Wrestling with Body Image


Contributed photo/Vicki Cuic

Jackson Bowers from Fort LeBoeuf High School matches up against Lloyd Fountain from Northwestern High School (all black uniform).

Just like any other sport, wrestling cares about the overall well-being of the athlete, but the pressure of cutting weight to participate in a specific weight class takes a toll on not only the athlete’s body, but their mental well-being.

A weight class is a predetermined weight that a wrestler must be under to compete in that specific category. Weight classes present the athletes with motivation to compete at the lowest weight class they can achieve. These classes have led some athletes to find extreme ways to cut weight quickly, by restricting food intake, dehydrating themselves, excessively working out or to go as far as making themselves throw up.

Jackson Bowers from Fort LeBoeuf High School matches up against Lloyd Fountain from Northwestern High School (all black uniform). (Contributed photo/Vicki Cuic)

Jackson Bowers, 16, from Fort LeBoeuf High School has been wrestling nearly his whole life. He started wrestling at age four, making 2023 his 13th year in competition. He believes from a wrestler’s standpoint that nothing he has done has ever been extreme and that cutting weight is a vital part of the sport.

“The most weight I’ve had to cut was 17 pounds, this was coming into junior year,” Bowers says. He had dropped from 162 to 145 for his first tournament over the course of three weeks, but Bowers has never felt overwhelmed by the pressure because he had to cut weight. He’s been doing it so long that cutting weight and making the right choices comes naturally.

From an outside perspective, anything wrestlers do may seem extreme, but to a wrestler, it’s ordinary, especially for someone like Bowers who has wrestled most of his life.

McDowell Wrestling Coach, David Onorato, has been coaching wrestling for 28 years, at both the high school and collegiate levels. He has coached in West Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania. He stopped competing in 1994 and said he has cut an abundance of weight his entire life. So he does not encourage his athletes to cut much weight.

“I teach wrestlers to strive to actualize their optimal weight (not maximum or minimum). If athletes need to cut weight below what would be considered optimal, helping them keep a positive mindset can be difficult,” says Onorato.

Onorato emphasizes that in order to be a successful wrestler, athletes must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and losing weight can be uncomfortable. He also teaches his team about disciplining themselves to eat healthy foods, not overeating or going without food at all. He teaches his athletes to have healthy mindsets to keep them positive.

Despite popular belief, neither Onorato and Bowers have seen an athlete develop an eating disorder from cutting weight. Onorato has been around competitive wrestling for 54 years and says he hasn’t seen many people struggling with mental health.

“Mental health and body image is a very complex human issue that goes much deeper than wrestling,” Onorato says. That is not to say athletes have never used unhealthy tactics such as forcibly throwing up or starving themselves for an extended period of time.

In Onorato’s experience, he hasn’t seen athletes end up with disordered eating because of wrestling. According to a survey conducted by mentalhealth.org.uk, 46% of girls were worried about their body image, whereas only 25% of boys were. However, according to a 2016 study published on MedCrave.com, most research regarding body image focuses on women. More recent studies have found that men also are concerned with body-dissatisfaction in being underweight rather than overweight.

With wrestling growing as a girl’s sport, it is possible that weight loss issues such as anorexia or bulimia, could be seen in girls who wrestle.

“I used to throw up prior to making weight in high school. This was not right or healthy. I learned not to use this tactic. However, I have never thrown up for weight loss reasons outside of wrestling (even when I still wanted those abs), Onorato says. This could be a more serious issue for young ladies who aspire to wrestle. Wrestling might also help them learn how to accept themselves, develop and manage healthy eating habits for the sport, but most importantly, for life,” Onorato explains.

The coaches stress the importance of nutrition, as they want their athletes to be strong, fit, and healthy. “Our athletes also have a skin caliber test done to see how much extra weight their bodies are carrying. Knowing what our athlete’s BMI is, it helps better manage the process of how one gets down to their optimal weight which is very healthy. That is our goal when it comes to weight loss,” Onorato says.

Bowers says that the most extreme thing he has done to lose weight was running with extra layers of clothes so he sweats more, but other athletes do this as well. From his experience, nothing his teammates have done has been extreme.

Onorato shared his own experience with body image issues, which he explains didn’t have anything to do with wrestling itself, but with the weigh-ins. Before you wrestle you must weigh in which usually is in your underwear and you must take off your shirt in front of everyone. This can be hard especially if you are sensitive about the way you look. He has always wanted to have defined abdominal muscles.

“When I was a baby, my mom used to feed me animal crackers in my crib, so I had a little belly. My two brothers did not have little bellies, and as a family we have always blamed my belly on my mom for feeding me animal crackers,” Onorato says. “I had to deal with this my whole life, and when I was young it did affect my self-esteem.”

Even when he wrestled in college at West Virginia University. Onorato competed in three NCAA Division 1 wrestling championships and has ranked as high as eighth in the nation. He was very fit, but did not have the abs that he wanted so badly. He said that affected his self-esteem in college, and to this day.

“So, I learned, it’s not all about looks, and I had to remind myself of that when I saw all those other kids who had what I wanted, even when I was in such good shape as a human being,” Onorato says.

Riley Horn from Girard High School (yellow and black uniform) matches up against Jackson Bowers of Fort LeBoeuf High School. (Contributed photo/Vicki Cuic)

PIAA also has many guidelines to keep athletes from being unhealthy, such as a hydration test to keep wrestlers from dropping too much weight.

Bowers explains that his coaches check their weight every practice to make sure they are being healthy. Bowers shared that he never had to be too intense in order to make weight, but other athletes might have to be more intense. Onorato says it all depends on the athlete.

Bowers explained that when he is down a weight class, he is larger than most of the athletes he competes against which helps him.

Some athletes cut weight too much because when they are down a weight class then they are bigger than the other athletes. If an athlete is 140 pounds and cuts down to 120 pounds he will be bigger than the guy that was 125 and cut to 120. Onorato says this is a weak mental mindset and a self-confidence issue about performance. He strives to teach athletes how to wrestle in the class they belong.

Overall, Onorato and Bowers agree that weight classes make wrestling fair for all athletes, “It’s a long season and making weight adds another level of commitment the other sports do not have,” says Bowers.