Joanna Rowsell talks body image: "being as skinny as possible isn’t necessarily healthy"

Olympic gold medalist puts her own confidence down to sport

by John Stevenson   June 10, 2014  

Joanna Rowsell with her MBE (courtesy Joanna Rowsell)

Nobody knows better than a top cyclist the pressure to be as light as possible, but while Joanna Rowsell has coaches and nutritionists to make sure she stays healthy, she’s concerned that many people, especially young girls, are bombarded with messages about what they should and shouldn’t eat, and how thin they should aspire to be.

The subject came up in an interview with Gabrielle Fagan  of the Belfast Telegraph.

Rowsell said: “I often come across those ads on the internet for the latest diet or whatever, and there's a ‘before' and ‘after' photo saying, ‘Do you want to go from this to this?'. And often in the ‘before' picture, the woman's not even fat! There's nothing wrong with her!

“Wanting to lose weight for your own personal reason is one thing, but why are we having an image that's implying you are overweight when you're not?”

Unhealthy messages

As a young woman in the public eye, even Rowsell’s not immune to comments about her diet.

“I might tweet that I'm treating myself to a bar of chocolate, and then you'll get people saying, ‘You're a role model, you shouldn't be eating those foods'. I'll eat whatever I want to eat! I've done enough training, it's no big deal whether I've had a bar of chocolate.”

There are too many “unhealthy” messages out there, she says, about what people should and shouldn't be eating in order to be skinny.

“It annoys me,” she said. “Being as skinny as possible isn't necessarily the healthiest way to live.”

Alopecia not easy to handle

As an alopecia sufferer, Rowsell has had her own appearance issues and has said it “wasn’t easy” to deal with losing all her hair. But when she found herself standing on an Olympic podium, she realised that her condition made it easier for people to relate to her.

“I think a lot of people relate to the alopecia, and not just other people with alopecia but anybody with body confidence issues and stuff,” she said. “And I sort of realised that when I was standing on that podium.”

Nevertheless, suddenly being cast as a role model and poster girl for body image issues was a bit overwhelming.

"I don't have all the answers!"

Rowsell said: “At the time, I sort of felt everyone was looking up to me like I was this inspirational role model, and assumed I had all the answers. Everyone was asking me, ‘How do you deal with it, what advice would you give?', and I felt a bit like, ‘I don't have all the answers!' But I hope I did an okay job.”

What would she advise as a way to overcome body image issues? Exercise.

She said: “Sports has been a massive confidence-booster in my own life, and I'd advise everybody that that's a good way to do it. Any issues you have with your body, or any general confidence issues, I think that can really help.”

33 user comments

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This is exactly the message young girls and women need to hear about body image! Another very good reason why we need more women's sport on mainstream TV. What could be better than portraying healthy body images in the media, shown at times when young girls can be inspired and influenced to lead healthy lifestyles and possibly also become part of a new generation of British sporting talent.

Ordinary Cycling Girl @OrdCyclingGirl
http://www.ordinarycyclinggirl.co.uk
A women's cycling blog from an ordinary girl discovering and loving life on two wheels

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posted by Ordinary Cyclin... [9 posts]
10th June 2014 - 18:45

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They should all be obsessed with their power to weight ratios. Everyone knows that!

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1093 posts]
10th June 2014 - 18:53

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Beautiful inside and out that lass.

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posted by mingmong [191 posts]
10th June 2014 - 20:28

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Jo came to Shropshire recently. She rode a 10 mile time trial on the Saturday and the Shrewsbury GP crit race on the Sunday. On both occasions she was gracious and accomodating towards every single person who approached her. What a superb role model!

Big companies make obscene amounts of money making women feel insecure about their appearance, using every trick they can. I feel sorry for women who think they need to wear a load of makeup to leave the house and have waxing, plucking, tanning or whatever done just to look 'acceptable'.

