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Girl Smarts 1 in 5 female student athletes say their coaches have called them fat

Plus, more disturbing statistics from a new survey on body image in college sports.

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espn body image survey

(Photograph by Getty Images)

Body positivity is a huge buzzword these days, with people like Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, and Jessamyn Stanley pushing the boundaries of what society considers beautiful and healthy.

And, while we’ve made strides toward more body acceptance, sometimes it’s clear that we still have a long way to go.

Case in point: ESPN conducted a survey of more than 200 Division I female athletes on body image and confidence, and the results show that even women in peak physical shape struggle to feel good about their physical appearance. A whopping 68 percent say they feel pressure to be pretty.

“[Being pretty] helps you in undeniable ways,” one softball player said. “People notice you more, talk to you more, [and] it helps with job recruiting.”

Nearly 15 percent said they’ve had an eating disorder, and rowers had the highest percentage of any sport (32 percent). Sadly, 5 percent said they currently have an eating disorder. However, those numbers might be underreported: 35 percent of those surveyed said they think at least one of their teammates has an eating disorder.

Obviously muscles are an important part of being an athlete, but 30 percent of those surveyed say they’re worried about becoming “too muscular," something which is traditionally considered not "feminine." And, in incredibly disturbing news, 20 percent said they’ve had a coach call them “fat.” “Multiple coaches have told me I swim fast for a fat girl,” one swimmer said.

Makeup also comes into play: About 50 percent say they wear it when they compete—and about 50 percent say they don’t. “Looking pretty while you compete is a complete waste of makeup,” said one track and field athlete who deserves a high-five.

These data back up first-person accounts from athletes who have discussed the pressures they face over their appearance in their sport. In 2016, former Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson opened up about her struggle with body image during her career.

"I was what [the] media would describe as bulky, stocky, powerful, too big, too short, too fat," she told Women's Health. Gabby Douglas's performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics was nearly overshadowed by critics weighing in on her hairstyle. Michigan State runner Rachele Schulist made headlines last year when she shared that the pressure she felt to look tiny and thin like her fellow college athletes made her start restricting food—and led to an injury.

One thing is clear: If people in top physical shape are struggling with body image, it's a big red flag that we have a long way to go when it comes to body acceptance.

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