It’s easy to fall in love with gymnastics. The sparkly uniforms, the bouncy ponytails and the encouraging hugs from a coach make little girls watching the televised events ready to sign up and be a part of the team, no matter what.
But for adults watching gymnastics, it’s easy to see that sometimes there’s something eerie about the sport. When a female gymnast is interviewed and a 16-year-old has a high, squeaky voice and the hips of an eight-year-old, something seems amiss. And in many cases, it is.
While few reliable statistics exist on the extent of eating disorders among female elite gymnasts, in 1992 the American College of Sports Medicine first recognized that girls and women in sports are susceptible to three conditions that seem to work together for harm: disordered eating, menstrual irregularity and osteoporosis.
A 1995 article in Sports Illustrated brought attention to the way that gymnastics, specifically, is a perfect environment for the three problems. The article chronicled the difficulties of celebrated gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Cathy Rigby and Kathy Johnson.
The elite level of gymnastics shows an especially risky environment for young women. According to one survey, 28 percent of all elite gymnasts and their mothers reported disordered eating behaviors.
The NCAA reports that gymnasts show a much higher rate of disordered eating than other athletes, with levels at between 51 and 62 percent. In addition, the average age of menstruation among gymnasts is 15.5 years. At 16 years, a young female who has failed to menstruate is diagnosed with primary amenorrhea.
Gymnasts are exceptionally vulnerable to developing these behaviors because the sport is more traditionally focused on weight than others. There is a startling trend in the size expectations of the young women. In 1976 the average size of the U.S. team was 5’3” and 105 pounds. In 1992, the team had shrunk to an average of 4’9” and 88 pounds.
Because they want to remain competitive at the highest levels of the sport, the young girls must maintain a thin and girlish figure. Gymnasts are likely to use starving themselves as a method to avoid developing hips or breasts that could negatively impact their performance. Parts of judging are subjective, and appearance is critical.
Gymnasts must be trained to maintain healthy eating behaviors. Gymnasts just entering the sport should also be encouraged to maintain an interest in other activities so that the pressure of achieving a high level of competition does not become an all-encompassing obsession that dictates negative health choices.