Starving For Perfection

Starving For Perfection

How do we stop the obsession with perfection?
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Over the course of 13 years, I was involved in the gymnastic and cheerleading worlds. Gymnastics is the type of sport that values perfection, and attracts perfectionists. When the sport is an aesthetic one, perfection is something that becomes a main, if not single, goal in your life. It’s not only about obtaining perfect skills, perfect pointed toes, and a perfect score -- but a perfect body, to help you achieve and then accentuate all of these things.

When you have so many perfectionists trying to achieve an impossible level of physical perfection, it’s essential to have a coach there that recognizes how impressible and vulnerable young girls are. My gymnastics gym wasn’t lucky enough to have that kind of head coach. Instead, she would line girls up and tell us what part of our bodies were not gymnast bodies. It all seemed very normal back then.

It also seemed very normal that a lot of my teammates in gymnastics, and later in cheerleading, had strange diets. One girl I knew only ate granola bars and drank diet Snapple. Another ate butter-free popcorn and drank a measured cup of soy-milk for dinner every night, despite having a three hour practice full of conditioning that day. Another ate only applesauce five days a week. While a lot of these girls did eat normally, it seemed like a sizable portion of us would exchange weird diets that we found on Tumblr, show each other pictures of stick-thin athletes in our sport with unnatural looking six-packs and frail looking arms, and share ‘jokes’ about how we wouldn’t eat when competition rolled around so that we wouldn’t look chunky in our uniforms.

We were striving for perfection, so of course we would never acknowledge the fact that this obsession might not have been normal -- if that thought even crossed our minds. It all seemed really harmless: like it was just girls being girls.

A few years ago, I came to the realization that the culture revolving around the sports I was involved in wasn’t present in other sports. This feeling was confirmed when I visited a friend from one of my sports in a children’s psych ward, where her parents had placed her in hopes she could recover from her eating disorder.

While I was there, she refused to eat. The only thing she consumed was Diet Coke, even after her mother and I had basically pleaded with her for over an hour to have anything -- even strawberry jelly, or applesauce. I distinctly remember her telling me she wanted to be 85 pounds. When her mother bluntly said, in a voice full of pain, she would die if she ever got down to the weight, my friend was persistent, and uttered words I’ll never forget hearing: I’d rather die trying than stay fat.

It’s a very weird thing to try to explain to people what it’s like to have food consume your thoughts. Having a relationship with food isn’t something you can really grasp the concept of until the reality of it consumes you -- not until you feel guilt for even eating the healthiest of meals. I realized I had a relationship with food after my visit with my friend.

Admittedly, my weight has fluctuated over the years. For example, in my freshman year of high school, I gained 15 pounds, dropped 20, and then gained five more. As a sophomore, I remember having to sit down at cheer practice one day because the world was spinning and I felt like my stomach was caving in on itself. If my memory serves me right, I’d eaten one meal in the past two days leading up to that practice, and had worked out at least three times.

At the age of 14, an unnamed adult in my life had bought me a dieting supplement. Although there was no mention of weight when I was given it, I knew exactly what it was for, and what that adult would hope it to do. Later, that adult pushed me to go to a personal trainer and to follow a strict low-calorie diet plan they had found online. Looking back on it, I realize how disgusting it is for any adult to do that to any child under any circumstances.

But it wasn’t really that unusual in the sport I was in. Although the majority of parents weren’t this way, there was a sizable portion of them that would push their daughters to maintain a certain level of face-level fitness. Likewise, there was always a group of a few girls, on every team I was on, that was hyper-aware of how their bodies compared to others, and of their diets compared to others. A lot of times, I was one of those girls. Coupled with an anxiety disorder, I eventually couldn’t handle the frustration of feeling inadequate to continue on with either sport, and quit.

It was only after being removed completely from that environment, that I was able to realize it wasn’t normal for girls to joke about starving themselves and to constantly pinch the places where fat is supposed to natural congregate on your body. I attribute this partly to the culture of the sports I did -- often, as an athlete, you find yourself caught up in the social sphere of your sport, and pay attention to little else. It becomes a bubble, with the potential to provide a sense of belonging, but also has the obvious risk of unintentionally promoting dangerous mentalities.

It seems absolutely insane to say this, but I’ve only recently realized the obsession over body-image a lot of former gymnasts, cheerleaders, figure skaters, and dancers have is not normal. Perhaps this speaks to just how much of a bubble these sports, due to their competitive nature and time commitment, pull their athletes into. The nature of these sports, especially gymnastics, requires physical strength, but promotes slimness -- something that can be in conflict with each other depending on the athlete and their body type. It’s unreasonable to expect a sport you dedicate forty hours a week to, to not consume your life. Likewise, it’s unreasonable to not take extreme attention to the effects these sports can have on their participants, who are mostly impressionable girls, under the age of 16.