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posted by Simon E [1919 posts]
10th June 2014 - 20:54

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Ordinary Cycling Girl wrote:
This is exactly the message young girls and women need to hear about body image! Another very good reason why we need more women's sport on mainstream TV. What could be better than portraying healthy body images in the media, shown at times when young girls can be inspired and influenced to lead healthy lifestyles and possibly also become part of a new generation of British sporting talent.

You're right of course, but I think it's bigger than that. Young girls often want the impossible figure because their aspirations go no further than getting their kit off for a lads magazine, marrying a footballer or just somehow attaining some ridiculous 'celebrity' status. Showing them that they can aim to be the best in the world at something - something which happens to encourage a nicely athletic physical appearance, is a big challenge, but so worthwhile. Keep shouting it from the rooftops, Jo.

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [2975 posts]
10th June 2014 - 20:57

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She rode our open 25 last year (and smashed my PB). Lovely person and completely awesome.

I've got the "eat what you like" bit down pat but I am struggling with pedalling it off.

posted by SteppenHerring [169 posts]
10th June 2014 - 21:47

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http://www.joannarowsell.com/results/

Fabulous. She's achieved so much in such a short time.

Airzound

posted by Airzound [223 posts]
10th June 2014 - 22:28

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Another huge fan here.

posted by mmag1 [8 posts]
10th June 2014 - 23:01

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notfastenough wrote:
Ordinary Cycling Girl wrote:
This is exactly the message young girls and women need to hear about body image! Another very good reason why we need more women's sport on mainstream TV. What could be better than portraying healthy body images in the media, shown at times when young girls can be inspired and influenced to lead healthy lifestyles and possibly also become part of a new generation of British sporting talent.

You're right of course, but I think it's bigger than that. Young girls often want the impossible figure because their aspirations go no further than getting their kit off for a lads magazine, marrying a footballer or just somehow attaining some ridiculous 'celebrity' status. Showing them that they can aim to be the best in the world at something - something which happens to encourage a nicely athletic physical appearance, is a big challenge, but so worthwhile. Keep shouting it from the rooftops, Jo.

I think the media plays a big part in what you're saying. I think the aspirations of young girls don't currently go further because all they really see on tv and magazines is women taking their clothes off for lads mags, women marrying footballers and tv shows/magazine spreads featuring those with some tiny semblance of a celebrity status. I see what you mean, but it's not just about trying to inspire young girls to be the best in the world at something, it's about showing them what a healthy figure looks like and that it's acceptable. Media focus desperately needs to shift.

Ordinary Cycling Girl @OrdCyclingGirl
http://www.ordinarycyclinggirl.co.uk
A women's cycling blog from an ordinary girl discovering and loving life on two wheels

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posted by Ordinary Cyclin... [9 posts]
10th June 2014 - 23:21

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Go Jo!

posted by edster99 [148 posts]
10th June 2014 - 23:29

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I like big butts, I can't deny.

I like big boobs too, I really don't get why being skinny is seen as in ideal. I wish women didn't worry so much about body image so much, everyone should be able to feel happy the way they are.

posted by drfabulous0 [275 posts]
10th June 2014 - 23:37

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I hope JR feels the love from the masses. She deserves it.

posted by Beaufort [124 posts]
11th June 2014 - 7:16

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Literally my favourite sportswoman in.the.world <3

I've suffered with both weight problems and have pretty hectic alopecia at the moment and it's people as human and inspirational as Jo that makes me sit there and think "fuck it, it's alright". 6 years ago I'd have been a crumbling mess if I'd have lost my hair!

It's so refreshing to have someone so genuinely sound in the sports limelight at the moment. Good no fuss no frills proper awesome lass.

She's gorgeous too!

Merlin Cycles women's race team ~ http://www.merlincycles.com
Manx nerd peddler ~ http://mooleur.blogspot.com

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posted by mooleur [542 posts]
11th June 2014 - 8:04

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She's such a lovely person, she really does deserve all the success she's had, and certainly seems to have her head screwed on properly.
I think if anyone should be allowed to eat chocolate it's her, it certainly hasn't slowed her down.

