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Eating Disorders And Gymnastics

Ana Cintado

Why are eating disorders more prevalent among athletes in general?

Eating disorders are especially common among athletes because the pressure of the sport environment frequently precipitates the onset of these problems. In this population, certain compulsive behaviors such as excessive exercise and restricted eating patterns are seen as acceptable, and pathogenic methods of weight control are often introduced. In addition, concern about body size and shape is increased because of the "social influence for thinness [from coaches and peers], anxiety about athletic performance, and negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement" (Williamson et al. 1995). Finally, the competitive nature of sports reinforces characteristics such as "perfectionism, high achievement motivation, obsessive behavior, control of physique, and attention to detail" (Ludwig 1996). Most successful athletes are more determined and more disciplined than the average individual. They often set very high goals for themselves and work extra hours each day to reach them. These same attributes, however, can lead to eating disorders and are often found in anorexic and bulimic patients.

Are certain types of sports more prone to develop eating disorders than others?

Eating disorders are obviously found in all sports, but athletes participating in activities that emphasize leanness for performance and appearance are at a significantly greater risk. Thus, gymnasts, long-distance runners, divers, and figure skaters are more prone to developing eating disorders and related problems than those who compete in nonweight-restricting sports such as volleyball or football. Furthermore, disordered eating patterns are found more in female athletes than in males. In a NCAA survey of collegiate athletics conducted in 1992, "93% of the programs reporting eating disorders were in women's sports" ("Dying to win" 1994). Some male athletes do use extreme methods for losing weight, but an important difference exists between these and the self-starvation strategies of anorexics. For instance, a wrestler's perception of his body is not distorted and when he is not competing, he can regain the weight with ease.

Do female gymnasts suffer an even greater risk?

As demonstrated by such famous gymnasts as Kathy Johnson and Nadia Comaneci who have struggled with eating disorders themselves, women's gymnastics seems "designed for the disease" ("Dying for a medal" 1994). In the 1992 NCAA survey, 51% of the gymnastics programs that responded reported this illness among its team members, "a far greater percentage than in any other sport" ("Dying to win" 1994). Unfortunately, the real number is probably even higher.

Why might gymnasts be more vulnerable to eating disorders?

Anorexia often strikes young women who try to evade the natural process of becoming adults and who use excessive measures to maintain a thin and girlish figure--the exact description of what today's female gymnast must accomplish to stay competitive at its highest levels. For these athletes, the onset of womenhood is their biggest fear because it means developing hips or breasts that might hinder their performance. Thus, starving themselves offers the most convenient solution to their problem. In addition, many of these girls begin training specifically for this sport since the time they are toddlers. Engaging in such targeted training before the body matures could prevent them from choosing a sport that best suits their adult body type. As a result, "this could provoke a conflict in which the athlete struggles to prevent or counter the natural physical changes precipitated by growth and maturity" (Sundgot-Borgen 1994).

The second reason for gymnasts' greater drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction is the subjectivity of their judging system. A runner's achievement, for example, relies completely on speed and endurance. Even though a lean physique is important for performance in this sport, it does not determine which person is awarded first or second place. Instead, the winner is chosen according to the exact time they reach the finish line. Judging a gymnastics routine, however, is not as objective. Each judge assigns a score according to his or her own beliefs. Thus, the appearance of the performer may actually influence their perceptions and affect their ultimate decision. A tragic example of the judges' power over these athletes is an incident with gymnast Christy Henrich--a top competitor of the late 1980's who died of a multiple organ failure due to her battle with bulimia and anorexia nervosa. At a meet in Budapest, a U.S. judge commented that Henrich would have to lose weight if she wanted to make the Olympic team. Upon returning to the states, her mother recalls the first words out of her daughter's mouth: she was fat and she would have to lose weight--that was the only way she would reach her dreams.

A third reason for the greater prevalence of eating disorders among these gymnasts is their authoritarian coaches. A large percentage of coaches are constantly instructing the girls on "how to count calories, how to act, what to wear, [and] what to say in public" ("Dying to win" 1994). As a result, the only aspect of their lives they can truly control is the food they put into their bodies. Furthermore, as role models to these girls, any comment made by their coaches is taken very seriously. The reason so many of them even begin dieting is because their coach recommends that they lose weight. These athletes are so young and impressionable that such a recommendation may be seen as a requirement for improved performance. One gymnast recalls how her club coach would punish team members if they exceeded their assigned weight by "abusing them verbally, withholding meals, and confining them to a 'fat room'" ("Dying to win" 1994). This gymnast remembers vomiting 12 times a day before she finally quit the team.

Weight concerns among gymnasts

Although discrepancies exist in the percentages of eating-related disturbances in gymnasts, a majority of the available evidence does suggest that these athletes are more preoccupied with their body weight than are both nonathletes and most other athlete groups.

Is it pathological?

It is unclear whether the increased weight preoccupation observed in gymnasts is the result of a mental illness or if it "represents a healthy commitment to the achievement of athletic excellence". It has been argued that a pathological disease of any kind is "inconsistent with optimal athletic performance, and there is substantial evidence that athletes tend to have healthy psychological profiles" (O'Connor et al. 1996). Another study challenged this proposition, however, by finding a relationship between eating-disorder problems in gymnasts and personality/attitudinal pathologies. In this study, the bulimic subjects displayed significantly higher levels of pathology than the "normals" and "exercisers" across the four measures of body satisfaction, beliefs about attractiveness, self-esteem, and weight difference. For example, they wanted to lose more weight and reported less satisfaction with their bodies than both of the other groups. The exercising gymnasts were also shown to be different psychologically from the "dieters/restricters" by exhibiting higher levels of self-esteem and body satisfaction (Petrie 1993).

