The new Super Rugby Aupiki has the power to change attitudes, by showcasing a diverse range of female athletes’ body shapes and sizes.

We’ve all heard the saying “you can be what you can see”. But what if the women we see on TV don’t look like us; don’t have the same size legs, shoulders and arms as us; or even the same body type? What do you do then?

New Zealand Rugby recently announced the new women’s Super Rugby Aupiki; with over 100 contracted female athletes between the four teams, this is a monumental leap forward for the professional game in Aotearoa.

The competition has the power to do so much more. It will showcase a range of athletic female body types and how they all have the ability to compete at the top level in sport.

The link between sports and masculinity is embedded in society.  When participating in sport, female athletes are expected to conform to society’s view of femininity and its impossible beauty standard. This standard is even worse for athletic females, where there is only one “accepted” body type. Those who don’t conform are deemed “unfit” and not portrayed by the media in a positive light.

In 2016, Forbes dubbed rugby “the only sport that excludes body shaming” due to the nature of the roles of the different positions on the field. You have forwards, who are your stronger and more powerful players, while the backs are your faster and more agile players.

The strengths of different body types are utilised and triumphed. Super Rugby Aupiki will showcase diverse female bodies live on TV, and the focus will be on what those players are bringing to the field, not how they look.

Health is defined as “the condition of the body and the degree to which it is free from illness”. Many people’s understanding or perception of health is one that is incorrect.

Some commonly accepted assumptions are that a slim and lean body means a healthy one. Society accepts a singular unsustainable body type, encouraging over-exercising and under-eating to achieve it. This is particularly true for athletic females, who are more highly influenced by sociocultural factors related to body image and eating habits.

This incorrect perception of health is resulting in illness, specifically Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). RED-S is the impaired physiological functioning that results from being in a state of energy deficiency. It includes – but is not limited to – impairments of menstrual function, bone health, metabolic function, gastrointestinal function and cardiovascular health.

RED-S results in reduced athletic performance, increased risk of injury, a higher incidence of mild depressive traits, and decreased ability to manage stress. It is extremely prevalent in the female athletic population and serious long-term and irreversible health consequences can result.

Blues front rower Cristo Tofa covets the ball in a tackle during the first Blues v Chiefs clash. Photo: Getty Images.

Young females are exposed to only specific female body types participating in sport at an elite level. This exacerbates the belief that to achieve in sport they must conform to societal norms and change their body to succeed. This increases the risk of body dissatisfaction, engagement in pathologic eating behaviours and RED-S.

As athletes ourselves we write this article from the perspective of women who have suffered from RED-S. Both forgoing periods, getting stress fractures, applying restrictive diets and overtraining in all the pursuit of getting our bodies to look a certain way – and believing this would be the key to sporting success.  

The myriad of heart-breaking social media posts from some of our top female athletes is evidence of the negative effect that conforming to societal expectation around athletic female bodies has.

Take for instance Silver Fern Maia Wilson, who at the age of 15 was told she needed to lose some weight, and Cat Tuivaiti, who was regularly torn apart by the media about her body type when she was playing international netball. Athletic ability and performance being completely disregarded with focus rather on how these athletes looked.

Sport is about physical achievement not a person’s body type. Viewing elite athletes competing in sport should be an empowering experience for young females and not one that impedes on their mental and physical health.

A greater diversity of female athlete body types will encourage young females involved in sport to focus more on what their body can do, than what it looks like, and help to change societal norms around how an athletic female body should look.

Super Rugby Aupiki ultimately has the power to change the narrative about women’s body in sport, to push back and showcase that there is more than just one  athletic female body type.

More importantly, it will show a generation of young wahine that they can succeed in their own skin. After all, you can be what you can see, right?

Erin Roxburgh-Makea is a PhD student in Māori business at Victoria University of Wellington, a Women in Sport Aotearoa board member and a NZ representative in handball and beach handball.

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