Article By: Hannah Boudreau
Photos By: Lexi Thompson
It is not uncommon to see women speaking out about unrealistic beauty standards in the media. As women become more educated on the way clothing brands use technology to alter their models’ bodies, the message of body positivity seems to spread further and further.
Upon taking a closer look, you see large companies such as Dove and Aerie releasing campaigns combating the pressures put on women by today’s society to have a certain body type and have featured untouched and natural photos of a variety of models. In Dove’s recent study The Real Truth Behind Beauty: Revisited, some shocking statistics were revealed; only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful, 54% say they are their own worst critic, and 72% feel a tremendous pressure to be beautiful.
Within the world of sports, most athletes would say the competition and pressure to be thin or lean is greatly heightened. In a study conducted by the NCAA, 24% of Division I athletes and 30% of Division III athletes were dissatisfied with their appearance. Competitiveness, performance pressures, exposing uniforms and lack of representation of different body types in ads and professional sports are among different factors contribute to low self-esteem in athletes.
Another number that may shock readers is 6.5 million, or the number of individuals in the United States that have an intellectual disability. So when it comes to body image, where do these individuals fall? What about athletes who have an intellectual disability?
I sat down with two Special Olympic Maryland athletes to have a conversation about what it’s like to be a female athlete with a disability and how they overcome the pressures put on them by the media and society.
Candace Whiting, a 32-year-old athlete from Frederick, Maryland, started Special Olympics when she was 14. She competes (or has competed in) alpine skiing, golf, swimming, tennis, kayaking, and gymnastics and has competed in the USA games twice (once in 2006 and once in 2010.) Candace explains that kayaking is her favorite because it is the most difficult out of the sports she competes in. “I love to challenge myself,” she explains.
I also spoke with Elaina Camacho, who began competing in Special Olympics in 1997. Now 28-years-old, Elaina competes in swimming, kayaking, golf, ten pin bowling, snowshoeing, soccer, basketball, and is currently training to start long distance running. Her favorite sport out of the bunch is swimming.
Elaina has also recently been chosen to be a Special Olympics North America Health Ambassador. This is a huge accomplishment as only 15 athletes from the entire continent were chosen to represent Special Olympics and healthy habits it instills in its athletes. “We’re going out there and promoting athletes living a healthy and active lifestyle and you know, letting athletes know there are places for them to go to seek good medical care,” Elaina explains.
Candace and Elaina are both similar in that they are passionate about living a healthy and balanced lifestyle and each have their own unique journey towards becoming the healthiest version of themselves.
Candace, who has recently lost 23 pounds by using a naturopathic diet, explains that losing weight wasn’t easy. “That was hard, but at the same time I was happy with the results.” A naturopathic diet focuses on overall health and eating foods as close to their natural state as possible.
Candace acknowledges the difference between losing weight in a healthy way and in an unhealthy way. “Have [only] salads, don’t’ eat meat- no. That’s not healthy.” Candace also explains that being healthy is not just about what is on the outside. “Having competition with yourself is not healthy at all.”
Elaina also has quite the weight loss story, as she has lost 55 pounds since March. “I was at a point where I was happy, but I just wasn’t that happy about how I felt about my body image,” she explains. In order to lose weight, Elaina used the Weight Watchers system whilst exercising each day. In addition to walking her dog for 30 minutes, Elaina also set a goal to run a half marathon for her 30th birthday. By using her goal to train for a long distance race, it helped her to reach her lose weight while doing something that she enjoys.
Elaina, much like Candace, stresses balance when speaking about a healthy lifestyle. “Once in while I do allow myself to have a cheat day but on those days I still make sure I am making sensible choices,” Elaina says. She also explains that diets should not be a “quick fix” but rather a commitment to a lifestyle change.
“For any woman who is thinking of undergoing a diet and wants good foods to eat and an exercise routine, don’t listen to all those commercials because you never know- a lot of them tend to be a ‘quick fix’ or are more dangerous to you than they are good for you,” says Elaina.