How are these concerns reflected?

Over the past thirty years, the trend shows that elite gymnasts have become significantly smaller in terms of body size and weight. At the 1964 Olympics, the all-around title was given to 26-year-old Vera Caslavska who at 5'3", 121 pounds would be considered a "geriatric giant by today's standards" ("Dying to win" 1994). In 1968, however, she was soon upstaged by 13-year-old Olga Korbut who at 4'11", 85 pounds changed the history of gymnastics forever.

During the last two decades, the image of the world-class gymnast as a very thin prepubescent girl has become even more exaggerated. For example, the average size of the U.S. team alone has declined from 5'3", 105 pounds in 1976 to 4'9", 88 pounds in 1992. Even more alarming is the all-around gold medalist of the 1993 world championships: 16-year-old Shannon Miller who at the time was only 4'10", 79 pounds.

What effects do these concerns have on gymnasts?

Although their weight, body mass index, and percentage of body fat are extremely low, a large percentage of these athletes consider themselves too fat and feel that others perceive them in a similar fashion. Eager to lose the "extra pounds", most of them weigh themselves frequently and spend a significant portion of their day thinking about and talking about their weight. Furthermore, most of them believe that even a small weight gain of three pounds would be detrimental to their performance. Thus, they experience unpleasant feelings when they weigh more than they desire (which is most of the time).

How does weight actually affect performance?

In general, it is argued that a negative relationship exists between body weight or composition and athletic performance. Thus, the higher the body weight, the poorer the athletic performance will be in most cases. Although weight can limit an athlete significantly, it is the actual percentage of body fat that tends to be the determining factor (meaning that a leaner athlete will typically perform better in competition). One particular study examined the physiological performance variables needed for skills in the routines of elite gymnasts, such as running speed, jumping height, and hand strength. This investigation found that there was no correlation between body weight and the performance of these behaviors. In a different study, however, the actual gymnastics performance was looked at in terms of its relationship to body fat composition. The study determined that college gymnasts who placed first, second, or third in a competition at the national level had significantly lower body fat than the other team members who did not place at all. However, these two groups of gymnasts did not differ in any way in terms of height and weight.

Another study that looked at the body mass index and performance among elite gymnasts found that "although there was a trend toward thinner athletes performing better, the athletes who performed best were neither the thinnest nor the heaviest" (Sherman 1996). These findings suggested that a lower body mass index is related to better performance, but that the performance can actually be affected negatively if the BMI becomes too low. In other words, weight loss only enhances performance up to a certain point. Losing weight beyond this point only leads to a deterioration of athletic performance because the gymnast starts to lose lean tissue and body fluid instead of fat. She becomes too unhealthy and weak to perform with the same strength and endurance that she did in the past. Thus, increasing muscle content would improve performance more than decreasing body fat.

What happens to concerns about body weight after retirement?

An investigation recently conducted found that not many symptoms of eating disorders are present 15 years after retirement from the sport. In addition, it discovered that former gymnasts claim to be more satisfied with the shape of their bodies and less weight-preoccupied than when they were competitive athletes. Despite having less body fat than most of the women their age, these women had reported low levels of satisfaction with their bodies during their college years. This suggests that they gave more importance to how they differed from their ideal weight than to their actual percentage of body fat. After retirement, however, the gymnasts "subscribed to a different ideal body weight that was less discrepant form their actual body weight, resulting in less body dissatisfaction" (O'Connor et al. 1996).

What are the consequences of weight loss associated with eating disorders?

The use of rapid weight loss techniques leads to severe consequences that affect both the performance and the overall health of gymnasts. These consequences include fatigue, nutrient inadequacies, and impaired growth. Another major consequence includes amenorrhea, the suspension of the menstrual cycle. This severe estrogen deficiency eventually leads to bone loss, a side effect that contributes to osteoperosis later in life.

Finally, in the most extreme cases, eating disorders can also end in tragic death.

What measures are being taken to improve conditions?

As a means of remedying the current situation, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation is beginning a nationwide club for gymnasts. This club will include a hot line the young athletes can call if they are receiving too much pressure from their coaches, parents, or peers to lose more weight than necessary. It will also train coaches in their program on how to detect and prevent eating disorders in their team members. In addition, the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique, a group that governs international gymnastics competitions, raised the age eligibility by one year. This age change may have psychological benefits regarding body image issues because it may create a more realistic body figure as the ideal for gymnasts. Finally, the USA Gymnastics Athlete Wellness Program has been assigned to "promote wellness education and develop a national referral network of specialists in athletic training, nutrition, psychology, and medicine who will be available as resources for gymnastics clubs and coaches" (Anderson 1997). Hopefully, these measures will prevent the development of more severe eating disorders and reduce the frequency with which the athletes engage in these unhealthy behaviors. Maybe one day the sport will lose its fame as "the fertile ground for anorexia" ("Dying for a medal" 1994).


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