Weight Bias and Figure Skating

Weight Stigma and Figure Skating [Image description: Carolyn at an ice skating competition]
The author at the 2004 Intercollegiate National Championships where she won a silver medal

By Carolyn Comas, LCSW

For a long time I was embarrassed to tell people that I was a figure skater. I was afraid that someone would look at me and laugh at the idea that someone like me skated. I felt this way because I am in a larger body and have always been. Even though I loved to ice skate, I somehow knew that I was not in the ideal body for this sport. It never occurred to me back then that these thoughts and beliefs were biases that I had been taught both implicitly and explicitly. 

Biases are preconceived ideas about something or someone. They can be negative or positive but often we associate biases as negative. For me, I grew up with the bias that “real figure skaters” were in small slender bodies. I only saw petite tiny women (and girls) glide across the ice when I would watch the Olympics or National Championships. I never saw an ice skater that looked like me.

 In my personal experience as an ice skater  I can remember a dance and ice skating store shop owner looking down at me as she said, “we don’t carry your size.” I had coaches that reminded me that I’d skate faster if I was smaller and applauded me when I lost weight. I was highly aware that some coaches weighed their students and told them what they could and could not eat. It is really no surprise that in the sport of figure skating there are increased rates of eating disorders and overexercise, and many skaters experience poor relationships to food and body.

I was surrounded by weight stigma as I was teased by kids at school for being fat. It definitely reinforced the belief that my body was wrong. Fortunately I had friends and family who didn’t judge me and supported my passion for skating. Regardless of my size I was a real figure skater. I wore the sparkly dresses. I could do difficult jumps and all types of spins. I competed in competitions and even took home a few medals and trophies. I learned to ice dance with a partner. I performed in ice shows and represented my college at the Intercollegiate Nationals three times. I even took home a silver medal for my event. Eventually I would go on to teach others to skate. I was in love with this sport and I guess in some ways I pushed some invisible boundaries by not succumbing to the negative messages about whether I belonged on the ice or not.

Biases can be so harmful because they create this belief that the size of your body cannot do a certain sport, wear a certain piece of clothing, or just feel like you don’t belong. It was not until I was into my coaching career that I truly saw how our biases could stand in the way of doing something that could be fun. I had two students who changed the way I saw what someone can or cannot do.

The first was a 60 year old man who wanted to learn how to ice skate so he could skate with his grandson who was a hockey player.  He shared that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and wanted to ice skate with his grandson before the disease progressed enough that he wouldn’t be able to do difficult physical activity like ice skating. He told me his left leg was already significantly weaker than his right leg, but he wanted to try so that he could surprise his grandson.

The second student was an eight year old  boy who was on the autistic spectrum. His parents wanted him to learn to ice skate because his father was a hockey player and wanted to be able to ice skate with his son. Unfortunately, this student’s autism was severe enough that he would never be able to play on an ice hockey team or join in an ice skating class with others his age. Our one on one lessons focused on just teaching him to stand on the ice, feeling the cold ice with his bare hands, and marching his feet.

If we listen to what society says about only one type of body being right we might miss out on something pretty incredible. Too often in my work as a therapist I hear clients say they can’t do something because their body doesn’t fit the expectations of what has been deemed normal by society. My two ice skating students were people who many might presume were unable to ice skate because of their bodies. They did not struggle with weight stigma, but  stigma around disabilities. Many coaches did not want to teach them because they felt it would be too hard to work with them. For me, it was a blessing.

I wish there was more representation of different types of bodies in figure skating and in all sports for that matter. I hope that we can tear down these negative fat biases and that more people in bigger bodies get the opportunity to do the things they wish. Maybe some things need to be modified and maybe you won’t be an Olympic champion, but body size should not be a limiting factor of what one is allowed to do. Think about how your own biases prevent you from doing something.

I am no longer ashamed to tell people I was a figure skater. I am proud to share about my ice skating experiences and the jumps and spins I was able to do. I do not care if there is judgement because figure skating is hard. I bet most people couldn’t do a flying camel spin into a sit spin combination. But, I could, and I deserve to show that off.