I appreciated receiving this article, written by Karen Crouse, which speaks to a very real problem in sports. It is also – I should point out – scarcely relegated to figure skating (the topic of the article) and related performing or aesthetic sports such as dancing, bodybuilding, and the like. Rather, it has a much broader (and frankly insidious) grip on athletes around the globe.
Eating disorders were something I grew up knowing plenty about – I was classically trained in ballet for over ten years, competitively figure skated for about sixteen years, and danced competitively in International Latin and American Smooth ballroom for seven years. In those arenas, thin is ALWAYS in.
Can weight make a difference in performance? Yes, absolutely. When it comes to one’s joints, or one’s ability to do the particularly acrobatic and athletic jumps and spins, it’s important we are at a weight healthy for our frame. Figure skating, for one, is a high impact sport and that takes a toll even on a healthy body. When we are unhealthy, those negative side effects can be multiplied many fold. However, a lot of it – a sometimes far heftier percentage – is about the “look.” And, when it becomes about our appearance, things can go downhill very quickly…
It isn’t only that I, like many athletes, was “young and impressionable” at the time – top athletes generally ARE on the younger side (remember that part about impact on the body?) Athletes begin training early, so there is certainly danger in implanting these injurious notions early on.
What is also a real issue, however, is that a focus on a person’s “weight” can suddenly have bearing on whether or not you are even “considered” for a winning position – that will change your tune pretty quick if you have goals of any kind. (Deny politics play a role in results? You’re kidding yourself!)
In ballroom, for example, if you aren’t groomed properly, you simply aren’t taken seriously. Period. It’s as easy as that. I’m not putting it down, I was in it…and LOVED it. But it was a horrible hassle, and I knew I didn’t really have a choice. Before a competition I needed to be:
- Spray tanned…TWICE (because my pale skin wasn’t in)
- Have my nails done (as in, they needed to be long and noticeable)
- Have my hair professionally done every time I competed (multiple days, means days of hair-doing)
- Professional makeup (fortunately I did this myself, but then half my suitcase was makeup I had to lug)
- Make sure I was as fit as could be (wearing next to nothing / very revealing costumes…yes, people would notice if you gained a little extra. And they wouldn’t be shy about mentioning it)
Those things were prerequisites. Then you added to that judge preferences like wearing tan fishnets or stockings (okay, no big deal, that helped “pull me in” a little so I stayed slim in that tiny costume…) But it was rough because if you didn’t take those “suggestions” you often were out of the running…before you even took the floor. No, I’m not kidding. Figure skating was a little less harsh on that front, but the pressure to “lose a little” was definitely an undercurrent.
I remember going to skating camp at Simsbury’s International Skating Center of Connecticut. I was in my mid to later teens (definitely the mesomorph of the group!) and I recall – very clearly – the younger skaters being worried about gaining weight. They wouldn’t eat ice cream, they would ask for coffee (at that age?!) with skim milk… They wouldn’t have chips…. Even back at our dorms, some would skip breakfast because they didn’t want to have too much (more Lucky Charms and Golden Grahams for me?)
Let me be clear, I am ALL about healthy, clean eating – it’s not about how I look so much as how it makes my body feel. My body is a “finely-tuned machine,” according to my doc, and it tells me what it needs. But when you are FIGURE SKATING…for HOURS A DAY…you burn more than a Clydesdale! I mean, it was craziness!!! These kids were WAY too young to worry about weight, not a single one had any inkling of a problem (which could impact joints, as athletic as skating can be), and they couldn’t enjoy themselves as a result – it was heartbreaking!
Now a days, the pressures are – apparently – still there. It was eye-opening to read that Brian Boitano (an idol I watched win his gold when I was ten years-old) was very much subjected to this, and wasn’t actually at peak performance (very likely) at that time. Hard to believe if you saw those jumps! It’s also saddening to hear that Adam Rippon has struggled with this as well. I love that they are open about it because eating disorders carry a lot of shame with them – speaking up and making it known that we are not alone can be enough to save someone afflicted from a life of suffering.
My disorders – Anorexia and Exercise Bulimia / Anorexia Athetica – were a result of something very different, but they nearly devoured me whole too. I thankfully managed to cruise through my sports both unscathed and unapologetically…but I was acutely aware of the oft-unspoken-about illnesses in the background. Having suffered through it later, knowing full well how damaging and dangerous such sickness can be, was testament to how powerful these diseases are…
For many of athletes, body image is tightly wound around performance. . .which is tightly bound to our identities. Sometimes – to add fuel to the fire – that can be perpetuated by the people we look up to or rely on in the sport, as well as tied to our future success.
It’s a struggle to see the “good” sometimes – to see how strong we are, how well we are doing… It’s even harder to recognize…and then ADMIT…when we aren’t fueling ourselves the way we need to. I recently took back to the ice (on a VERY minor scale) but I’ll tell you…my legs are different. I can see it, I can feel it, and my body is asking for more carbohydrates and food. And…that’s what I give it if I need to. But like Adam Rippon, the mind will make a point to call out that we are doing something different – It’s like an internal guilt trip from the Ghost of Athletics Past!
Eating disorders are terrifying – like other addictive illnesses, they have the power to completely derail us, if not end our lives completely. While I refrain from “talking politics,” and don’t much care for celebrities shouting out their messages at the top of their lungs…there is some benefit in this particular arena. It is important to be honest and open because eating disorders are often highly isolating – we begin to decay on our own, and keep everyone at a distance while we whither away. The knowledge that we aren’t alone in our struggles it might help others find the strength and courage to seek treatment – one life saved is one life saved!
Truth be told, having had no one to look to during my own…? I would have LOVED to have this kind of hope to grab onto…