, Research Paper
Eating Disorders Among Female Adolescent Athletes In 1988, 15-year-old gymnast Christy Henrich was closing in on her lifelong dream of making the Olympics. One of the top female gymnasts in the country, she was a leading contender for one of the six coveted spots on the squad that would represent the United States in Seoul. However, earlier that year, a judge at a national competition had reportedly told Henrich that if she expected to make the team, she would have to lose some weight. That advice proved devastating. At 4-10 and 95 pounds, she was hardly overweight. But in the world of gymnastics and other sports that stress body image and weight consciousness- diving, figure skating, and distance running, among others- female athletes have traditionally been prescribed a less-is-more fitness regimen. Henrich would soon develop an eating disorder so severe that it would force her to withdraw from competition and retire from the sport altogether. For the next six years of her young life, she struggled with anorexia nervosa, her weight plummeting as low as 47 pounds. Despite frequent hospitalizations and intense efforts at intervention by family, friends, doctors, and the entire gymnastics community, Christy ultimately succumbed to this horrible illness, her slight, 61-pound frame no longer able to withstand the havoc that she had wrought on her body through constant starvation. Sadly, it has taken a tragedy such as this to draw attention to the problem of eating disorders that has become increasingly and alarmingly prevalent among today s female adolescent athletic populations. Considerable evidence and a number of studies suggest that dieting or restrained eating prevails among women and girls in contemporary culture and that a great many of adolescent girls are preoccupied with issues of food, eating, body weight, and shape (Malson 1). Adolescents are impacted more than any other age group. The teenage years constitute a critical period of time in which an individual s feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness are heightened and an eagerness to belong and be accepted by peer groups and society as a whole is widespread. This period also witnesses immense social, physical, and emotional adjustments and changes. Adolescent girls find it necessary to establish a sense of personal identity, to accept the maturational biological changes that they are experiencing, and become strongly fixated on pleasing others (Nassar 1997). During adolescence, if young girls insecurities about their bodies go unchecked, they will progressively internalize a view of themselves as incompetent, inadequate, and even defective. They will long for control and stability, and ultimately, choose a deeply held societal value that thinness is the magic of temporary safety, security, and worth (Zerbe 1993). As girls continue to internalize this message, they become infinitely more preoccupied than boys with the ideals of attractiveness and thinness. Thus, eating disorders, usually developed during this period, are much more common in women than men. In fact, 90 percent of eating disorders are accounted for by women and adolescent girls. This is partly due to the prevailing attitudes towards their bodies that are exhibited by female adolescents as they go through puberty. Thomas Cash, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, says, when a boy hits puberty he gets muscles; girls get hips. He thinks, I m getting stronger, while she thinks, I m becoming fat (Zerbe 1993). Indeed, it is this very preoccupation with body fat that is characteristic of most eating disorders. Eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa and bulimia, are horrible diseases that manipulate the mind to create a distorted body image. In addition to intense fears of gaining weight and becoming fat, these disorders are usually characterized by feelings of low self-esteem, lack of self-worth, and a strong need to exert control over one s own body. Although a rather diverse psychology marks the premorbid personality of eating disorder patients, they are often described as compliant, successful, academically over-achieving, obsessive, shy, introverted, and anxious (Davis 528). Such perfectionist and goal-driven tendencies, along with a desire to please others, are also found in athletes, and are often responsible for the varying degrees of success with which they meet in sports venues. Although female athletes often share these characteristics with those who have eating disorders, this does not necessarily indicate that they are predisposed to eating disorders, or even that their own body-image issues are exacerbated by participation in athletics. Judy Mahle Lutter, president of the Melpomene Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota, denies that involvement in sports leads to or causes eating disorders. It may be that sports attract that personality type- the perfectionist, the highly disciplined, focused girl, who is more likely to suffer from an eating disorder (Garner 840). In recent years, the increasing number of athletes with eating disorders has led to a growing recognition of disordered eating behavior and subclinical eating disorders among athletes. Because many athletes who clearly exhibit symptoms of eating disorders do not necessarily fit all the criteria for either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, a new classification has been created, that of anorexia athletica. Numerous studies have been conducted in an effort to identify specific risk factors involved in the development of eating disorders in athletes. Borgen and Corbin found evidence for higher levels of symptoms associated with eating disorders among female athletes in sports that emphasized thinness as compared to sports with no or minimal emphasis on thinness (Brownell 122). This includes sports such as distance running and swimming, where a leaner physique is often equated with better physical performance, as well as gymnastics and figure skating, which stress a thinner body mainly for aesthetic purposes. The competitive nature of sports is also associated with development of abnormal weight control behavior and eating disorders. In the United States, winning is emphasized at every level of competition, so that many athletes adopt an all-or-nothing view of their efforts (123). Furthermore, in serious competition, winning requires not only natural talent, but also extreme focus and motivation to achieve ever higher standards of performance. The pressure to be slim is heightened by the philosophy and training practices of coaches and athletes who believe that thinner athletes often attain greater success (Brownell122). Today s trend of favoring prepubescent body types in many sports provides even greater reason for a young girl to resort to extreme methods of weight control in order to stave off the changes that are both natural and inevitable as she matures toward womanhood. While puberty is typically a period of turbulence for any adolescent girl as she adjusts to the changes in her body, many athletes experience heightened angst and actually dread this time because they fear it will impede their athletic success. Danielle Herbst, a former elite gymnast, claims that during puberty you feel ugly because you re used to being a pole and now you ve got boobs and hips. You re filling out, and it s like you re going through a meltdown (Ryan 216).
