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.