It is no secret that as the years have gone on the typical image of a gymnast has changed. When you think of a gymnast you think of a petite girl. Yes, a girl because by the time most gymnasts reach the ages of 18 to 20 years old they are already retired, or on their way out. Gymnastics has become a sport known to be popular amongst young girls, as the US Olympic team most years are comprised of teenage girls who have not yet reached the age of 20. But, to reach this elite of a level at such a young age means these girls had to have started training at even a younger age, many times as young as 3 years old. The training is grueling, tedious, and really gets to your head. I speak this from experience as I, myself, was a gymnast before retiring at the age of 16 due to injury, as well as due to the impact it had on me mentally. There was always pressure to be the best, be the smallest, have the best tricks, and your coaches pushed you no matter the cost.This leading to the question of whether or not it is true that this kind of image created for the “typical gymnast” has lead to eating disorders in many gymnasts around the globe.
As one can tell these girls are pretty consistent with a smaller body type. You can find the original image here .
I was young when I started gymnastics around the age of 3 and quickly worked my way up to the elite level. Image was everything and diets were common. We had to stay thin and petite in order to compete. It was bad enough that this type of training was already postponing puberty, but to be limited to eating very little was worse. We were always told the best way to lose weight was to work harder and eat less. So, from personal experience and data I can conclude that there most certainly is a correlation between eating disorders and being an elite level gymnast.
Personal anecdotes are, of course, the most powerful source of believing whether something is true or false. Most people don’t understand the statistics, but many people understand word of mouth and trust personal experiences. The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry provides a review of US National Champion gymnast Jennifer Sey and her experiences with this idea of gymnastics and eating disorders being correlated. One of the examples Sey provides is how a coach “chastised her mother for allowing Sey to eat a whole bagel after a 7-hour workout”. It is no secret that girls in general are held to incredibly high standards in society, especially with the emergence of social media and modern celebrities. As a society it is our jobs to lift girls up and let them know that this “ideal” body is not actual what a girl should look like. Gymnastics does the complete opposite. It is coaches like Sey’s that are constantly ridiculing them and telling them they should eat less and workout more that causes these girls to resort to extreme methods, resulting in eating disorders.
In an article on Canadian Women Studies this issue regarding eating disorders in elite gymnasts is further discussed using more personal stories. One of the gymnasts mentioned in this article is Erica Stoke. Stokes talks about the harsh treatment she received from her coach. More specifically she notes when her coach called her a “pregnant goat” . Being called names like this especially at such a young age can cause damage mentally to girls, and thus causing them to take extreme measures to become better in a sense. In Stoke’s case the extreme measure was eating and then forcing herself to throw up. This is known as the eating disorder bulimia nervosa.
This same article continuing to talk about eating disorders among high level gymnasts also shares the story of Christy Henrich. Heinrich was your typical petite gymnast weighing in at 90 pounds and standing 4 feet 11 inches tall, and she had her eyes on the Olympic Prize. That was until a judge stepped in. Just how coaches influence gymnast’s lives, the judges play big role as well. It is a lot for a young girl to constantly be told that what she is doing is not good enough, and in the case of Henrich to be told that she would never make it if she didn’t lose weight. It seems pretty plausible that these pressures put on already 90 pound girls to be thinner causes them to feel insecure and strive to be better. With such immature minds they listen to every little thing their told, and attempt to fix it the only way they know how, which in turn causes these eating disorders to take place. Unfortunately, Henrich developed both anorexia and bulimia in efforts to lose weight. According to the article Henrich’s “weight was only 47 pounds”, and she “became too weak and she had to quit gymnastics just before the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games”. Henrich later died from organ failure, likely caused by the damage to her body from the way she had abused it.
The only way that this could be measured is through an observational study. You cannot perform an experiment because you cannot truly control certain parts of it. The only way to do it would be to tae gymnasts and put a random sample of some in an atmosphere with positivity about their bodies and their performance, and then put the remainder in the opposite atmosphere with coaches and judges harshly ridiculing them. This, however, cannot be done due to the fact that it is immoral to purposely impose the consequences of being placed in the harsher atmosphere and developing an eating disorder on the gymnasts. So, the best way would be through surveys and observation figure out how common eating disorders are among gymnasts in different high class gyms across the country, even the world. Also, it is important to note the atmosphere they are in and whether they are being put down about their weight or not. But, as always correlation need not equal causation. So, while it may be true that many gymnasts develop eating disorders there may be underlying factors. It could be an outside factor as to why they want to lose weight. These are young girls, so it could have to do with boys. Gymnasts build muscle and maybe event to them that is freakish looking, and can be to boys too. These are girls that spend their lives in gyms with not much human interaction, so mental status and developmental behavior can play a role.
The Sport Journal published an observational study that they did regarding female athletes and eating disorders. Now, while this is not specified specifically towards gymnasts, it is still relevant because elite gymnasts fall into the category of female athletes. In summary, the study made up questionnaires and gave them out to a variety of female college athletes. Questions were pulled from an “Eat 26” program which allowed for measurement of the probability of developing an eating disorder, and the rest of the questions were “Athlete” questions which were “used to inquire some factors that may have a relationship with eating disorders among athletes”. Click here to get to the more specific details of the study.
The results of the study showed a correlation between a low score on the Eat 26 test and athletes feeling pretty comfortable about their bodies. A low score on this test indicates little evidence of developing an eating disorder. So, those who felt secure in their bodies scored lower on the Eat 26 and those who did not feel so great scored higher, this demonstrating a negative correlation. Of the 56 athlete participates, 8 were thought to be at risk for developing an eating disorder.
I believe that in terms of just the anecdotes and the one study there is enough evidence to believe that there most certainly is a correlation between gymnasts and eating disorders, however you can never say it one hundred percent to be true. I do think that more studies need to be done on this topic, and more rules need to be put in place to protect the well being of these girls. Most certainly gymnastics gyms need to be observed, and girls would need to be monitored over a period of time to see if they develop a disorder, and possible even be asked why. This could help get more concrete evidence to feel more comfortable about saying that gymnastics can cause eating disorders.