Eating Disorders And Gymnastics
Eating disorders are especially common among athletes because the pressure of the sport environment frequently precipitates the onset of these problems. In this population, certain compulsive behaviors such as excessive exercise and restricted eating patterns are seen as acceptable, and pathogenic methods of weight control are often introduced. In addition, concern about body size and shape is increased because of the "social influence for thinness [from coaches and peers], anxiety about athletic performance, and negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement" (Williamson et al. 1995). Finally, the competitive nature of sports reinforces characteristics such as "perfectionism, high achievement motivation, obsessive behavior, control of physique, and attention to detail" (Ludwig 1996). Most successful athletes are more determined and more disciplined than the average individual. They often set very high goals for themselves and work extra hours each day to reach them. These same attributes, however, can lead to eating disorders and are often found in anorexic and bulimic patients.
Are certain types of sports more prone to develop eating disorders than others?
Eating disorders are obviously found in all sports, but athletes participating in activities that emphasize leanness for performance and appearance are at a significantly greater risk. Thus, gymnasts, long-distance runners, divers, and figure skaters are more prone to developing eating disorders and related problems than those who compete in nonweight-restricting sports such as volleyball or football. Furthermore, disordered eating patterns are found more in female athletes than in males. In a NCAA survey of collegiate athletics conducted in 1992, "93% of the programs reporting eating disorders were in women's sports" ("Dying to win" 1994). Some male athletes do use extreme methods for losing weight, but an important difference exists between these and the self-starvation strategies of anorexics. For instance, a wrestler's perception of his body is not distorted and when he is not competing, he can regain the weight with ease.
Do female gymnasts suffer an even greater risk?
As demonstrated by such famous gymnasts as Kathy Johnson and Nadia Comaneci who have struggled with eating disorders themselves, women's gymnastics seems "designed for the disease" ("Dying for a medal" 1994). In the 1992 NCAA survey, 51% of the gymnastics programs that responded reported this illness among its team members, "a far greater percentage than in any other sport" ("Dying to win" 1994). Unfortunately, the real number is probably even higher.
Why might gymnasts be more vulnerable to eating disorders?
Anorexia often strikes young women who try to evade the natural process of becoming adults and who use excessive measures to maintain a thin and girlish figure--the exact description of what today's female gymnast must accomplish to stay...