As conversations around mental health and wellbeing become more common, there are still topics that carry more stigma than others.
Eating disorders and body image issues have traditionally been associated with women, but increasingly that’s starting to change. In a recent documentary, Peter Crouch admitted to crying over issues with his body image, and former Manchester City midfielder Jeff Whitley isn’t surprised to hear player’s start to talk about this issue. Now working in the welfare department at the PFA, Jeff has been open about his own struggles and spends his time supporting members who seek help. We caught up with Jeff to find out more about what causes weight and body image issues in professional footballers and how it can affect their self-esteem.
Jeff, are body image issues rising among football players?
More players are coming forward with anxieties, not just about body image, but also other issues relating to self-esteem such as eating disorders. I think it’s important that people understand that even professional athletes can struggle with their weight or their relationship with food. These issues come from various sources and might have been ingrained in players for a long time. In football, you get weighed as part of the training, which used to happen in the dressing room. When I was playing, some lads used to get a little stick for looking a bit overweight, which was not good for their self-esteem. Everyone is different though, and we all have different metabolisms. Thankfully the weighing now takes place in the physiotherapy areas, so there isn’t that level of public embarrassment.
Does social media compound these issues for players?
I think so because when you look on social media, you see players taking their shirts off and showing off lean bodies. However, not every player is going to have that kind of physique. Years ago, football shirts were a lot baggier, so players who weren’t as confident could hide it more easily. Now the shirts are much more fitted, which can increase the pressure to look ‘perfect’.
Are ex-players at more risk of developing self-esteem issues as their lifestyle changes?
When you’re used to training daily and having a fitness coach, it can be hard to maintain that level of discipline on your own when you leave the game. Footballers’ food intake is also very controlled, so when you’re out of that kind of environment, it can be easy to put on weight. I’m sure when players retire, there is an impact on their self-esteem if their body changes as they adjust to their new lifestyle. While they don’t have to be as strict with their routines as when they were playing, former players need to be aware of their new levels of calorie intake and consumption and should aim to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
What behaviours could indicate someone is having body image issues?
Skipping meals, isolating themselves at mealtimes, or following a heavily restricted diet could all be signs that someone has a problem. Some people might develop unhealthy habits to keep their weight down, such as using laxatives or taking up smoking to stop hunger pangs, however these choices can have serious consequences and potentially land you in hospital. Having an unhealthy relationship with food will ultimately affect your performance on the pitch and can often be a symptom of being in a bad place emotionally. If you suspect someone is struggling, try and let them know that they can confide in you. It can take time to overcome unhealthy behaviours so making sure we support each other through open and honest conversations about how we feel is crucial.
What advice would you give members who might be having anxieties around their weight, body image or self-esteem?
The human body is an unbelievable machine, so I’d tell them to pay attention to some of the incredible things their body does for them on a day-to-day basis. If you look after it, your body can make your dreams come true, so try not to judge yourself against other people’s bodies. There are various ways outside of playing football that can raise your self-esteem, such as doing charity work or coaching a local youth team. Of course if you’re suffering, you can always contact the wellbeing department at the PFA or speak to your club doctor or local GP. Ultimately, we are all different and our bodies will change and behave differently as we grow older, and that is ok.