Female College Athletes Say Pressure to Cut Body Fat Is Toxic

Audra Koopman wanted to be leaner and more powerful.

She also wanted to eat. But, she said, she could sense what her track and field coaches at Penn State wanted: for her to have less body fat.

Coaches never told her to achieve a specific body fat percentage, Koopman said, but a lowered score on periodic body composition tests generally earned a pat on the back.

The upperclassmen told her to stay away from the dessert table at team banquets. Coaches, they cautioned, would be watching. The cookies and other treats were not there to be eaten.

“It’s interesting how a lot of us have kind of been brainwashed into thinking that that is something that’s good for you and it is good for you to lose your period and it is good for you to have that feeling of hunger in your stomach,” said Koopman, who competed in long jump and short sprints from 2017 to 2021.

Teammates gossiped about each other’s body composition scores, she said, and over time the tests distorted her relationship with food. But as she ate less and her body fat dropped, she wasn’t running any faster. It made her wonder why the scores mattered so much.

Across the country, many collegiate athletic departments are asking or requiring student-athletes to measure their body composition, producing data that can help schools gauge whether the athletes are optimally training, resting and eating.

But The New York Times spoke with nearly 20 female current and former athletes across the Power 5 conferences, many of whom have found body composition tests to be invasive, inconsequential to their performance, and triggering for those who had eating disorders or were predisposed to them. The tests are just one aspect of a culture in women’s college sports in which weight, body image and body composition are often discussed in harmful ways — or not discussed at all, even though they are important factors in the athletes’ physical and mental health.

Body composition data often overemphasize the correlation between body fat percentage and athletic performance, while understating other key factors like sleep and hydration, said Dr. Paula Quatromoni, an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Boston University and an expert on sports nutrition and eating disorders.

Stef Strack, the founder of Voice in Sport, a digital platform for girls and women in sports that offers mental health resources and mentorship, said she had heard mixed feedback about the use of the tests.

“A lot of the struggles come in when the culture and the environment isn’t great,” Strack said. “And when you add data prioritized over how athletes feel, that’s when you get to some of these broader systemic issues that women are facing regarding body image, confidence and comparison.”

The pressures are acute in track and field, in which athletes wear revealing uniforms for competitions.

“Our uniforms are the tiny buns and tight shorts, and we run in sports bras and spandex,” said Emma Tavella, a cross-country runner at U.C.L.A., adding that their uniforms are standard for the sport. “And so, we’re very hyper-aware of our bodies.”

Both male and female athletes in track and field have spoken out about having eating disorders and being pressured about their weight by coaches. For women in sports, the strain compounds the stress society already puts on women — athletes or not — to be thin.

Christine Williford already had a lot on her plate by the time she enrolled at Texas Christian University to run track and field.

Her mother had cancer, her brother was navigating health issues and she was dealing with bulimia, an eating disorder in which a person binge eats and then vomits, fasts or exercises excessively out of guilt or shame or to try to avoid gaining weight. Williford said she felt herself spiraling early in her freshman year.

She transferred to Arizona State in 2017 to be closer to her family after a year at T.C.U. The Arizona State athletic department said it uses two body composition tests — one that measures body fat and muscle mass and another involving skinfolds measurements. Williford kept telling herself that she would feel better about her body and her performance if she had less body fat.

“No one ever says: ‘Oh, look at you. You’ve gained weight,’” Williford said. “Every time I was leaning out, everyone was like: ‘Oh, my gosh. You look so good.’”

She made herself vomit daily. Her hair came out in clumps. To numb her emotional pain, she’d started depending on painkillers, which had been prescribed to her for physical injuries.

“We’re taught as an athlete, ‘How bad do you want it?’” Williford said. “If you want it, you have to make it happen. So, we’re making things happen, and now we’re hurting ourselves trying to seek this thing.”

