Junior volleyball player Elena Shklyar grinned remembering the days she would come home from grade school in an elementary-age crisis.
“I would go home and cry to my mom saying ‘Am I ugly? What’s going on?’ and she would say ‘Oh Elena, they’re intimidated by you,’” Shklyar said, reflecting back on the three-day relationships her friends would find themselves in, dates she never got asked on.
"It was because I was taller,” she said. “I definitely could bench press any of those boys at age 10. ... I was taller; I was stronger. I wasn’t the idea of the petite girl.”
Then the pressure came again. This time in high school as she actively searched for the place where she would pursue her dream of being a Division I volleyball player.
Shklyar knew that eyes were on more than her athletic ability every time she stepped in between the stripes of the court.
“We would talk about my legs and that I can’t have any cellulite on them because I’m wearing spandex and coaches are going to see me and say no,” Shklyar said. “It was that fear of ‘what did I look like’ constantly.”
Body image is a struggle for almost all female athletes at some point in their careers. In total, 68% of female athletes said they felt pressured to be pretty in a study conducted by ESPNW. Also, 30% responded with a fear of being “too muscular.”
Between every set and during every rep, women athletes think about that.
MSU gymnast Lea Mitchell is part of that 68%. In a sport like gymnastics, Mitchell described a certain pressure to fit the image of a so-called “ideal gymnast.”
“We’re constantly being judged literally by judges to get a perfect 10, and we’re trying to get to perfection which is obviously not attainable in life in general,” Mitchell said. “Gymnasts have this ideal gymnast (image) and preferably they’re shorter. For example, Simone Biles, she's 4-foot-8 or 4-foot-9. I’m 5-foot-6. So, technically I’m very tall for a gymnast."
The narrative is similar for female athletes globally, and although it's a topic that many sweep under the rug, Mitchell said she thinks more people may struggle with body image than they let on.
“I wouldn’t say everyone experiences the same things as everyone else but it is something that you constantly think about having to look pretty, having to stay fit, having to look lean,” she said. “A lot of people struggle with body image even if they don’t openly express it.”
More recently, the NCAA released a study that indicated that approximately 41% of female athletes reported feeling mentally exhausted in fall 2020. The number nearly doubled the 22.5% of male athletes who responded with the same feeling.
An unrealistic battle between beauty and success in sports is fought by female athletes daily and for most, it takes time to accept the building of muscle as it runs in circles through the minds of female athletes.
For most, it takes time to identify the beauty in their strength.
Practice makes perfect ... and muscle
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Junior field hockey goaltender Monique Jardell practices six days per week. Two of the days are focused on conditioning, with another two centered around lifting.
In all six she spends some time in full gear on the field.
As a goalie, Jardell said she focuses on exercises that enhance her explosiveness and agility, both of which require her to target muscle groups in her lower body.
“I do have a much bigger lower body than most...That’s definitely something in high school that I was insecure about,” Jardell said. “It’s something I’ve had to get, I don’t want to say used to ... but something I had to grow to love.”
“Grow to love,” seemed to be a common denominator among collegiate female athletes, especially for junior golfer Haylin Harris.
Harris started playing sports when she was four. She loved competition and played six sports before settling on basketball and golf as a high schooler.
Harris was petite as a teenager and had difficulty gaining muscle. Harris focused on conditioning her brain so she could play smarter against her competition.
That was until she made it to East Lansing.
“Since I’ve gotten to college I’ve been able to put on muscle really fast, especially in my legs,” Harris said. “When you're constantly working out and lifting and trying to be strong you definitely bulk up and for most girls, they think that’s a very unattractive look to a certain point.”
Although golfers may not spend as much time in the weight room as other athletes, women’s golf Head Coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll said endurance and the overall health of her athletes is primary. When practicing and preparing for weekend-long tournaments, golfers are subject to a strenuous workout schedule to get them conditioned to compete.
“I think the realization that if our players have not worked out a lot in the past, it’s something that we do on a very, very regular basis,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “It’s not only to hit the golf ball as far as they can, but it’s to keep them in shape when we’re playing 36 holes.”
Mitchell, like Harris, noticed a change in her body when transitioning to college. Gymnasts traditionally focus on calisthenics training, which is conditioning that involves low weights with high reps. However, in Mitchell’s first year at MSU that weight training tradition changed.
