Olympic hero confesses anxiety over body image

When Rebecca Adlington’s worries about her looks drove her to public tears, it sparked a debate that has gone all the way to parliament. Is the media to blame for women’s insecurities?

Rebecca Adlington has achieved physical feats unmatched by almost any of her compatriots. At the age of just 24 she has won four medals in the Olympic pool, making her the joint most successful female Olympian in British history.

Adlington has spent her entire life moulding her body into a finely-tuned swimming machine. Yet this week Adlington appeared on television screens across the country in tears – and insecurity over that exceptional body was the cause.

As a competitor on the current season of I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, the athlete is appearing alongside the model Amy Willerton, Miss Great Britain 2013. When Willerton appeared in a bikini to sunbathe, Adlington became too self-conscious to follow suit. One of the world’s top swimmers, in other words, is too ashamed of her body to be seen publicly relaxing in swimwear.

Later, sitting around the campfire, she revealed what was behind her insecurity. ‘I wasn’t trying to be a model,’ she explained, ‘but pretty much every single week on Twitter I get someone commenting on the way I look.’ Then, interviewed in front of the camera, she cried as she protested that ‘we’re made to feel like being a size 12 or 14 isn’t attractive… it makes you feel so bad about yourself.’

Judging from the response on Twitter, Adlington’s comments have struck a chord with many women. So much so that they were even the subject of a debate in the House of Lords.

‘It is a worrying trend that young women are increasingly put under pressure to conform to look a certain way,’ said Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. Her own experience suggested, she said, that ‘the majority of young people would rather be thin than healthy.’

Adlington’s tears have fuelled an increasingly intense debate about the way the media distorts expectations of women. Those with a particular type of body are held up as an aesthetic ideal across the media, in anything from adverts to newspaper front pages, while others – even those whose physique ought to be enviable – are vilified for failing to conform.

Body blow

Some people have advised Rebecca Adlington to ignore the obnoxious comments about her looks. Women should be valued for their achievements, not their bodies, they say – and who has more to be proud of than she has?

That’s easier said than done, others reply. Everybody gets self-conscious about their body, no matter how successful they are. It’s not Adlington’s fault she’s insecure: it’s the relentless media parade of tall, thin, big-breasted women offered to the public as role models, and a general tendency to constantly pass judgement on how people look. We are all to blame for Rebecca’s tears.

You Decide

  1. ‘There’s nothing impressive about being beautiful.’ Do you agree?
  2. Is the media to blame for women’s insecurities about how their bodies look?


  1. Look at the graphic above. What do you think it can teach us about attitudes to female beauty?
  2. Imagine you are the editor of a magazine advice column. Write a reply to a girl who is worried that she is not thin enough.

Some People Say...

“I’d rather be an Olympic champion than a supermodel.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are you saying it’s not attractive to be thin?
Not at all: some people are naturally small-waisted, and that’s fine. Others are not, and that’s fine too. Beauty comes in many forms. Instead of trying to be a certain shape or weight, try to concentrate on being healthy and fit. That will ultimately make you not only feel good, but look good too.
That’s not what everybody else seems to think.
Well, anybody who tries to tell you how you ought to look is a meddling idiot who doesn’t deserve your attention. If you are happy, healthy and comfortable with yourself, people will find you attractive – that’s the truth, whatever you hear people say.

Word Watch

Many celebrities say that the pressure on their physical appearance has been made more intense by social media: comments that were once made in private are now made public, and sometimes even addressed to the celebrity themselves.
Few question that the pressure to conform to a particular physical type is greater for women than men. But this is not an exclusively female problem: concerns are growing that boys too are increasingly given the message that they ought to be muscular, thin and tall.
Tanni Grey-Thompson
A Welsh wheelchair racer who won 16 paralympic medals including 11 golds. She is now a television presenter and sits in the House of Lords.
To do with the perception of beauty and form. An entire branch of philosophy called aesthetics is devoted to considering what constitutes beauty and why we find certain things attractive.


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