Teenage rugby star Abi Burton shames the 'body shamers', saying 'I'm a rugby player and I love my body'
At the relatively tender age of 19, Abi Burton has been called many names, from "manly" to "butch" to "fat".
But thanks to rugby, she can be called many other things, like England 7s star, Rugby X champion and, as Tokyo 2020 looms, Team GB Olympic hopeful.
In a world obsessed with body image, the teenager spoke openly to NewsChain about the degrading comments she has received about her shape and how rugby taught her to love her body.
Now a year into her international career and on the brink of a spot in the squad for Tokyo, she hopes to use her own experiences to spark a social change focusing on what a female body can do rather than what it looks like, and be the role model she so badly needed as a young teenager.
"Burtons never give in" is the mantra of her very sporty family.
Daughter of Bradford Bulls player Danny Burton, and sister to Leeds Rhinos Academy's Joe and Oli Burton, Abi was destined to excel in the sporting arena. She quickly took to athletics and swimming before discovering her rugby prowess.
But even then, the focus on body image was a constant cloud that loomed above her.
She says: “In swimming we had to fit into the smallest costume we possibly could to race in and in athletics when I did the javelin all the others would wear the teenie shorts and crop top. I was so self conscious about what people might say about my muscular arms or legs that I would just wear my long vest and leggings when I should have been focusing more on my performance.”
The comments from those at school weighed heavily on her.
“It was the classic ‘you’re a man’, ‘you’re butch’ that really got to me. Being a 16-year-old girl at the time trying to figure myself out and being called a man really took a toll on my mental health.
“It was horribly difficult to get over at the time that people wouldn’t like me because I looked like a man because I had muscular arms. It was that idea that everything in life is about aesthetics and my happiness would be ruled by the way I looked and the way people saw my body.”
It was only upon discovering rugby that something shifted in her mindset. Initially a member of Gloucester Hartpury Tyrell's premier 15s side, she made the switch to 7s on return from an injury in 2018, making her England debut in October of that year.
“When I came into rugby I soon realised that no one looks at you for your body and what it looks like,” she said, then emphasising: “If you can play rugby well, tackle hard, show desire and put your all in, then no one will care.
“The beauty of rugby is that everyone is different shapes and sizes and as long as they play rugby well, no one cares about that. There are so many different positions that there’s something for every one really. Like I’m a different size to a winger and that’s fine because it suits me to my position [prop].
“It [rugby] helped me feel so much better mentally and dragged me out of a dark place. I don’t know where I would be without it.”
She remembers the first her new mindset became evident, recalling a night out in Gloucester: “Some boy came up behind me and called me a man and it flipped loads of emotions that before rugby would have got to me.
“It was that moment in time that I thought ‘you know what, I’m not. I don’t look like a man and I am in love with my body for what it can do. The reason I look this way is because I am an international rugby player and no silly boy can influence me with his opinion'.
“It’s thanks to rugby that I can think this way and before it I would probably have reacted very differently."
She is full of praise for the rugby community that she's proud to be a part of: “Being around so many incredibly empowering women who don’t care about the way they look and just know they are f****** good at rugby and can just run somebody over is such an empowering thing.
“Rugby has this magical way to influence people in such a positive way and that is what I want to pass on to others.
“They need to see what I saw and realise that as long as you’re healthy and happy you should assess your body in terms of what it can DO rather than what it looks like.”
It is this mindset that was the driving force behind Abi setting up her own instagram page [@abs.olutelypositive] in a bid to help followers value their body for more than how it looks.
“I tried everything I could to fit in and at that time if I had a female athlete as a role model promoting how okay it is to have any body type, then I would have coped so much better. So now I want to be that person that I needed when I was vulnerable.”
“I play international rugby at the top level and rather than teens looking at social media models and wanting to look like that, I’m using my story and my body in the hope that I can make a positive impact on how others see their bodies.
“I look the way I do and I love it and that is what has got me this far and what is hopefully going to get me to the Olympics.
“Being able to look at yourself and be happy with what your body can do is so important,” she said.
“It’s the ability to say things like ‘the reasons my hands are so big is because I can catch a rugby ball really well’, ‘the reason my legs are so muscular is because I squat loads and train them and I’m proud of that.’ Or on the other side, the reason my hands are so dainty is because I’m a surgeon.
“We are all built for different things and finding rugby helped me realise that. It’s about being able to link different parts of your body to the positive things associated with it.
“The classic one is that people feel like it’s totally fine to grab my arms and say ‘ooh do you play rugby or something, your arms are mega muscular?’ and before that would have got me.”
But the feisty prop says she would now respond with: “Yeah I know I’ve got big arms - they come in useful because I’m really good at handing people off and lifting people.”
The family mantra never seems more apppropriate as the list of names you could call Burton mount up, focused, confident, strong, contented, the list goes on.
But importantly, she has the last word: “I’m gonna spark a social change and prove all the idiots wrong. Watch out.”
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