As conversations around mental health and wellbeing become more common, there are still some topics that carry more stigma across gender lines. Eating disorders and body image issues have traditionally been associated with women, but increasingly that’s starting to change. Former England striker Peter Crouch has been open about crying over issues with his body image. which comes as no surprise for PFA Player Welfare Executive, Jeff Whitely. We caught up with Jeff to find out 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 players at more risk of developing self-esteem issues if their lifestyle changes?
When you’re used to training daily with a fitness coach, it can be hard to maintain that level of discipline on your own. Footballers’ food intake is also very controlled when they’re playing, so when you’re out of that kind of environment, it can be easy to put on weight. I’m sure seeing changes in your body can impact self-esteem, so if you’re worried, it’s important to adapt the way you eat and work out to compensate for a change in activity level.
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 to raise your self-esteem outside of playing football, such as doing charity work or coaching a local youth team. Of course if you’re suffering, you can always contact the Wellbeing department 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.
If you are struggling with weight, body image or self-esteem you don’t have to suffer alone. The PFA Charity operates a confidential 24/7 helpline, where trained counsellors can help you access the support you might need. Please contact us here.