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Avoiding Body Image Issues in Sports

Avoid Potential Body Image Problems When Your Teen participates in competitive sports

They are America's princesses. They glide, twirl, leap and jump, amazing us with their grace and daring. The young women of figure skating and gymnastics delight us with their skill and beauty, but the cost they pay to obtain that elite level can be high, with the toll often being their emotional and physical health.

Krissy Harry, a coach with the Sherwood Ice Arena in Sherwood, Ore., and pediatric nurse, knows all too well the price that must be paid. Harry, who spent most of her young life skating competitively, once tried out for an internationally known ice show when she was 15. "The casting people loved my skating," says Harry. "They told me I was a lovely skater, but I was too heavy. They told me to try again when I had lost 15 pounds."

Harry, who now coaches girls of all shapes and sizes, is very careful about the messages she sends her students. "I was really hurt," she says. "The funny part is that I wasn't overweight. I have big bones and short legs and was never going to look like the ideal."

Gymnastics, figure skating and dance are all sports that are judged, not only on their athletic prowess, but their appearance. When you have a sport that is judged on aesthetics, the athlete becomes aware of body image at a very young age, which is something every parent should be aware of.

The Eating Disorder Connection

Kelly Pedrotty is the program coordinator at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia. The Renfrew Center Foundation is a nonprofit organization advancing the education, prevention, research and treatment of eating disorders. Her experience has shown her just how deep the connection between certain sports and eating disorders go.

"For athletes in aesthetic sports, there is definitely pressure to be thin," she says. "Not only do they feel that pressure surrounding their performance, but since they are being judged on their appearance, they feel the pressure to look perfect. Many sports such as gymnastics, dance and figure skating have a specific body type they are looking for. If you do not fit the mold for the body type for the particular sport, you can be looked down upon, criticized, forced or pressured to lose weight, or even cut from the team."

Science is also seeing what Pedrotty has experienced. A study done by Sundgot-Borgen (1993) shows that the prevalence of eating disorders is higher in sports emphasizing leanness or a specific weight than in sports where there is less importance.

The Danger of Thinness Equals Success

Pedrotty believes the societal pressure to be thin is another factor that can increase the risk of an eating disorder. Our society teaches young people that if you are thin, you will be successful. Having the perfect body equals success is the message sent by the media, Hollywood and the rest of society.

"Many athletes internalize this message," says Pedrotty. "Just as our society equates the perfect body with success, so do our athletes. It is not unusual for an athlete or a coach to place the blame of poor performance on body weight [or] body fat. In athletics, when body weight equals performance, it can be extremely dangerous. For example, I have often heard some of our athletes say, 'When I was playing my sport or performing, I felt that if I just lost 5 pounds I could be so much better.' What happens in this case is the athlete may lose weight and their performance may improve – this is not necessarily from the weight loss – then they believe if they lost even more weight, they would continue to improve. Once the athlete equals performance with body weight, they may get trapped in the vicious cycle of an eating disorder."

Seeing the Signs

"There are certain personality traits common in girls who develop eating disorders," says Dr. Karen Siegel, a holistic health psychologist. "These are similar to the personality traits necessary to excel at such demanding sports." Those traits include being self-disciplined, motivated, a perfectionist, highly driven and having a deep desire to please. Because of the shared traits, it is often difficult to detect an eating disorder in an athlete.

Just because your daughter is a figure skater or gymnast doesn't mean she is going to acquire an eating disorder. It does, however, mean you should be aware and sensitive to signs that your daughter may be developing an unhealthy obsession with the way she looks and performs. "If you are aware of her normal body weight and see a fast drop of pounds, common sense alone tells you that some unhealthy preoccupation with thinness is brewing," says Dr. Siegel.

Other signs include:

  • Over-exercising to the point of fatigue with little or no time for recovery (though with athletes this is often hard to tell)
  • Reliance on caffeinated drinks and substances
  • Use of laxatives and diet aids
  • Absence of other activities that balance out their lives
  • Consistent displeasure and dissatisfaction with her appearance

Heading Them Off at the Pass

If your daughter is a "princess athlete," deeply involved in gymnastics, figure skating or dance, it is imperative that you help her to build a healthy body image – no matter what message she may receive from judges, coaches or other authority figures involved in her sport.

Dr. Dorie McCubbrey, author of How Much Does Your Soul Weigh (HarperCollins, 2004), struggled with eating disorders for years. She believes the best way to head your daughter off at the pass is to be a role model. "Don't obsess about eating, weight or body image," she says. "Demonstrate a healthy attitude toward food, fitness and life. Teach children how to find their real identity, which has nothing to do with performance or getting the approval of others."

Dr. McCubbrey says it is important to validate your athlete daughters for their true beauty, which has everything to do with demonstrating their unique gifts and being who they really are. "Encourage them to excel because of the passion they feel for what they do, while finding balance and enjoying all areas of their lives."

Remember that eating disorders are not an inherent part of these sports. A careless comment from a coach or judge will not create an eating disorder in your daughter if her self-esteem is healthy. The benefit your daughter gains from participating in these sports far outweighs the possible risks. Trying and failing, trying and failing, then trying and succeeding builds character and teaches your daughter important life skills. By being an aware parent, you can give her both a love for her sport and her body – a gift that will last a lifetime.

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