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Dealing with body-shaming and reprogramming how women view their bodies when putting on muscle

In the first AFLW season, Erin Phillips stood out. And not just because she was the best player.

The then-Adelaide Crows superstar looked like she was carved out of granite.

And while some people simply have a genetic predisposition to looking jacked, years of training in professional set-ups in the WNBA and with the Opals could claim a lot of the credit.

Only a few years later and Phillips is no longer an outlier.

An influx of money has allowed more women to pursue sport as a full-time career, or something resembling it, and the fruits of even minimal investment are visible.

The improvement in quality in the first couple of AFLW seasons was almost unbelievable, as the first wave of women who had been able to play the sport from a young age took over the league.

It highlighted a simple cycle that gets ignored by those who complain about too much funding and too many broadcast hours being dedicated to women's sport.

It goes something like: fund women's sport, pay women to train, players get better, quality of games improves, ticket sales increase, broadcast deals grow, players can be paid more, players can train more, players get better, quality of games improves and so on.

But there's another part within that cycle, where women are abused online because their bodies resemble that of an elite athlete, even though that's what many of those same critics say they want them to play like.

Brisbane, Queensland and Australia winger Julia Robinson was one of the most recent high-profile targets of this, when the Broncos posted a training shot of her daring to have a bicep and it attracted hateful, mocking, body-shaming comments.

Clinical psychologist and leader of the Body Image Research Group at Monash University, Gemma Sharp, said this sort of abuse happens to professional, semi-professional and recreational female athletes alike.

"What has happened is we shifted from this kind of thin ideal in the 90s and the noughties, to a more athletic ideal. And that seems to be what is popular at the moment," she told ABC Sport.

"But if you take that athletic ideal too far and become 'too muscular', then that's problematic, and you are seen as conforming to the ideals for say, males, rather than females. So it's an absolute minefield."

When growing muscles feels like you're 'destroying' your beauty

It's a minefield Anna Hazlett has had to tip-toe through, with her popular YouTube channel and Instagram accounts dedicated to her rock climbing exploits.

Hazlett said when she first started climbing, progress was slow because she was "super fearful of becoming really muscular, really masculine, really unattractive".

"I was 16 when I started climbing, still in that age where I just felt like 'oh, I'm pretty thin and tall, I fit into this beauty standard that I've been told is beautiful'. And then suddenly I was actively making my body do something different," she said.

"It just was a really weird battle [where] I kind of had what I thought was supposed to be beautiful, and then I'm just completely actively destroying that image. And it was tough as a teenager to do that."

Growing up just outside Los Angeles, a hub of celebrities embodying and glorifying an often impossible beauty standard, Hazlett didn't see a lot of literally "strong" role models.

"There weren't many examples of other bodies when I was growing up, or even other brown bodies. I was surrounded by a lot of white, thin billboards and commercials and movies. So I found it really difficult," she said.

Hazlett said she "really did consider quitting climbing, which was wild, because it's my favourite thing to do in the whole world".

Sharp said this is not uncommon and "another major reason" for many girls stopping or not enjoying sport.

"Certainly, I have heard comments about trolling and people not wanting to participate, people wanting to change the uniform that they're wearing to cover up more so that people can't assess their physique," she said.

But changing the uniform isn't always an option, even for top athletes.

Tia-Clair Toomey has won Commonwealth Games gold for Australia in weightlifting, went to the Rio Olympics and has been crowned the fittest woman on Earth for the past six years by winning the CrossFit Games.

She said when she first qualified for the CrossFit Games, "the uniform was very short booty pants, and I was really taken aback".

"I felt obligated, it was compulsory to wear. It wasn't until I actually wore it, that I realised, 'wow, I actually have a lot more movement in wearing that'," Toomey said.

"So, for performance it's actually really good, but it did take me a little bit to adjust and to be accepting of that.

"It's all about functional movement."

And while you might feel it's easy for one of the world's fittest women to say that, Toomey has been on a journey with her body image that many can relate to.

Coming from track athletics, Toomey started to notice a real change in her body after about two years of proper focus on CrossFit.

With the weightlifting, gymnastic movements and power-based activities came bigger traps, delts, lats, pecs and other upper-body muscles typically associated with an ideal masculine musculature.

Along with that came constant accusations of steroid use and comments like the ones Robinson received about being too "manly".

Toomey has learned to dismiss these as people who "just don't know how to accomplish something like this themselves", but early on she said she remembers crying while telling her husband "I don't feel happy in this body", which precipitated a realignment of values.

"It came down to me really asking myself what really matters to me, and at the end of the day, it was about achieving my goals physically and mentally," she said.

"And that meant that my body needed to be a little bit more muscular, because I needed to actually physically be able to lift those weights, and in order to lift those weights, you need that muscle, right? And so that strength was crucial for me to achieve that.

"So it became so important that I was embracing my body and really accepting the tone that I was getting in my upper body, particularly."

Toomey she reached that level of acceptance, her performance "skyrocketed".

For Hazlett, the change in mindset was similar, but the improvement was less linear.

Rock climbing, at its core, is a fight against gravity. And in an oversimplified way, there are two ways to approach that fight — be lighter or get stronger.

Unfortunately, a number of elite climbers have revealed the quest for the former has led to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Hazlett said at one point she was aiming to be as light as possible on the wall and did complete some difficult climbs, but she was injured more often and took longer to recover when she did get struck down.

Her experience appears to follow the logic of the female athlete triad, a complex condition coined in the early 90s by the American College of Sports Medicine, which links menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability and decreased bone density.

Disordered eating is often the cause of amenorrhea (missing menstrual periods) and osteoporosis, all of which have been shown to be considerably more prevalent among female athletes, causing a potentially life-threatening situation.

Viewing the body for what it can do, rather than what it looks like

Eventually, Hazlett started down the path of getting bigger to get better, and it took her two years to get back to climbing to the same level she had been when she was a featherweight. But since then, her climbing ability has soared alongside her public profile in the climbing community, which she has used to spread a message of body positivity.

"It was definitely a multi-year process. And even still, I have to catch myself sometimes being like 'Oh, my shoulders are so broad'. And then I have to just remember 'yeah, they are and that's wonderful'. And just kind of reprogram everything for myself."

It's a recalibration that many women have to go through, according to Sharp.

"Teaching female athletes to think of their bodies as a functional tool that allows them to engage in sport, not just the aesthetics, that's something we would teach anyone, but certainly with athletes that's a huge deal," she said.

"Because it's through their bodies that they are able to engage in a pursuit that they absolutely love. And that's why they're doing it professionally.

"It's kind of attitude shifting."

Part of it comes down to social media and what Sharp calls "protective filtering", which basically means "follow people who inspire you, and unfollow people who make you feel crap about yourself".

And that's going to be particularly important for Toomey as she winds up her competitive career, now reckoning with a less public, but uniquely difficult part of her journey.

While her fitness levels on her worst day far outstrip any level most of us have ever approached, when you've spent a decade in a sport where the goal is literally to be more athletic than anyone else, the "norm" is somewhat skewed. And so too are your expectations about what your body should look like.

Less than two months after winning the 2022 Crossfit Games, Toomey said she was already feeling "unfit and a little overweight".

"I'm not talking that like I've put on weight. I just, personally, feel like I'm a little bit softer versus a little bit more of a hard exterior with that muscle that I'm typically used to," she said.

"And coming to terms with that and being OK with that, but still making sure that I'm hitting a very solid fitness plan and still feeling good about myself, it's going to be a slow adjustment."

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