out to @swat_throws for being jacked), caused me to put on some extra weight. This wasn’t a bad thing by any means, but I wasn’t used to my new body and I was really struggling to to accept it. Around that time, I got a text from one of my coaches. She asked me to drop by volleyball practice if I got out of track practice early. I knew I’d already be tired from throwing the javelin for two hours, but I really missed my volleyball teammates, so I decided to go.

When the coach saw me, her first comment to me was that I “got bigger” since she saw me a few months ago. Then she asked me if I would still be able to move as fast as I could the previous season. I felt like everyone in the gym went silent. I tried not to react or show any emotion at all, and just responded that I thought I was still fast enough to do my job.

I was in shock that a coach would say something so cruel to me. Everything she said was just a confirmation of what I already thought about myself, and I could feel my throat tighten as it always does before I cry—and I probably would have, if not for my incredible teammates who made me feel safe enough to stay at practice. However, this coach wasn’t finished commenting on my body just yet.

She came over while I was warming up and casually mentioned that she “definitely” thought my arms and legs looked bigger than they did a few months ago. She hoped that I would still be able to play defense like I could before. I was trying my hardest not to cry at that point, so the only thing I managed to spit out was that her comments were “really mean,” and I asked to her to please stop talking about my body. That was enough to make her “apologize” at the end of practice, but let’s be clear about something.

“I was actually really surprised at how fast you still are” is not an apology.

So why did I initially forgive her and move on? Well, I think I did this partly because she was a coach that I would need to work with if my volleyball career was going to continue, and I still had one more season left. But perhaps more importantly, I didn’t feel like she was necessarily attacking me. I felt like she was attacking my body, which somehow she had a claim to because she was one of my coaches. So when she attacked my body in front of the entire team, I truly felt like she was justified in some ways. I think she thought she was justified, too.

After all, I was an athlete on a team she was partially responsible for coaching, and didn’t I let her down by having an eating disorder and increasing my lifting schedule? Didn’t I fail her and the team by gaining 10 pounds—because now I wouldn’t be able to play as well as I could before?

Except that I absolutely could. Except that my weight has nothing to do with my ability to play volleyball, and the fact that I was made to feel this way is unacceptable. I don’t care if my arms are bigger than they were freshmen year. These arms helped me become the third player in NCAA history to ever serve an entire set 25-0. I’m sorry if my “big legs” offend you and make you question my speed, but these legs didn’t stop me from setting the school record for digs.

So what if my body did get bigger? The fact that my body wasn’t the preferred “size small” does not equate to a lesser amount of athletic ability or commitment to the team. I felt disrespected in that moment, humiliated and ashamed, and I only wish I had been strong enough to stand up for myself then.

My body is not more or less valuable because of how you perceive my size.

My body is not more or less valuable because of how you perceive my size.

Final Thoughts

The point of this article is not only to share my experiences, but to also shed light on the injustices that exist within our athletic institutions. I know there are thousands of stories just like mine, and I know that these experiences only begin to scratch the surface of the ways in which the athletic department has continued to reinforce this hierarchy of gender inequalities.

However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in a lot of these situations, no one was intentionally trying to cause harm. I know my coaches never meant to hurt me, but intention is irrelevant when your livelihood puts you in a powerful position to directly impact the lives of so many young people.

I hope that the people within the athletic department reading this—administrators, coaches, directors, trainers—I hope you’ll think about how you are participating in this system of unequal treatment towards athletes.

Do you assume all the athletes on your team are straight?

Do you make judgments based on physical appearance alone?

Do you make them based on race?

Have you ever commented on a player’s body without their explicit permission?

Really reflect on how you might be impacting student athletes with your words and actions, because remember, we’re not just students.

We are not just athletes.

We are human beings with families and friends and lives ahead of us.

Our safety concerns are valid, no matter how you perceive us or value our bodies.

You have no claim over our bodies, and you have no power over our freedom to say no when something feels wrong or uncomfortable.

The Swarthmore athletic department needs to face the reality that so many lives are negatively impacted by the behavior and systems it chooses to tolerate. Hopefully, they will make a plan to ensure that all Swarthmore athletes have the option to compete—not in spite of coaches, facilities and painful memories—but simply because they love the sport.

If you’d like to share your anonymous stories of experiences or marginalization or harm in Athletics, you may do so here.