Williford didn’t tell anyone about her eating disorder, not even the school’s dietitian, Amber Yudell, who Williford said would have helped if she’d known about Williford’s struggles.

Williford contemplated suicide. She confided in her mother, who encouraged her to tell her coaches about her struggles. “They’re shocked that I have an eating disorder, which for me, I was like, ‘How are you surprised?’” said Williford, adding that she checked into an outpatient program for treatment and medically retired from track and field.

“At the time, it hurt, because I ran track since I was 6,” she said. “It was kind of part of my identity. But I know it’s for the best because I can’t be doing this with my body in this shape.”

A spokesman for Arizona State said in an email that he could neither confirm nor deny whether Yudell or Williford’s coaches knew about her eating disorder.

Yudell, who is also Arizona State’s director of sports nutrition, said it was important for athletes to have a choice in taking the tests, to feel protected and to know how the data is being used.

“And if you don’t have all three, then that can produce that anxiety, pressure, tension,” she said. She continued: “That’s not ideal, because we want an athlete to feel empowered and educated about their data and why it’s being collected.”

There are several ways to assess body composition. At Penn State, Koopman’s was measured with a Bod Pod, a human-size, egg-shaped capsule. She would sit on a bench inside it for a few minutes while the machine calculated her body fat, muscle and bone density and returned a score. Some schools employ a DEXA Scan, which uses a hovering arm to make measurements as athletes lie on a table.

After The Oregonian reported on concerns from athletes at the University of Oregon about how DEXA Scans were being used in 2021, the school said teams could no longer require athletes to be tested for body fat percentage or share the results with coaches.

An N.C.A.A. spokesman referred to the organization’s Sport Science Institute website when asked if the association had instituted guidelines regarding body composition tests or how the information gathered is used and shared. The website includes dozens of articles on a variety of topics, including mental health, nutrition, sleep, performance, overuse injuries, and data-driven decisions. The data-driven articles focus on injuries and substance abuse.

Dr. Quatromoni said schools should not use body composition tests to measure body fat.

“This practice is steeped in weight stigma, stereotypes and misinformation,” Dr. Quatromoni wrote in an email. “It is not based on sport science, and rarely is the practice managed or monitored closely by qualified health professionals to have any positive outcome. Instead, it can have devastating consequences for the athlete and will sabotage the very goals that athletes and coaches pursue.”

Most of the female current and former athletes interviewed by The Times did not know whether their coaches received the results of the tests. However, they suspected that they did.

Many felt awkward discussing their weight with male coaches, whose comments, the women said, ranged from questions about their sexual activity to urges to get rid of their “muffin top,” referring to belly fat. And although none said the tests were mandatory, many felt it would be frowned upon if they asked to opt out.

Koopman discussed her tests only with a school nutritionist. Somehow, she said, her coaches always seemed to know her results. She said she hadn’t been told her scores would be private, but the flow of information unnerved her nonetheless.

Kristina Petersen, Penn State’s associate athletics director of strategic communications, said in an email that the school’s “general practice” was not to share the test results with coaches.

“Like other institutions, Penn State employs a number of resources — including the ‘Bod Pod’ — to help our student-athletes understand and track body composition, avoid injury, overcome setbacks and enhance overall athletic performance,” Petersen said.

Like Koopman, Abigail Stultz said she was frustrated with the culture around body image on Penn State’s track and field team. Stultz, a two-time Maryland high school state champion in both the outdoor and indoor high jump, entered college in 2015 expecting her success to continue.

A roommate told Stultz that she had registered around 15 percent body fat in her first body composition test and assumed that Stultz’s results would be similar. Instead, Stultz’s test showed her at around 20 percent. A school dietitian told Stultz that her numbers were in an ideal range. But Stultz said a coach told her that her body fat should be lower.

“That number meant everything about you,” Stultz said. “Unless you were a specific subgroup of people who were, like, really top performers. There was a big discrepancy in how people were treated.”

