Opinion: Abi Burton shows importance of tackling body dysmorphia in sport

England Women

Women's sport is constantly being thrust into the spotlight as more and more milestones are met each year. Broadcasters and sponsors are loosening the purse strings when it comes to investing and supporters are playing their part by constantly racking up record-breaking viewing and attendance numbers.

However, there's a lot still waiting to be rectified when it comes to the sport. A lot has set female athletes back over the years, with detrimental decisions like the FA's decision to ban women's football adding a huge weight onto an already uphill climb. 

Rugby sevens rising star Abi Burton spoke to Telegraph Sport on the hardships she has faced as a female athlete. The 21-year-old told her story of battling with body dysmorphia during her younger years, particularly during school when she really put her passion for rugby into motion.

"I didn’t fit in at all. I stuck out like a sore thumb," Burton said of her time in high school. "I had bleach-blonde hair and was five foot seven at the age of 13, with muscles bigger than the majority of the boys in my high school. I got picked on because of it.

"And it wasn’t by other girls – it was by boys and that shocked me a little bit more that the boys would feel that way. I was more broad, I looked bigger in a school shirt and from that I got comments like, ‘She looks like a man’, ‘flabby Abi’, ‘she’s a bloke’, ‘why is she going in the girls changing rooms because she looks like a bloke?’"

Body dysmorphia affects approximately 2% of the general population, with groups like teenagers and women more likely to be affected by it. Younger years are always challenging for anyone, especially when trying to find out where they fit or how they want to be perceived by others. Throw into the mix the struggles of fighting sporting stigmas and many budding athletes could throw in the towel on their dreams.

Fighting back against the stigma

For Burton, she came out of her teenaged years and viewed the high school taunts as "a product of society". Whilst it led her down a dark route of binge eating and purging as she tried to manage her emotions, she has ultimately grown to love herself because of the support from the sport around her.

The Wasps player discussed a poignant moment in which World Cup winner Natasha Hunt helped squash the negativity about her body that Burton was harbouring from old wounds. 

"[I] told her I felt self-conscious because my skin folds were higher than everybody else’s. She told me that no one cared what I looked like as long as I performed well on the pitch. For her to say that to me was everything I needed. From that moment I decided to share my story."

Burton is currently hoping to be considered for a spot at the Tokyo Olympics, representing Great Britain Sevens. But such a dream would not have been conjured up without belief in herself as an athlete, but more importantly as a woman.

The stigmas that surround women in sport can be extremely toxic. Stereotypes and online trolls only continue to fuel the fire around shaming women for their bodies and diminishing their achievements as professional athletes. But as females in sports continue to push against the glass ceiling, the empowerment within the community grows.

For players like Burton, her story is something from her past that she would perhaps like to forget. But for others, it serves as a wonderful example of sisterhood and proof that within the right environments, even those who feel most damaged can blossom alongside everyone else.

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