Former Fat Lad on a Bike

posted by RobD [97 posts]
11th June 2014 - 9:07

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I like a backside you can rest a pint on and park your bike in.

Lady cyclists tick those boxes.

posted by MKultra [197 posts]
11th June 2014 - 9:15

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There is no denying it Joanna is a wonderful person. Many people will attest to her wonderful persona.

I'd really like her to be in charge of British Cycling when she hangs up her wheels. I hope I am not the only one that thinks this way. Smile

Ps if you're fat don't be too hard on yourself it is just the result of a modern day lifestyle.
I don't have any answers for our modern day existence & I especially don't know how we can stop magazines and media in general obsessing about starving stick like women.
Maybe the main problem is food these days is a product rather than actual food that should go in your body.
We are all responsible for what goes in our mouths but the overall pressure on young women and men these days to be thin is not healthy.

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posted by Rupert [80 posts]
11th June 2014 - 10:18

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Rupert wrote:

I don't have any answers for our modern day existence & I especially don't know how we can stop magazines and media in general obsessing about starving stick like women.
Maybe the main problem is food these days is a product rather than actual food that should go in your body.
We are all responsible for what goes in our mouths but the overall pressure on young women and men these days to be thin is not healthy.

Completely agree. You get it in cycling a lot which I think is a disgrace, I often get told I'm a "chunkier" rider (I'm more of a tester so generally am a bit bigger) - despite being a size 8 and 60kgs. In what world is that chunky!?

I remember a lass I race with saying recently some of her fellow club riders had told her to shift some pounds for racing, she's the same height as me and in the mid 50kg range, she also wins - a lot. What made it worse is that she's very young, what sort of example are experienced riders setting when they 'advise' young riders to get smaller!?

I don't think social media helps much, there seems to be a lot of keyboard warriors happy to dish out the abuse to people they don't see as fitting into their made up ideal of how a human should look.

Strength should punt weight every time, and weight should only be lost if it absolutely needs to be in a controlled and healthy way.

Saying that I think things are starting to get better, especially with lovely people like Jo around Smile

Merlin Cycles women's race team ~ http://www.merlincycles.com
Manx nerd peddler ~ http://mooleur.blogspot.com

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posted by mooleur [542 posts]
11th June 2014 - 11:30

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mooleur wrote:

I remember a lass I race with saying recently some of her fellow club riders had told her to shift some pounds for racing, she's the same height as me and in the mid 50kg range, she also wins - a lot. What made it worse is that she's very young, what sort of example are experienced riders setting when they 'advise' young riders to get smaller!?

Cyclists are worse than NOW* magazine when it comes to being obsessed about weight. Bikes, bodies, clothing - everything is given a weight and mentally categorised (or put on a spreadsheet if you're really obsessive).

What's great is seeing a top level sportsperson being very 'normal' about her attitude towards weight, which many people can identify with her point of view. She's a great role model, not only for this interview, but also her ability to normalise her alopecia. Most people go through issues of self-confidence, whether they're in top level sport or just sitting in their bedroom, seeing someone being so open with something that could otherwise be very harmful to self-confidence is really encouraging and again something to which many people can relate.

Bring on more Jo Rowsell, she's great.

*other magazines featuring "lose 10lb in 10 days" headlines are also available. Wink

Twitter: @velosam

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posted by SamShaw [252 posts]
11th June 2014 - 12:51

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It was clear from watching the Women's Tour that the top Women riders are a real mix of body shapes - all look much healthier than their male counterparts! (who often look like they've escaped from a fascist "health camp")

3 Cheers for the modern Women racers! Massive role models for the young & not so young!

posted by acjim [29 posts]
11th June 2014 - 12:56

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Rupert wrote:

I don't have any answers for our modern day existence & I especially don't know how we can stop magazines and media in general obsessing about starving stick like women.
Vote with your feet. Stop buying them, and tell them (and people you know) that you find it unacceptable.

