Body image. Maybe those words make you squirm. Maybe they embody power. Whatever the case, our bodies allow us to experience the world first-hand.
That’s why in conjunction with the Women’s Sports Foundation and Collegiate Women’s Sports Award, the CBS Sports Network’s show “We Need to Talk” is putting the microscope on female athletes and how they perceive their bodies.
The eight-part series within the show that features esteemed women panelists sharing their knowledge and unique perspectives surrounding the sports landscape gathered athletes like 4-time WNBA champion Maya Moore, freestyle skier Grete Eliassen, Olympic gold medal winning gymnast Gabby Douglas and 13-time Paralympic gold medal swimmer Jessica Long to give insight on their bodies. But, the discussion certainly transcends sports.
Led by “We Need to Talk” panelist and former Olympic gold medal swimmer Summer Sanders, the vignette focuses on choosing your attitude rather than choosing your body.
“I was 5’10” in eighth grade, so I was taller than everybody. My feet were bigger than everybody. It was awful to find shoes,” Maya Moore explained to Sanders in one episode. “I would tell myself, ‘You’ve got to just wait until basketball season starts. It will all make sense.”
That’s what the show is illuminating — an appreciation for differences in others and what their bodies can do.
“We have everyone from those who are retired athletes to a couple who are moms,” Sanders told us by phone of her guests on the show. “What you’re hearing are these tiny insecurities that people are talking about, even athletes. When you look at a hero talking about her insecurities, it opens up that conversation, so you see some raw moments, some funny moments and some touching moments of the journey of these athletes in their own body.”
Sanders can certainly speak to that herself. Growing up in northern California, she was tall, skinny, and could never find clothes or shoes that fit.
“My mom and I would drive two hours when I was off from swim practice to get down to San Francisco and stand in line for the Esprit outlet,” Sanders said. “I would wait in that line that went around the block, and I maybe fit into two things. I would be devastated. My mom couldn’t duct tape an outfit together. Today, my big feet serve a purpose and my long arms were what helped me win a gold medal in the 200 meter butterfly.”
Now, Sanders is encountering the same scenario with her 11-year-old daughter.
“We go shopping and it always ends in tears because nothing fits. You can’t tell an 11-year-old, ‘Listen, everyone would want your little waist and long legs.’ Anything that’s different when it comes to fashion, it’s just a bummer at that age, and I fully recognize it,” Sanders said. “I give my daughter a second to be sad or upset, and then we just move forward with reality. So, her wardrobe consists of a lot of leggings because that works out, and they can be shorter and fit around her waist.”
Cultivating body acceptance as a mother can be challenging, and there’s no sure-fire recipe for it, but Sanders is taking her own approach and carefully crafting her language surrounding it.
“My daughter is like me in that we both have a sweet tooth. So, if she asks me if she can have another piece of candy, I’ll ask her, ‘Well, what will make your body feel good?’ It’s not, ‘Oh, remember you’ll want to fit into those pants.’ I just want her to understand the power she has to make really good decisions for her body.”
In that, Sanders is sending the message that bodies are meant to be used; not just seen in the mirror.
“I think again, we focus on the strength in my daughter’s uniqueness. She’s got a lot of muscle, and we’re always reminding her how strong she is. She can give my husband a piggy back and he’s almost 200 pounds. There are things you can do to let them shine in their own little way like that.”
The conversation shouldn’t be exclusive to women either, according to Sanders.
“I just remind all of these young boys who are smaller than their grade level, the ones who hit puberty later, that their time will come,” she said. “My brother, who was 5’2″ and 95 pounds his junior year of high school, is now almost 6’0″, and he does half-Ironmans. The point is, everyone is on a different schedule of when they will become the human they will be for the rest of their lives. I just want to remind these awesome kids that there really is time for you. Just be patient and let your body get there.”
It’s true. We can’t control what we can’t control. We’re given one body at birth, and through lifestyle choices, outward changes can occur. But, ultimately it’s inward acceptance that allows us to celebrate an imperfect body, no matter how you define that.
So, forget winning WNBA championships and gold medals. If you’re using those muscular thighs to climb up mountains, employing those strong arms to lift a disabled child or offering those broad shoulders as a safe haven for people to rest their heads upon, your body is gifting you the freedom to move, to create, to live a meaningful life. And that is nothing short of amazing.
You can catch the Body Image series on “We Need to Talk,” which airs Tuesday nights on CBS Sports Network.
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) October 25, 2017