Young athletes' view of their own body image is something I’d never been talked to about, whether it be in gymnastics or cheerleading. Yet, I can name at least 15 girls off the top of my head with disordered eating. Whose responsibility is it to inform these young girls, to look out for them?

Surely, it’s partially the parents and the coaches. Is it necessary for them to talk to their children about body image? Is it necessary for them to watch how their children eat, when they eat? How much of a role should a coach play in this? At what point is a coach’s involvement crossing the line of what the extent the parents feel the coach should be involved in their child’s life? It seems like there’s a never-ending list of questions regarding how to actually identify problems with these athletes, and how to actually address them in a way that’ll lead to action, rather than anger or a misunderstanding.

The problem is rooted in the fact there’s no standard on how coaches are supposed to conduct themselves when they suspect their athletes may have or be at risk of developing an eating disorder. It’s ridiculous to entirely ‘blame’ them. How do we expect them to act when there is no model for them to follow?

The governing body of these sports -- gymnastics, cheerleading, figure skating, etc., -- should develop more comprehensive plans on how to address these issues. Training on how to recognize eating disorders should a be part of coaching certifications. Education on how to approach these situations needs to become a part of the culture of coaching. Otherwise, more girls will decay, both mentally and physically, in an attempt to strive for the impossibility of perfection.

Cover Image Credit: Disney Blog

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To The Boy Who Will Love Me Next

If you can't understand these few things, leave before things get too involved
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To the boy that will love me next, I need you to know and understand things about me and my past. The things I have been though not only have shaped the person I’ve become, but also sometimes controls my life. In the past I’ve been used, abused, and taken for granted, and I want something real this time. The guys before you were just boys; they didn’t know how to treat me until it was too late. They didn’t understand how to love me, until I broke my own heart. Before you truly decide to love me I want you to understand these things.

When I tell you something, please listen.

I’m my own person, I want to be loved a certain way. If I ask you to come over and watch movies with me please do it, if I ask for you to leave me alone for a few hours because it’s a girl’s night please do it. I don’t just say things to hear my own voice, I say things to you because it’s important to my life and the way I want to be loved. I’m not a needy person when it comes to being loved and cared for, but I do ask for you to do the small things that I am say.

Forgive my past.

My past is not a pretty brick road, it is a highway that has a bunch of potholes and cracks in it. I have a lot of baggage, and most of it you won’t understand. But don’t let my past decided whether you want to love me or not. My past has helped form who I am today, but it does not define who I am. My past experiences might try and make an appearance every once in a while, but I will not go back to that person I once was, I will not return to all that hurt I once went though. When I say those things, I’m telling the complete and honest truth. I relive my past every day, somethings haunt me and somethings are good reminds. But for you to love me, I need you to accept my past, present and future.

I’m just another bro to the other guys.

I have always hung out with boys, I don’t fit in with the girl groups. I have 10 close girlfriends, but the majority of my friends are guy, but don’t let this scare you. If I wanted to be with one of my guy friends I would already be with him, and if you haven’t noticed I don’t want them because I’m with you. I will not lose my friendships with all my guy friends to be able to stay with you. I will not cut off ties because you don’t like my guy friends. I have lost too many buddies because of my ex-boyfriends and I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again. If you don’t like how many guy friends I have you can leave now. Don’t bother trying to date me if you can accept the fact I’m just another bro.

I might be a badass, but I actually have a big heart.

To a lot of people I come off to be a very crazy and wild girl. I will agree I can be crazy and wild, but I’m more than that. I’m independent, caring, responsible, understanding, forgiving, and so such more type of woman. Many people think that I’m a badass because I don’t take any negatively from anyone. Just like we learned when we were younger, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” Most people can’t do that in today’s world, so I stick up for myself and my friends. I don’t care what anyone thinks about me, or their option on how I live my life. The only thing I care about is being able to make myself happy. Even though I’m an independent woman, understand that I do have a big heart. Honesty when I truly care for someone I will do just about anything they ask, but don’t take advantage of this. Once you take advantage of this part of me, all respect will be lost for you.

I’m hard to love.

Sometimes I want to be cuddle and get attention, and sometimes I don’t want you to talk to me for a couple hours. Sometimes I want you to take me out for a nice meal, but sometimes I want a home cooked meal. Every day is different for me, sometimes I change my mind every hour. My mood swings are terrible on certain days, and on those days you should probably just ignore me. I’m not easy to love, so you’ll either be willing to find a way to love me, or you’ll walk out like so many others have.

I’m scared.

I’m scared to love someone again. I’ve been hurt, heartbroken, and beat to the ground in my past relationships. I want to believe you are different, I want to hope things will truly work out, but every relationship has always ended up the same way. I’m scared to trust someone, put my whole heart into them, just to be left and heartbroken again. I sick and tired of putting my whole body and soul into someone for them to just leave when it is convenient for them. If you want to love me, understand it won’t be easy for me to love you back.