Stultz, who had dealt with binge eating in high school, said her anxiety got worse when a coach started asking her about her weight every day.

She started depriving herself of food by eating half a protein bar before the first of three daily practices, a protein shake or banana after the first practice, and a protein bar or a tuna packet for lunch.

“It created this world for me where the only way I could be successful was if I lost weight, and that would be my ticket,” Stultz said. “Like, as soon as I do that, everything would change for me. That’s the guise that it became.”

Her weight fell rapidly. Stultz’s next Bod Pod results showed her at 13.3 percent body fat. According to the American Council on Exercise, an ideal body fat percentage for a female athlete is between 14 and 20 percent. Dr. Quatromoni said every body is different, and whether an individual will be healthy with a certain amount of body fat depends on several factors, like genetics.

Stultz said she stopped menstruating for over a year as she dieted to lose body fat. She often felt tired and dizzy at workouts and practices.

“I was getting praised for that,” Stultz said of her push to lose weight. “Meanwhile, I was literally almost passing out in the weight room.”

Throughout college, Stultz found herself teetering between restricting her food intake and binge eating. She retired after an ankle injury and is now a dietitian, working with people who have eating disorders.

Stultz said body composition tests can be a useful screening tool for athletes, if those numbers aren’t prioritized over the mental health of athletes even in a numbers-based sport.

“I don’t think it can be used in a beneficial way until coaches and people are educated about how to use it safely,” she said.

Gossiping about body fat scores, as Koopman experienced at Penn State, and athletes sharing among themselves can create their own problems.

“Everyone’s body is different, and your needs and what is optimal for you are, of course, going to be different,” said Hannah Dimmick, a former distance runner at the University of Kansas. “But when it’s not contextualized and is only given as a number, you can say or hope that people are not comparing themselves to each other, but somehow those numbers always get out.”

By the end of Dimmick’s time at Kansas, the athletic department’s nutritionist had stopped sharing the athletes’ body composition results with them altogether after some of the athletes expressed concerns with how they were being discussed.

“I do think that was its own kind of oversight in a way,” Dimmick said. “I was not always eating perfectly healthy. My nutrition was not perfect. I was a college student. But I didn’t feel like I was ever asked to change anything, that maybe there was some room for improvement.

“There could have been some kind of constructive conversation there. But because my body fat percentage was low, that was all that was really considered.”

Dimmick’s teammate Alaina Schroeder underwent three DEXA scans a year at Kansas.

Schroeder noticed her teammates altering their eating and training schedules the week the scans took place. Nutritionists changed frequently at the university, Schroeder said. One would explain the scan’s results to her, and afterward, her coach went over them with her as well, approving of athletes when their body fat percentage went down.

“The goal was always low,” Schroeder said. “It was never like, ‘Let’s find the percentage that works best for you.’”

Schroeder added: “Achieving a certain body fat percentage was just another thing that you were either succeeding or failing at. Most of the time it was failing at because in everyone’s mind, you could always be lower, which is super messed up.”

In May 2019, Kansas announced a collaboration with the University of Kansas Health System that allowed staff members to report to medical professionals instead of physicians employed by the athletic department, with the goal of minimizing potential conflicts of interest between coaches and the sports medicine staff.

Body composition tests are not mandatory at the university unless a student-athlete has a previously identified medical condition that requires monitoring, a Kansas spokesman said.

Dan Beckler, a former senior associate athletic director at Kansas, said sports dietitians would give the athletes recommendations based on the results but would not share information with coaches without the students’ consent.

Koopman, the former Penn State athlete, said the information should be shared only in certain situations. Koopman is now helping to coach track at one of the high schools she grew up near in Colorado and plans to attend graduate school.

The body composition tests can be beneficial, she said, depending on how they are used and how the information is shared.

“If somebody is really having issues with something maybe that’s when you bring in the body scan,” she said. “But if not, I feel like I would have been much better off not knowing about it at all.”

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