Each of us can only do our bit, but if enough people 'do their bit' it will bring about real change.

mooleur wrote:
I remember a lass I race with saying recently some of her fellow club riders had told her to shift some pounds for racing, she's the same height as me and in the mid 50kg range, she also wins - a lot. What made it worse is that she's very young, what sort of example are experienced riders setting when they 'advise' young riders to get smaller!?

It's absolutely dreadful! Even at pro level the 'advice' is inappropriate but for amateurs and young riders it is totally unnecessary and not good for their physical or mental well-being. You don't need to weigh half of nothing to be fast, even up steep hills. It's a complete myth.

mooleur wrote:
I don't think social media helps much, there seems to be a lot of keyboard warriors happy to dish out the abuse to people they don't see as fitting into their made up ideal of how a human should look.
Like the vast majority of twitter trolls, they are hypocrites. I wouldn't waste energy engaging with them.

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posted by Simon E [1919 posts]
11th June 2014 - 13:33

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leontien van morsel is a story that people need to be aware of, loosing weight is fine, but knowing when to stop is far harder and more important.

Don't know how true it is, was told a story, cycling manager went from mens to womens team and quickly realised that some comments, "move your fat arse" which might have been innocuous to a man, were taken in completely the wrong way by the women.

And it is the media that has to take a huge part of the blame, and to be honest a huge part of the problem is Women abusing Women.

So often the article will criticise for being fat, but in the next sentence criticise for being too thin, or not eating enough. I know someone who used to worry that cycling might mean they developed leg muscles and appear fat!

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posted by mrmo [1035 posts]
11th June 2014 - 13:35

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Too true, women can be scornful and pretty hideous towards each other!

You just can't seem to 'get it right' in this day and age, there's always going to be people who look down on everything - it's those people who are wasting their own energy being miserable about other people, more fool them I'd say.

I'm happy resigning myself to the "changes dress size more than her socks, has no fashion sense, rides whatever bike she likes, hairs falling out, eyebrows are getting hairier, eats whatever and swears when she feels like it" category. Tongue

Merlin Cycles women's race team ~ http://www.merlincycles.com
Manx nerd peddler ~ http://mooleur.blogspot.com

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posted by mooleur [542 posts]
11th June 2014 - 13:46

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mooleur wrote:
Too true, women can be scornful and pretty hideous towards each other!

They are terrified of being scorned themselves!

Fear of being an outcast drives this behaviour, it happens all the time. But that's because they have unthinkingly bought into the group's values. They are sheep.

The wider your social circle the greater the chance of it happening. Restrict your meaningful interactions (real world or online) to those who accept you for who you are and it is far less likely to happen.

Don't be afraid to distance yourself from anyone who repeatedly sticks the knife in to you or anyone else for no good reason; if they do it to someone else one day it will be you.

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posted by Simon E [1919 posts]
11th June 2014 - 14:41

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Absolutely agree. It gets really bad for that over here, Island mentality! One thing I miss about London is the anonymity Smile

I think young people nowdays seem to be evolving into more accepting individuals, though. Back in the day when I were a goth it was a real struggle to be yourself in public without gangs of wee scallies hurling abuse at you. Nowdays it seems to be a bit cooler to be different....but then at the same time, regardless of fashion I think the public still focus far too heavily on body image.

Merlin Cycles women's race team ~ http://www.merlincycles.com
Manx nerd peddler ~ http://mooleur.blogspot.com

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posted by mooleur [542 posts]
11th June 2014 - 14:56

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Looking at the number of lumpen fatties thundering around Saltash this afternoon I think your average British girl couldn't give a damn about body image. Enforced PE five times a week, regular weigh-ins, a banning of all processed food and regular fat level tests would do wonders for the body images of our young. It would be like a scene from Triumph of the Will.

posted by darrenleroy [37 posts]
12th June 2014 - 21:34

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darrenleroy wrote:
Looking at the number of lumpen fatties thundering around Saltash this afternoon I think your average British girl couldn't give a damn about body image.