The Boynton Beach, Florida native said the team’s strength coach had them practice more traditional strength training with heavier weights.
As a result, Mitchell grew into a bulkier body.
“Freshman year my body changed a lot,” Mitchell said. “I actually gained 15 pounds. I didn’t know if it was because of what I was eating or from weight training. I was definitely insecure, especially as a female. You don’t want to gain weight, so I was very insecure about the way that my body looked, and I was so focused on trying to lose weight because I didn’t like the way that I felt or the way that I looked.”
For Shklyar the mission to find beauty in her strength began at a young age.
When she started to play sports, Shklyar quickly turned away from leaner activities like gymnastics and ballet to pursue more male-dominated sports that matched her body type. She played on the boys' soccer team before picking up a volleyball in fifth grade.
“I was definitely a little bit of a chubbier little kid, and volleyball is a sport of tight spandex and tight jerseys so right away that was the first thing you could see was my gut sticking out of the jersey when I was 10 or 12 years old,” Shklyar said “I’ve always been way taller, way more built and once I started lifting — that was when I realized ‘Wow I look really strong and athletic.’”
And it adds up.
More practice means more muscle, which all four athletes said impacted their performance positively. But that realization didn’t come immediately.
Finding the beauty behind the muscle
Mitchell wakes up the day of a gymnastics meet with a lengthy preparation schedule ahead of her. She’ll do her makeup before she’ll tie her hair back, making sure no fly-away hairs leave the knot of her scrunchie. She’ll slip into her leotard and instead of worrying about her appearance, she’ll embrace it.
Beneath the toned muscles, tendons and skin — there is beauty, there is grace.
“Everyone who I’m surrounded by, they just help me know that my body is my body and it’s going to be how it wants to be,” Mitchell said. “You just have to remember that you’re beautiful ...And this is the way that God made you.”
Mitchell said her and her teammates help remind each other to embrace their bodies and appreciate the skills that their bodies help them achieve while always making sure to not compare to social media standards.
“We just try to motivate each other and just encourage each other to love who they are,” Mitchell said. “A lot of our team is faith-based, so just knowing that God made each of us perfectly in his image and we don’t have to look like someone else or compare ourselves to someone else because he made us the way that he wanted to make us.”
Jardell, in her third year at MSU, no longer sees her muscle as a part of her body that attracts weird looks. Instead, it is the part of her body that makes her unique.
“It’s realizing the power that I have because of my body, which is so cool because it’s something I can do that a lot of people can’t,” Jardell said. “Because I’m super strong and look a certain way, I’m able to do something that other people aren’t.”
It’s because of her strength and commitment to excellence that she’s made it to Michigan State. An accomplishment that she’ll forever deem as one of her greatest.
“Coming in (to MSU) I had a hard time mental health-wise with the transition,” she said. “It was really difficult so just sticking it out and making it to the point I am now ... I’m just really proud of the change and growth I’ve made since then.”
For Harris, she’s found comfort by confiding in other female athletes. Living with a tennis player, Harris said her roommate and her recognize the changes in their bodies from daily conditioning and workouts together.
It's that support that changed her outlook on her own body.
“Even other sports, other females … it’s all the same thing for all of our sports, we just have to have strong lower bodies and we’ve got to be powerful down there,” Harris said. “We’re kind of like each other's support system.”
Her coach too tries to foster these ideas.
“I try and be a role model myself,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “In normal conditions, my assistant and I work out with the team every time they work out and that’s something important. We try and be great role models in terms of what we’re eating on the road, what we’re putting in our mouths and how we’re treating ourselves. I think that’s an incredible way to influence young women."
For Shklyar, after standing in the middle of a tug-of-war between her strong body and society's standards for women, she now recognizes her defined legs and broader shoulders as an essential part of achieving the dream she now lives.
“Just noticing that my strength is what helps me be able to continue to compete at this level, I have to remind myself that when I don’t fit in to all the things I order online,” Shklyar said. “If I hadn’t started lifting if I hadn’t done that stuff, I wouldn’t be living out my dream now. I wouldn’t be able to play Division I volleyball. (All of it) if I hadn’t really invested in myself and started lifting.”
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