When “I’m done.”

When I say “I’m done” I honestly don’t mean that I’m done. When I say that it means I need and want you to fight for me, show me why you want to be with me. I need you to prove that I’m worth it and there’s no one else but me. If I was truly done, I would just walk away, and not come back. So if I ever tell you, “I’m done,” tell me all the reasons why I’m truly not done.

For the boy who will love me next, the work is cut out for you, you just have to be willing to do it. I’m not like other girls, I am my own person, and I will need to be treated as such. For the boy that will love me next, don’t bother with me unless you really want to be with me. I don’t have time to waste on you if you aren’t going to try and make something out of us. To the boy who will love me next, the last thing I would like to say is good luck, I have faith in you.

Cover Image Credit: Danielle Balint

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The First Time My Mistakes No Longer Controlled My Life

Mistakes suck, and though I've conquered a few, I'm still learning.

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The whistle blows as the team cheers on.

My heart pounds as if it will burst out of my chest at any given moment and I taste the salty sweat trickling down my face. I must serve over the net, I must get it in, I must ace my opponent or I will fail. Fear.

In his first inaugural speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Such a statement proves powerful to the matured minds of society; however, in the minds of some adolescents, this declaration appears somewhat foolish, as numerous "threats" ignite fear, thus causing teens to grow anxious.

A major cause for fear in the rising generation takes form in failure. In the eyes of these people, making a simple mistake paves the way towards absolute failure; therefore, perfectionists constantly walk on eggshells attempting to do the impossible: avoid human error. This mentality gives way to constant stress and overall disappointment, as perfection does not apply to human beings. If one can come to the realization that not one person can attain perfection, they can choose to live life in ease, for they no longer have to apply constant pressure upon themselves to master excellence. The fear of failure will no longer encumber their existence, and they can overcome situations that initially brought great anxiety. I too once put great pressure on myself to maintain perfection, and as a result, felt constantly burdened by my mistakes. However, when I realized the inevitability of those mistakes, it opened the door for great opportunities. The first time I recognized that failure serves as a tool for growth allowed me to no longer fear my mistakes, and instead utilize them for my own personal growth.

The whistle blows as the team cheers on. My heart pounds as if it will burst out of my chest at any given moment, and I taste the salty sweat trickling down my face. I must serve over the net, I must get it in, I must ace my opponent. As hard as I try, I fail; as the ball flies straight into the net and thuds obnoxiously onto the gym floor, so does my confidence. I feel utter defeat, as I know my fate. My eyes water as my coach immediately pulls me from the game, sits me on the bench, and tells me to "get my head into the game" instead of dwindling on past errors. From then on I rarely step foot on the court, and instead, ride the bench for the remainder of the season. I feel defeated. However, life does not end, and much to my surprise, this mistake does not cause failure in every aspect of my life. Over time, I gradually realize that life does not end just because of failure. Instead, mistakes and failure pave the way toward emotional development and allows one to build character. In recognizing that simple slip-ups do not lead to utter failure, I gain perspective: one's single mistake does not cause their final downfall. Thus, this epiphany allowed for my mental growth and led me to overcome once challenging obstacles.

Instead of viewing mistakes as burdens, one should utilize them as motivation for future endeavors. The lesson proves simple: all can learn from their mistakes. However, it is a matter of choosing to learn from these mistakes that decide one's future growth. Instead of pushing faults away, I now acknowledge them in order to progress. Before coming to such a realization, I constantly "played it safe" in sports, fearing that giving my best effort would lead to greater error. I did not try, and as a result, I rarely failed.

Although such a mentality brought forth limited loss in terms of overall team success, it also brought forth limited, individual success. Today, fear of failure no longer controls life on the court. I use my mistakes as motivation to get better; instead of dwindling on an error made five minutes prior, I focus on the form needed to correct it. As a result, skills will constantly improve, instead of regress. Thus, errors serve as blessings, as it is through these errors in which one can possess the motivation to better themselves.

For some, fear acts as an ever-present force that controls every aspect of life. In particular, the fear of failure encumbers perfectionists, as the mere thought of failing causes great anxieties. In the past, I have fell victim to the fear of committing a mistake, and as a result, could not go through life without feeling an overwhelming sense of defeat. However, in a moment of what appeared to be a great failure, I finally recognized that life does not end due to one mistake, let alone one million. Instead, mistakes pave the way toward personal development and provide essential motivation to succeed in everyday life. Without mistakes, it proves difficult to grow in character. One must first learn to accept their faults before they can appreciate their best qualities. Thus, the fear of failure inhibits the growth of an individual; therefore, all must come to the realization that essentialness of mistakes, as they allow for the further development of overall character.

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