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Athletics and Aesthetics

The prevalence of disordered eating among athletes in aesthetic sports
December 28, 2019

Every teenager is insecure. It’s like saying that the sky is blue or that we need air to breathe. It’s really just a fact of life.

Sport is widely considered a valuable outlet for teenagers to overcome their insecurities. It gives them the chance to gain confidence, lead a healthier lifestyle, and build a supportive community of teammates. However, sometimes the sport itself can foster insecurity in a way that propagates larger mental health issues. Young athletes that participate in aesthetic or appearance-oriented sports such as gymnastics, dance, and swimming are uniquely susceptible to disordered eating because these sports emphasize and encourage leanness. When gone unnoticed or unaddressed, disordered eating can develop into a "full-fledged eating disorder."

The American Psychiatric Association defines eating disorders as “illnesses in which the people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.” Several million people suffer from eating disorders including anorexia nervosabulimia nervosabinge eating disorder, and other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED).

Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age and gender. However, they are notably prominent among adolescent girls. In an 8 year longitudinal study, researchers studied a group of 496 adolescent girls and found that when they included nonspecific eating disorder symptoms, 13.2% of the participants had suffered from a DSM-V eating disorder by the time they were 20 years old.

Athletes are not exempt from eating disorders. A study from the University of Wisconsin found that among female high school athletes who participated in aesthetic sports, 41.5% reported disordered eating. The researchers also found that the participants who reported disordered eating were twice as likely as their peers to suffer from a musculoskeletal injury. When gone untreated, eating disorders can continue to affect athletes during their collegiate and even professional careers. A study from the Journal of American College Health stated that in a survey of female college athletes, 25.5% had subclinical eating disorder symptoms. In 2016, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Misty Hyman shared her experience from suffering from an eating disorder. She expressed, “Part of it was my own insecurities, part of it was my own control, the sense of being in control or something I could control. It wasn’t strictly just a body image issue or strictly just, ‘I’m trying to perform better.’”

When I was a teenager, I dealt with my own share of insecurities and negative coping mechanisms that came in the form of disordered eating. I was in middle school when I started restricting calories, but it was not until I reached high school that it became my norm. I competitively swam throughout all four years of high school and during that time I strategically reduced my calorie intake under the illusion that restrictive eating behaviors were essential for developing and maintaining the “ideal” body. I would eat exactly 500 calories before an intense two hour practice and then burn it all off. I would eat dinner to avoid suspicion from family and friends, but then I would go to my room and do extra exercises to burn off what I considered excess calories. When I felt like someone might be catching on to what I was trying to do, I lied about what and when I ate. I found a sense of control and pride in restricting. I believed that my weight directly correlated with my success.

An individual can physically recover from an eating disorder, but the mentality that remains is what maintains the painful dissonance between the mind and body. Someone can appear completely healthy and still harbor the same thoughts that contributed to their restriction, binging, or purging. The longer that someone has an unhealthy mindset and engages in unhealthy behaviors, the harder it is to achieve a successful and timely recovery. This is why it is imperative that coaches, parents, and athletes need to become more aware of the signs of a budding eating disorder - especially in aesthetic sports.

Mayo Clinic provides a list of signs of an eating disorder which include an excessive focus on food, frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws, skipping meals, excessive exercise and more. The article emphasizes that the first step to prevention is open and honest communication. This is often difficult for everyone involved, but it is a crucial step. Parents and coaches should especially take the initiative to educate themselves about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, what resources are available for those that are experiencing an eating disorder, and what support they can offer. They should also foster positive and productive discussion about healthy-eating, body image, media, and the dangers of dieting among their children and their athletes.

The pressure to be perfect - whether it is internal or external - is often too present in athletics which are fundamentally supposed to provide the opportunity to be healthy and to grow as an individual. Instead, there is an inherently toxic environment - especially to young athletes who are in a critical period of physical, emotional, psychological, and social development.

In the period between my last race and now, I have undergone a lot of changes. I moved to another state. I went to college. For a while, I tried to listen to my body and I ate what I wanted. I started feeling better. I got stronger, but I gained weight. I panicked, experienced some stressful events, and developed other disordered behaviors. I lost weight. I’ve been happy and sad and proud and devastated. I’ve been up and down and left and right, but I am trying my best to move forward.

Participating in sports can and should be a positive experience. Sports can strengthen communities and individuals, but it is imperative that parents, coaches, and teammates become more aware of the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and how they might affect or be affected by athletic performance. The timely identification of a mental health condition is a critical step towards increasing an individual’s chances of receiving appropriate care and improving their quality of life. These conditions need to be treated with the same urgency and care as any physical injury. Young athletes struggling with their mental health deserve unwavering support and comprehensive solutions in order to meet their full potential not only as athletes, but as human beings.

Julia O’Connell is an Undergraduate Research Assistant in the Global Sport Education Research Lab at the Global Sport Institute. She is currently attending Arizona State University and is pursuing a degree in Global Health. She is expected to graduate in May 2021.