In this series of articles, I speak with current and past female athletes to learn about their experience in their body. The goal is to promote diverse body types in sport and raise awareness of the female athlete experience.
In this article, I speak with Paige LaFountain, a senior at Linfield University in Oregon. Paige is a collegiate basketball player and is studying exercise science.
Hannah: Paige! How’s it going? I’m excited to get to talk to you.
Paige: I am alright. Doing okay.
H: Basically, I’ll just ask you a few open-ended questions and we will go from there. So first off, tell the world a little bit about Paige–what is your sport? How did you get into it? Stuff like that.
P: Well, I play basketball. Sol, as a kid I didn’t like soccer and softball. But I liked basketball because you could practice by yourself–outside or inside. Then, I started watching old MBA basketball games. So I would watch a lot of Michael Jordan’s old games. That’s when I started like Jordan. I would watch all the Blazers games. Ya know, just watching basketball all the time and then I’d play my brother in a video game. Soon, everything just started revolving around basketball. I played on like three teams at one point.
H: Wow, really?
P: Yeah, then I started my first organized team. Then I only ever did basketball after that.
H: Okay, so you started playing pretty heavily and competitively when you were ten?
H: That’s cool! So, I happen to know that Michael Jordan is your favorite. But explain why that is–what it is about him that has made you such a fan.
P: He’s just, he always worked really hard and he had to overcome a lot of things. He was obviously a really good player. He wanted to make his teammates better and he wanted everyone to win. Which you know, some people do find [some of his actions] problematic. He was not always the nicest human being.
H: [sarcastically] That’s a little problematic I guess…
P: No matter what happened, he never gave up. There were always people trying to take him down or try to find something bad about him to like ruin his career or something. But he just kept his focus. I especially like how he worked really hard to beat the Pistons after he kept losing to them. And they were playing physically and aggressively. He didn’t give up, and then he passed them and they started winning championships.
H: Yeah, I still remember you talking about Michael Jordan going against the Pistons. It was such a good analogy for the hard trials of life–whether it’s basketball or otherwise. I appreciate that–even though I don’t understand basketball too much.
So, one question that I find interesting is when all those comparisons and thoughts about body and sport began. What was your first memory of noticing your body? Whether it was a positive one or a negative one?
P: In school, we had a uniform. Some days we had a no-uniform day. Others used to get so excited. But when we all wore the same thing, I didn’t really compare myself with them. But when we had a no uniform day, I was more self-conscious of what I was wearing of course, and then [there was the] comparison to other people.
H: Yeah, I had uniforms growing up, at least through fifth grade and I remember not really liking the non-uniform days because I had to decide and also there’s such comparison.
H: So then, how has your body image shifted since you started playing basketball? Walk me through that a little bit.
P: When I started playing basketball, I didn’t really care about [other people’s thoughts]. But then in high school, it was definitely [hard]. The bigger thing, I feel like, is how people perceived your body was kind of related to how you’d play and, there was a lot of focus on what’s “popular and good,” you know, whatever. And the people who played looked a certain way…and they just always had friends. I think it felt like, “There are just people who are perceived in a certain way with their body–they get attention and I felt I had to play super well to get attention.
H: So you felt like you had to overcompensate in the sense of being even better because you didn’t look a certain way?
H: And what age were you when you started noticing a lot of the body image comparisons on your teams?
P: Probably like, 13 or 14.
H: Now, you told me how you viewed your body and how a lot of that had changed through middle school, high school, and then in college. What did that look like as you stepped up to a higher level of competition and as covid set in? How did that impact your body image?
P: Well, it didn’t do too good for me, you know…
H: I feel like most people would say that too. Honestly, I don’t know any athletes who were just having a ball during the pandemic [laughing].
P: Yeah. I don’t know, for me, like in college, there was a lot of body stuff just around partying because people usually dress in a certain way. People would always want me to wear things I wasn’t really comfortable wearing. I don’t know why, I guess that I just felt like whatever I would want to wear wasn’t that good. [They’d be] suggesting that I do my hair a different way or [wear] makeup…I felt like I was supposed to fit this kind of look whenever I’d go out, you know? So that was kind of frustrating. And then COVID happened. I was by myself and became very focused on my body. That’s when things started going really downhill. After I came back to school, this is when I got positive comments about my body, pretty much. Then it went downhill because that kind of reinforced all the bad behaviors.
H: Positive comments about being at an unhealthy body weight?
P: Yep. Yep, so that’s basically when I went to treatment.
H: Which sucks because I do feel like our culture, especially a sport culture, seems to applaud. when there’s a physical change regardless of, if it’s in a healthy way or not. I’ve experienced that too, and I don’t understand how there’s such a lack of awareness. So, That makes me mad for you. But at the same time, you’ve been doing a lot to help educate people and bring more awareness, especially on your team. Can you talk a little bit about that?
P: I don’t know, I feel like it’s just important to try to pass along some of the information I’ve learned to my team. Because I know that, outside of people struggling with eating disorders, body image is rarely ever talked about in sport. It’s hard because we all obviously have our struggles with it. It’s hard because it just feels like…if it just stays as this thing that’s not talked about, nothing’s ever going to get better.
H: Oh yeah.
P: So I helped set up a presentation for my team and it wasn’t necessarily about body image as much as it was just about diet culture and how to properly fuel for sport
H: –which goes into [body image], a large amount.
P: Yeah, yeah. Like what examples of diet culture are and how comments about people’s bodies and certain things like that are not helpful. I really think that a lot of my teammates weren’t aware of how hurtful it could be. They weren’t aware of how they participated in diet culture and I think that goes for a lot of people, you know, before they learn about it.