...nice. Real encouraging.

Merlin Cycles women's race team ~ http://www.merlincycles.com
Manx nerd peddler ~ http://mooleur.blogspot.com

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posted by mooleur [542 posts]
13th June 2014 - 8:52

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Sadly the messages published for the benefit of a particular group of people, are typically ignored by that group and listened to by people those messages were never intended for.

So... there are far too many fatties out there, who are damaging their health through their gluttony. However, any publicity out there trying to educate these people falls on deaf ears (within target group) and is instead listened to by those body conscious folk, who will become ever more focused.

And then the cynical world of health and fashion will poisonously twist those messages to basically fuel their industry.

We have a massive issue with obesity in the country, and whilst I agree with sentiments in the article, this needs addressing.

I heard once, that the average british woman is now a size 16, so all talk of anyone under that average is merely glorification of an unrealistic ideal... I say no, the average british woman is simply fat.

Don't get me wrong, it's exactly the same with men... however men don't just use some random numbers to tell us if we are fashionably thin or not.

posted by Jimmy Ray Will [223 posts]
13th June 2014 - 9:39

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I see what you're saying, and in some respects I agree but I think articles like this do help.

I started writing a blog after going from a size 16, bmi of 29 etc to a size 8 from just cycling - the blog was my thoughts on generally how easy it is to turn your life around. I've had comments from many women and men following these early blog posts telling me that the articles have inspired them to start making positive steps to losing weight.

There is, as you say, a bit too much normalisation around larger weights. Yes, the public should not be so judgemental or harsh, but this isn't an excuse to allow oneself to gain weight through gluttony or laziness.

However, I think the general outlook on excersise and sports has changed in recent years, especially since the Olympics. When I was younger (and much fatter) there was a clear boundary between "sporty people" and everyone else. Nowdays sports is a bit more accepted culturally, across many more groups. This is encouraging for people who want to lose weight, and articles such as this do help as more young people are beginning to view sports as a trend rather than a chore.

Demographically it's acutally my generation that is the biggest problem, people who were brought up in the 80s and 90s were brought up on rubbish, we've carried this forward and unfortunately for some that's meant bad habits haven't died.

I'm not sure how we could combat this, to be honest. Without having supermarkets and media on board it's impossible. Shit food is too cheaply and easily accessible, and my generation are too damn lazy to cook from scratch.

Positive encouragement is great, bullying isn't - if people feel good about themselves they continue that trend, but if someone who likes food is being treated negatively the first thing they're going to do is reach for the comfort food.

Merlin Cycles women's race team ~ http://www.merlincycles.com
Manx nerd peddler ~ http://mooleur.blogspot.com

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posted by mooleur [542 posts]
13th June 2014 - 10:16

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Quote:
Positive encouragement is great, bullying isn't -

And when does encouragement become bullying, very easy to encourage a bit too much, if that makes sense.

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posted by mrmo [1035 posts]
13th June 2014 - 11:58

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mrmo wrote:
Quote:
Positive encouragement is great, bullying isn't -

And when does encouragement become bullying, very easy to encourage a bit too much, if that makes sense.

Absolutely, it's very hard to tell sometimes - some people get offended by the use of the word "fat" - others are more open to such use of language.

I think it's hard to define a balance to suit the sensitivies of all, especially with women. Attempting to retain a degree of sympathy (I know for some that might be hard) when touching on the subject... after all, for some, weight problems can stem from underlying health and mental health problems.

Being accepting and liberal about it, without being derogatory, is possibly the best way to go...darrenelroy's previous comment there being a prime example of the latter. We can't keep everyone happy, and we certainly can't dance around a very important subject such as national health.

Merlin Cycles women's race team ~ http://www.merlincycles.com
Manx nerd peddler ~ http://mooleur.blogspot.com

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posted by mooleur [542 posts]
13th June 2014 - 12:08

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