It is this impressionable nature of young female athletes that leaves them vulnerable to the intense pressures and influences of the athletic environment, and which can lead them to engage in eating behaviors detrimental to their health. The coach and staff involved in training an athlete are one of the key components to this environment. Coaches become role models whether they choose to or not, as they are placed in a position where their words and actions can profoundly affect the emotional health of their athletes (Beals 6). Though these words and actions may simply be inadvertent admissions or passing forms of appraisal concerning one athlete who is thinner than another, they can nonetheless exert a powerful influence on a young girl. Teammates, likewise, play a powerful role in impacting eating behaviors. It is not uncommon for a female athlete to compare herself with teammates and try to emulate the body weights and shapes of athletes she holds in high esteem (Beals 4). Both anecdotal accounts and research have highlighted the effect that teammates have on an individual s eating and dieting behavior. For example, Squire reported the case of a cheerleader who stated that everyone on the squad binges and vomits. That s how I learned (Hausenblas 1). Research has documented that participation in team sports can contribute to the development of disordered eating through teammates encouragement to engage in pathogenic weight loss methods, such as the use of laxatives, diet pills, diuretics, or engaging in self-induced vomiting (Hausenblas 2). Although athletes as a whole tend to express greater satisfaction with their bodies than their non-athletic counterparts, even they are not invulnerable to the intense pressures to conform to societal ideals of thinness. The concept of the perfect body is one that is not only imposed on adolescents by the media, but is upheld by the mass marketing of body images through the print media. Magazines, especially, have an enormous impact on adolescents perceptions of such sociocultural standards, shaping and formulating their views and behaviors. Popular titles such as Seventeen, Vogue, Elle, and Glamour are seen as reliable sources of health and beauty information, as well as a means of social comparison. However, these publications typically feature images of emaciated supermodels with hollowed-out ribs and jutting collarbones. Couple that with modern technology and photographic techniques such as airbrushing, and the product is a carefully manipulated and artificially developed image of a body that is virtually unattainable and completely unrealistic. Such images are so pervasive in contemporary society that they have become the norm by which an adolescent girl evaluates her own body. As Natalia Zunino says, In our national pursuit of thinness, the media are either the cheerleaders or the engineers of preoccupation (Nassar 1997). Athletes often recognize that these women of unrealistic proportions are mere illusions, and that an attempt to obtain this body type is both futile and unhealthy. However, they, too, can fall prey to the relentless pursuit of the perfect body. In fact, repeated exposure to the thin yet muscular female models in popular magazines and television advertisements has been shown to precede disordered eating symptoms among females (Beals 4). With the emergence of magazines specifically targeting the female athletic community, such as Sports Illustrated for Women and Women s Sports and Fitness, female athletes are receiving more attention for their bodies in addition to their athletic accomplishments. Though this increased coverage of women s athletics generally promotes a healthier body image and depicts positive role models for adolescents, young girls may strive to emulate athletes such as Mia Hamm or Anna Kournikova on the basis of their looks rather than their athletic prowess. The young female athlete may believe that a particular body image is equated with success, and pursue this perfect body regardless of whether it is a realistic goal or even ideal for her chosen sport. While athletes do tend to be more appreciative of a healthier, more muscular body, and less likely than others to embrace the current trend of the waif, they too, can become caught up in the thinner is better motto that perpetually holds our society in its grip. As adolescence is characterized by a desire to fit in, many young girls simply do not recognize the wonderful uniqueness and diversity of their bodies; nor do they realize that the perfect body is the one they already have. Although Christy Henrich lost her life in the pursuit of the perfect body, she did not die in vain. Her death has spurred a growing awareness not only of eating disorders in general, but of the many athletes suffering from these problems. With this increased knowledge have come countless research efforts to study and identify the factors associated with the occurrence of eating disorders in athletes. However, the eating disorders found in athletes are often considered milder and of secondary importance compared with those of patients typically seen in a clinical setting. Thus, many people, including medical professionals, disregard the prevalence in athletes and do not recognize the importance of these studies. Moreover, such studies are largely dependent on the athlete s honesty and cooperation, which lessens the extent to which accurate results can be obtained. Some researchers even counter that elevated scores among athletes on eating disorder questionnaires reflect appropriate dedication rather than psychopathology (Beals 6). Therefore, efforts must be intensified to better understand how and why eating disorders are developed in female adolescent athletes so that appropriate counseling and prevention measures can be taken. While we may acknowledge the progressively thinning bodies of women we see represented in the media, we must not underestimate the dangers of our own thinning young women.
Beals, Katherine A. Subclinical eating disorders in female athletes. Journal of Physical Education, Sept. 2000.Brownell, K.D., et. al. Eating, Body Weight, and Performance in Athletics. (1992). In K.D. Brownell, et. al., Pathology and development of eating disorders: implications for athletes (pp.115-127). Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger.Davis, Caroline, and Michael Cowles. A comparison of weight and diet concerns and Personality factors among female athletes and non-athletes. Journal of Psycho- Somatic Research 33 (1989): 527-536.Garner, David M., et. al. Eating disorders among athletes. Journal of Sport Psychiatry 7 (1998): 839-850.Hausenblas, Heather A. and Albert V. Carron. Group influences on eating and dieting Behaviors in male and female varsity athletes. Journal of Sport Behavior 3 (2000).Malson, Helen M. The Thin Woman. New York: Routledge, 1998.Nassar, Mervat. Culture and Weight Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 1997.Ryan, Joan. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. New York: Doubleday, 1995.Zerbe, Kathryn J. The Body Betrayed: Women, Eating Disorders, and Treatment. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1993.