P: I hope to kind of keep raising awareness, but I’m glad that it’s something that was talked about among the team. So we can all have a baseline of knowledge.
H: That’s so helpful and I love that you’re addressing the mental health side of sport because that needs to be done. It’s even more powerful when [the person who starts that conversation] is a teammate versus a paper from a coach or a comment from someone outside the team.
So you’re talking a little bit about diet culture, what are the ways you see diet culture most prominently show up in basketball?
P: Oh boy. I think there’s definitely a stigma around like how people’s bodies “should” be at certain positions. Like: the guards are supposed to be small and fast. The posts, it’s okay for them to have a little bit of a larger body because they’re like strong and they’ve got to be able to block people.
P: But if there’s a post player who’s in a smaller body, they’re usually not criticized for their body. They’re told, “She’ll get stronger”… and they won’t necessarily be criticized if they did gain some sort of body mass. But I feel like, if you’re a guard and you have any sort of larger body… usually, I’ve heard a lot of coaches, tell them to lose weight, because they’re supposed to be fast. Some will use people’s body size to describe people and it kind of makes me upset. That kind of stuff happens a lot.
People also encourage trying to be “healthy” in [very skewed ways] as well. They say, “No soda and limit your sugar.” Especially on travel days with the team–we are not allowed to get stuff like that.
A few years ago, the team had a tradition that started out [with a good intentions, I’m sure] but was really bad. At the beginning of the season, we would agree to give up one thing for the entire season. Sometimes, people chose Netflix or something, but most of the time it was a food
H: Oh this sounds very unhelpful…
P: Then, throughout the season, if we won both of the games on a weekend, we would have a cheat day where we could have what we gave up.
H: Wow. So what did you do?
P: I talked to my coach this year–not knowing that she had already like stopped that. I told her all the reasons why we shouldn’t do that “tradition.”
H: That was a very bold step!
P: Well, nobody–including me–had realized how that was a terrible idea.
H: I think in the short term, we often think things like that are helpful. If we reward ourselves, we assume we can shame ourselves into being better.
H: It sounds like your coach is supportive though. Is that correct?
P: Yeah… and, [at the same time] I see things we still need to implement among the team.
H: I’m glad you’re making a lot of those changes though like the way that you talk about yourself and talk to teammates and educate I just think that’s so cool. Especially what you were doing recently, with the presentation to your team [on mental health and nutrition].
P: But can I tell you what happened when we did Media Day?
H: Yeah! Tell me.
P: It was awful. It took like two hours. Everyone was excited to take pictures. They did their hair and makeup. And I’m like, “Get this over with.”
H: I feel that….
P: Everyone stayed to watch us and I really hate the headshots because of the pressure. And everyone was watching, getting excited and deciding if they were going to do a pose or something. I was not excited. I was not feeling good in general but I was especially not excited about that situation. Most like kind of sitting off to the side waiting for everyone to finish so I could do my individual ones without everyone looking, you know?
And people were more distressed taking pictures than they were having a good time. It was so much focus on looks. I don’t really care how I look in the uniform and that day made [looks] seem way too important. And I felt like nobody would understand why it was like hard for me. And you know, I feel very isolated in situations like that, you know?
H: Yes, the scrutiny and hyper-fixation on those photos used to wreck me.
“I would [remind my younger self], “You would rather be remembered for who you are and how you love rather than the quality of your performance.”
P: Yeah. People, especially people [fighting] eating disorders, have a hard time with pictures. But, you know, others put on makeup and do their hair. I’m not sure it’s much better for them though.
H: it’s interesting how we hide behind that stuff. So, what got you through? What helped?
P: I just kind of sat there and tried not to leave or have an anxiety attack
H: As hard as it is, that’s sometimes all we can do. You were able to pull out those skills and even tell your coach you didn’t have fun–I definitely could see myself doing that too because everybody assumes that stuff is so fun when it really is such a preoccupation on the body in a way that’s not important. So kudos to you for sharing your dislike of that activity.
H: All right, so I have a rapid-fire round of questions for you if you’re ready, okay?
P: Oh, all right. I don’t make very quick decisions.
H: That’s why this is gonna be fun!
P: [skeptically] Okay….
H: Okay, first question: tag or capture the flag?
P: Capture the flag.
H: Okay. Good choice. I like that one!
What is your ideal weather for doing outdoor movement?
P: I’d say about 60. 60, With a few clouds.
H: All right, that sounds solid. And what is your favorite post-workout or post-game snack? What hits the spot?
P: Chocolate milk.
H: Dude, classic choice. Love it. Side question: Do you have any special way that you drink your chocolate milk? Like I know some people freeze it a little bit or have it really cold?
P: I just like, straight up do it, from the fridge.
H: Any specific brand?
P: I mean it’s got to be cold but I don’t freeze it or anything. Now, when I ordered groceries a certain way, they gave me a different [brand of chocolate milk] and I was like, “oh!” I don’t know, I’m not really all in with one brand, you know? But there are definitely some I like more.
H: Good flexibility there. Okay. The last question I have for you today–-it is deeper than those fun ones– is, “If you could give young, middle school Paige a message when it comes to her body and her sport, what would you tell her?
P: Probably that her body and her performance in sport don’t say anything about who [she] is in [her] character. I’d say, “You would rather be remembered for who you are and how you love rather than the quality of your performance.
H: I love that. I hope you believe it.
P: It’s true.
H: It is and I’m excited to keep following your season and all the great things you’re doing in the world of basketball and beyond. So thanks for chatting with me, Paige.