THE BLOG

Body Image in Women's Skiing

29/12/2015 14:32 GMT | Updated 29/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Life as a female ski-racer is tough. There's the pressure to perform, to push your body through an intense set of demanding daily circuits to carve out the type of body that will win races. And then there's the pressure to look good, especially if you're the world's most famous skier.

"I'm just bigger, I'm a big girl...I always feel self-conscious" Lindsey Vonn told me recently when I interviewed her for CNN's 'Alpine Edge'.

"On the red carpets I feel like I'm playing a role, like I'm dressed up as an alter-ego almost. Whereas in real life I'm shy and not super confident, which is weird."

It is a surprising admission from Vonn and quite at odds with the ebullient character I've come to know during our coverage of the Ski World Cup for CNN.

But then body issues among elite female athletes are rarely discussed in the press and hardly ever during the Ski World Cup campaign.

And maybe that's a good thing.

Ski racing is one of the few sports where female skiers stand on a more equal footing with the men than their counterparts in say football, tennis or golf. If anything - skiing's leading women have often times overshadowed the men in recent years. Tina Maze's record-breaking 2013 season; Mikaela Shiffrin becoming the youngest Olympic slalom champion and more recently Lindsey Vonn becoming the most successful female racer in history.

So why diminish these achievements by discussing body issues over much prized results and outstanding performance?

Unfortunately, where women's sports is concerned it's never that simple.

Resi Stiegler has raced for the US Ski team since she was 15 years old. From an early age she said she was utterly confused about her body image because, as she put it: "We [female skiers] are a lot bigger than other sports. It took me time to come to terms with that."

But Stiegler says this is a mere side-effect to a wider problem in the industry.

"We're lucky in ski racing. If you succeed then you will be the one who gets the sponsorship contract. I have friends in Free-Skiing where it's not the same way. They are Number One and incredible athletes... but the girl that doesn't even compete, who has long blonde hair, gets the contract."

Stiegler feels passionately that sport leaders need to do more. "You have to fake it to make it sometimes around here and I accept that that's part of the job ... but our industry needs to be standing up for women who have actually earned their spot"

The explosion of social media platforms has been a game changer for many athletes. Some say it exacerbates the problems experienced by women in sport by putting too much emphasis on looks and physique. Others say it's a good thing - allowing them to communicate directly with fans - to have control of their own images without any spin from the press.

Swiss World Cup skier Lara Gut recently caused a media frenzy by posting a picture of herself standing on a balcony wearing only a shirt, along with the caption "Be happy so that when others look at you, they become happy too!". The image notched up 31.6k likes on Facebook. Gut says she feels no inhibitions about celebrating the body she's worked hard for.

"We can use media to show that we are women and not men. For me it's more important that my legs work for skiing and not just to look good on Instagram. But if you have a healthy body, it looks good ...we're working out every day so we can be proud of the way our body looks."

For some the struggle of the current crop of female athletes is paving the way for the next generation to compete with confidence and feel more comfortable in their own skin. Just ask skiing's youngest Olympic champion, 20-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin.

"Lindsey set the precedent that you have to work really hard, that you have to be strong instead of skinny...My legs are bigger for sure. It's not ideal if you're thinking about your basic body image, but at the same time I'm learning to feel that strength is really beautiful."

And if that is Lindsey Vonn's legacy, it is just as powerful as the races she wins and the records she breaks.