Many of us who have been following the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, may have found ourselves marveling at not only the dedication and immense talent of the participating athletes, but also their well-toned and statuesque body structures. In our efforts at spotlighting athletic bodies, we often fail to realize the difficulties athletes may struggle in maintaining their body image. In fact, many athletes in recent years have stepped forward and described their battles with eating disorders, including some who are currently wowing the world with their performances in the Winter Olympics.
There are particular aspects involved in athletics which can contribute to the onset of eating disorders, including: the intense focus on meeting weight and muscularity requirements, the emphasis on appearance, and past struggles with eating disorders and traumatic life experiences (Athletes and Eating Disorders, n.d.). Additional risk factors include the pressure to meet societal body image expectations, “performance anxiety and negative self-appraisal of athletic achievement” (Athletes and Eating Disorders, n.d.).
Stacey C. Cahn, a clinical psychologist for Rowan University’s Wellness center attributes eating disorders among top-class athletes to the intensely competitive environments they encounter. “At that level of competition, athletes will take any advantage they can find,” she says (Schaefer, 2018).
In addition to competitive environments, another factor that is exacerbating the issue of eating disorders particularly in male athletes is the societal expectations and characterization of men. According to Ron A. Thompson, the consulting psychologist for Indiana University’s athletic department, male athletes are so reluctant about getting help for their eating disorders, because of the social expectation for males to “be stronger and not need psychological assistance.”
In breaking away from these expectations, figure skater Adam Rippon (who made history by “first openly gay U.S. male athlete to win a medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics,”) has talked about his experience with “quiet starvation” in 2016, when his daily food intake was restricted to “three slices of whole grain bread topped with miserly pats of the spread I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. He supplemented his ‘meals’ with three cups of coffee, each sweetened with six packs of Splenda” (Crouse, 2018).
Although Rippon was able to address his eating disorder and take positive steps to recovery, some figure skaters have been forced to leave their athletic careers due to their problems with eating disorders, including Yulia Lipnitskaya from Russia and Gracie Gold from the United States (Crouse, 2018).
Sporting events will forever harbor highly competitive environments and be exposed to frenzied media and fan coverage, so it is safe to say that many current and future athletes are at risk, if we do not use such social outlets to raise awareness about the importance of positive body image and the prevalence of eating disorders in both genders. It is understandable that sports like wrestling cannot do without specific weight classes. However, even in the face of weight-centered sports, athletes and coaches should be made more aware and encouraged to choosing healthier routes to weight management.
Crouse, K. (2018, Feb. 13). Adam Rippon on Quiet Starvation in Men’s Figure Skating. The New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/sports/olympics/figure-skating-adam-rippon.html
Schaefer, M.A. (2018, Feb. 13). Male Olympic figure skaters open up about eating disorders. The Inquirer. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from http://www.philly.com/philly/health/male-olympic-figure-skaters-eating-disorders-anorexia-bulimia-20180213.html.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). (n.d.) Eating Disorders and Athletes. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/about-us.
Wikipedia contributors. (2018, March 4). Adam Rippon. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Adam_Rippon&oldid=828816687
Image from: https://pixabay.com/en/active-athlete-background-bar-948798/