To commemorate World Mental Health Day, six-time All-Ireland winner Julia White (Cork) sat down with the Camogie Association’s Player Welfare Coordinator Paul O’Donovan on the importance of positive mental health and positive body image. Read the transcription below:
POD: Julia, thanks very much for agreeing to do the interview with us. The reason we are here is to talk about, one of the things we have done, a player welfare questionnaire recently and one of the main issues or concerns in terms of what club players felt in Camogie was they felt they needed that supports for both eating disorders and mental health as well at a club level. That's the reason we are here to do the interview today. Do you think, just in general as a female living in Ireland that there is pressure to look a certain way?
Julia: Yeah, I definitely do think that. As I mentioned there I was in UL and I done my FYP (Final Year Project) on body image amongst teenage girls so I suppose from that background and being a teacher teaching in an all-girls school from the age of 12 to 18 I would definitely notice a lot of my students are very self-conscious about the way they look. They are very self-conscious when they are exercising, they are depending on the kind of clothes they wear, very aware of how they look, and I definitely think it affects their confidence and self-esteem, how they interact with their peers, I even think it holds a lot of them back from taking part in certain activities like sports and things like that.
It's probably always been there for girls definitely struggle with it, but I think maybe the last few years things like Instagram and Snapchat have definitely become a huge new enemy that they have to deal with and I definitely think we have a long way to go, we definitely have to tackle that.
POD: Leading on from that what do you think would be the influences in terms of body image?
Julia: As I mentioned there, I think definitely the social media, the Instagram, the Snapchat seems to be the main ones that I can gather from just being in the environment of the school. I think it's like, on Instagram you see like people are putting up the best photos of themselves and they're following these influencers, they're calling themselves, again they are seeing just a snap shot of the best possible viewing of them and they are thinking that's what they look like every day and that's what they need to look like.
I think there is a lack of education among young people today. They are seeing something as opposed to understanding. They are seeing them looking thin, but they don't understand how to be healthy or they don't buy into being healthy as opposed to looking good, so I think that would be a major area where we could work on and maybe understanding that "yea, I can look good".
I think the health has to come first by being healthy, by exercising more and knowing how to eat properly that all ties into looking good and feeling good.
POD: Do you think there is body image pressure in Sport, in female sport in particular?
Julia: I suppose so, as I mentioned I think girls do like to look good. I think maybe there is a certain ideal again, I think it's body image ideals, it's the looking thin, the looking a certain way. Some of my students, I know for a fact they don't want to get involved in sport because they don't want to look too muscly so it's nearly the opposite. People who are involved in high level sport are probably self-conscious that they need to look good, muscly, toned whereas then some kids are the other end of the spectrum where they don't want to look too toned or muscly even though that's probably the healthy way to be.
I think it comes down to it again, the thinness ideal is still definitely there and maybe a big bum is coming into it, it is changing a little bit, (like) Kim Kardashian, that seems to be what I am noticing coming in but definitely the thinness is probably the main one that's prevalent
POD: So, would you agree then that, where we are talking about females here predominately, would you think in general that there is in particular in mass media, there is limited ideas put on body where it is just one stereotypical image rather than a broad range of image ideals?
Julia: Yea, definitely. Unfortunately. I don't go on Instagram as much myself, but I do know, like you said the broader media do. You see the likes of the Kardashians, the Daily Mail, any online news outlets or any celebrities in magazines – nine times out of 10 it is going to be the thing, the big bum, the big boobs. That definitely is what I see and I'm trying to avoid it as much as possible. I can guarantee that any young girl who is innocent is going to be going in naively looking at these things. That's what they're seeing, that's what they're being faced with.
POD: Do you think that there are things that people can do? What would you do to lessen that pressure?
Julia: I suppose there's a number of different ways. I think maybe getting more role models in sport who are healthy who don't have the traditional ideal but even speaking about how they are healthy and how they work to get to feel a certain way and perform and use their bodies to be healthy as opposed to just focusing on looking good. I think they need to get away from looking and start understanding how important it is to be healthy and looking good comes after that.
In schools there's a lot of wellness coming into schools becoming mandatory if they can include some activities, even in PE. I teach PE and I'm teaching all these students how to play cricket and all these sports that they might never play I think it's maybe important to get them to understand first the benefits of being healthy and eating healthy and exercising , how to exercise for their own good as opposed to trying to force them into sports they're probably never going to play. I think there needs to be more education on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and that everybody is different and that's okay and maybe discussions around it.
POD: You raised a very good point that sport has a role to play. Coaches within in sport have a role to play too, particularly with the language they would use.
Julia: Yea definitely. I have never personally experienced any coach making a flippant comment about the way I looked, but I have seen it with other people. I have heard stories so definitely that goes without saying that it's not on. It is the same as a coach saying you are useless or a coach saying you had a bad game without giving you feedback, you cannot condone that in any way.
I have been involved in teams where maybe I needed to put on weight or maybe I’ve needed to lose weight. I think that is okay if it's given with the right sort of information, telling me why that's necessary and why I'm doing something or why I need to put on muscle so that I'm understanding the benefit of it.