Candace and Elaina also have a message for any readers who may be struggling with unhealthy habits in the form of extreme dieting or an eating disorder: “Stop dieting. Stop whatever you are doing to harm yourself and just live your life. Live your life to the fullest,” said Candace.
“Just talk to someone you can trust like a dietician, psychologist, or even a healthy lifestyle coach,” Elaina added.
When it comes to insecurities, Candace recalls a time where she didn’t feel happy and confident about herself, despite her outgoing, upbeat personality. “I looked into the mirror and I was about to go to swim practice and I was in my bathing suit and I didn’t like the way I looked,” she said. “[But] now I am very happy with my journey.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a big name athletic gear company that features models with any sort of developmental or intellectual disability in their ads. Actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find any clothing brand that features this part of the population.
There are 6.5 million people in the United States who are getting virtually no representation in mainstream clothing ads. Not only is this harmful to those with intellectual disabilities, but it is harmful to a society as a whole as we are not as exposed to how diverse our population really is.
Elaina explains that the lack of representation may be contributing to individuals with intellectual disabilities not realizing what they’re capable of. “There are currently a lot of people in the state of Maryland who have an intellectual disability and they really don’t know what they can achieve through the power of sport. And I think if they would see a person like that portrayed in a positive way in the media with ads and commercials for sports equipment and sportswear they would be inspired to get involved in the Special Olympics program.”
Candace also hopes to someday help change the stigma behind how athletes are portrayed in the media. “My dream is to model for a big name sports company and be able to represent what that company is and just be a role model. If I can inspire one person than my life is complete,” she said.
Upon being asked how having Down syndrome affects her as an athlete, Candace gave one of the best answers I’ve heard to this question: “It hasn’t.” Just like any other athlete, Candace trains and competes with passion and intensity. She explains that once the gun goes off, she is ready to go.
And also similar to other athletes, Candace explains she has bad days, too. “If I feel bloated or something and I’m feeling down I do something positive like shopping or getting [my] nails done,” she says.
Candace and Elaina also agree that having positive role models is important in being a strong athlete. Candace explains that Simone Biles and Shawn Johnson (both Olympic gymnasts) are her role models because they’ve overcome many obstacles. Elaina says that Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky is her inspiration because she is a strong, healthy, and successful distance swimmer.
Although as athletes it’s oftentimes easy to get caught up in the physical aspect of health, Candace and Elaina think it’s important to draw attention to heath’s true meaning.
“When you’re happy, and have a positive attitude and just strive to be the best that you can be, if you can make yourself happy- that’s healthy,” Candace said. “Be humble and have a good heart and rely on friends and family because they can support you.”
Elaina’s definition of healthy was oddly similar, despite being interviewed at a completely different time. “My definition of a healthy person is one who doesn’t let the media or others tell them about how they should live to be healthy [or] how you feel about yourself or how you feel in your own skin.”
Although both women gave different definitions, the same message prevails: health and self love go hand in hand.
“I don’t really follow trends. Being who you are is the healthiest thing you can ever do. [You are healthy] if you’re active, if you’re happy with yourself, [if] you surround yourself with positive things,” Candace says. “I may be born with Down syndrome [but] whatever disability you have, being happy is the right thing to do.
By equating healthy to happy, Candace and Elaina have been able to be successful in not only their respective sports but in their lives in general. They serve as role models to not just other athletes with disabilities, but to anyone who strives to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
Aren’t these the type of role models we should strive to have pictured in the media? Why is it that we are allowing 6.5 million people to still be unrepresented? How is it that their messages of health and self-love are still largely unheard?
I encourage those reading this piece to redefine what healthy and athleticism means to them. I also encourage them to stand up for the 6.5 million people who think that because they have an intellectual disability, they cannot be these things. Our media provides a lot of false information, but the notion that those with intellectual disabilities (athlete or not) cannot be the depiction of health, beauty, or athleticism is simply untrue.
*Since this article was written Special Olympic Maryland athlete Candace Whiting was picked to be a model for the Down Syndrome Association of Richmond (DSAGR) fashion show sponsored by GAP*
This article was written by Kira Northrop