Again, it's not about looking good it's about my performance and what's going to benefit me playing and that's important that I understand that. I've never felt like I was doing it for them to look better so it's very important the way they get it across. So definitely coaches may need to undergo some training in that and language is really important.
POD: Is there anything else you think they can do to promote positive body image?
Julia: What you mentioned and what I feel strongly about is, it's not about changing how you look, it's maybe accepting as well how you look.
Nobody has a perfect body.
If you asked any of these celebrities that they are all following they would all pick out something that is wrong with them so I think it is more about accepting the way you are first and foremost and accepting that people are different and that's what makes us all unique and accepting the thing you didn't think you liked and thinking that's actually what makes me different, self-esteem and working on self-acceptance, peers accepting each other as well.
POD: I can see you are very passionate about the whole area of your research project. Can you tell us a little bit more about the research that you did with the eating disorders and how it's related to sport?
Julia: I was on teaching practice and we had to do the project during that time. I was teaching PE and I was with a group of third year students. For six weeks I done a body intervention programme. So instead of doing the usual, teaching them camogie or teaching them dance or gymnastics or whatever we designed an intervention programme where each week we focused on different activities that would allow them to speak about their body image and their ideals so we got them to do a scrapbook session where they took pictures from magazines of what they thought would be the ideal body image and then, before we started we got them to say what their ideal was and how they felt about their own.
Then we got them to do activities, like we got them to take a selfie. Each person had to take a selfie and the students went around and they had to write a positive comment on each other's selfies, so everyone was going away with about 30 positive comments and something nice their peers were saying about them. The research was showing that peers have a huge influence on how people feel about themselves.
There are some videos I showed them, different role models. I tried to show them some athletes who spoke about it, not so much in the Irish context more internationally. We had to do some exercise, so I gave them activities that they could do at home instead of going out and joining a team that they could do in their own time. At the end of it all it was a lot of discussion really which I think is important.
People think with PE you have to be active for the 80 minutes, but I think it's unrealistic when you only have them for that one hour a week so giving them the tools of how to be healthy is more important. So, at the end we re-surveyed them, and it did show that they felt more positive, their ideal had changed slightly, not hugely but it had changed a little bit, away from the really thin and the big boobs and the big bum it changed more to the understanding that it's health first.
They were picking out sports people from the magazines, we done a second scrapbook session and it changed a little bit. It was only six weeks and the research does suggest that it needs to be a little longer definitely to have a bigger impact. It is nice to see that there was slight changes and they were opening up more and more comfortable speaking in front of their peers. I think peers is a big one with Instagram and Snapchat and I think a lot of bullying happens on that, I learnt that only this year from the fourth years in particular they would speak about it. They would be terrified of stuff they do put up, they would be getting a lot of comments.
POD: We did a player welfare questionnaire recently and firstly they felt there was a need to put these supports in place for the broad range of topics that fall under mental health and eating disorders and promoting positive body image being one of them. One of the other things we found was that an awful lot of the time we tend to aim the education streams at the coaches and the administrators but actually a player is more likely to go to a player if they have a mental health issue. Would you agree with that?
Julia: Yea, I agree. I think that first off you probably would go to the player if there was a player that you trusted. Then maybe it would reach (the coach) if it was important enough or if the player couldn't help you then maybe it would, depending on the issue. I think most people would agree with that, player first but they probably feel more comfortable. They might not want to appear mentally weak to their manager or to a member of the management team by whatever their issue is.
I definitely think, in my own experience that I would be worried by bringing issues to my manager first off in case he might think I wasn't as strong mentally, so I would probably go player first and I think a lot of people would do the same.
POD: So, if you were advising me as player welfare coordinator for Camogie, if I was to put some sort of workshop in place for eating disorders and mental health do you think it should be opened up to players and coaches rather than targeting a specific area within the membership?
Julia: I think coaches would be a good idea, but I think players too, I don't think there would be any harm in that at all. Especially now there is loads of player reps, the WGPA might be able to link up with those reps. They are already bringing back information from the WGPA, they are already known among the team as someone they can go to if they have any issues. They are already targeted like that, so I don't think it would be any harm in being a go to person in that sense too.
I know that's county wise. Club wise there would be no harm in setting somebody up like that up who would be seen as, if you worked with the coaches and they selected a player that, maybe even the captain that might be good to go to in that sense and then they got trained up on that as well. Not all teams get on with their managers and coaches, so it would be naive to be going in thinking "give it to them". There is a lot of different dynamics going on, having a player involved would be great idea.
If you get the players to buy into it as well, that will go a long way. There are 30 girls on a panel and maybe four or five coaches and you don't know the different dynamics between the teams so if you can get one well respected player who has good relationship with the rest of them to get behind it and that would go a long way. They are the people on social media and if you want to get that momentum behind it as well, probably the players are the people to be going to.
The Camogie Association have teamed up with Bodywhys and Eating Disorders NI on information talks on positive body image. For more information click here.
We have also teamed up with the Samaritans on positive mental health.