Aesthetic sports generate body image issues for young women
From a very young age, people in the United States are subject to the pressures of an unattainable goal: perfection. Athletes are challenged more than most to improve their bodies and their physical performances. While improving the body is at first a positive action, some become consumed by the idea of altering their physicality. This intense concern with body image results in a desire to turn oneself into a person she is not, a contortion of the self.
In the sports of dance, gymnastics and cheerleading, aesthetics are important not only for health, but skill improvement. Andie Stolting, a sophomore at Ithaca College and competitive dancer of 16 years, agrees that appearance and skill are both equally important in her sport. “In other sports it seems to me that the stronger you are, the better you are,” Stolting said. “In dance you have to be strong, but you have to have lean muscles. You have to be skinny, but strong at the same time.”
The ideal body type in dance, however, is a bit more rigid than in cheerleading. Britni Miller, an ex-cheerleader for Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey, said that body type didn’t matter as much as its condition. “I think physical appearance is a big part of it, because everyone wants to stay in shape,” Miller said. “But I think it’s that we want to stay in shape to be able to do what we do, not so much ‘I need to look great for when everyone else sees me.’”
Even though physical appearance is an inherent concern in aesthetic sports, it is not always used as a catalyst for negative body image. Dana Ergas, a former competitive gymnast of 14 years from New Jersey, said that her coach never would have allowed her or her teammates to feel badly about their bodies. But outside the gym, Ergas sees how some gymnasts may feel insecure about their athletic builds. “I think outside of the sport [insecurities can arise] because in the sport all your friends basically look the same,” Ergas said. “When you put on a nice dress and go to a party and you have these massive muscles, you stand out whereas in the gym you don’t.”
Some issues may not bother an athlete, but for some they can turn into crash dieting, excessive exercising, calorie deprivation or taking supplements to lose weight at a rapid rate.
Rick Suddaby, the head coach of the IC gymnastics team for 27 years, believes that any strength to excess is a weakness in an athlete, and that eating disorders are much more prominent than he likes to believe due to this reason. “If their strengths are being very organized, very motivated, [and] very disciplined, those are all really good things, but they can also build an anorexic or a bulimic,” Suddaby said. At the same token, “I don’t think the sport causes those things as much as those personalities are attracted to the sport,” Suddaby added.
For instance, Suddaby said a successful gymnast is often a perfectionist, incredibly motivated, compulsive and has both a deep desire to please others and high expectations of self. An anorexic shares many of these same traits. “We basically do the same [skills] every single day and the goal is to get [them] perfect,” Ergas said. “I do see those traits as similar, but just because it takes the same traits I don’t think if you’re going to be a gymnast, you’ll have an eating disorder.”
Stolting recounts the time when one of her close friends from dance got mononucleosis when she was 13, causing her to be out of practice for months. “She was so sick that she would only eat a saltine every day … when she came back she looked sickly … she had lost almost twenty pounds, and our teacher said ‘you look great, keep it up,” Stolting said.
Miller, who has learned about eating disorders throughout her academic career, believes that body image issues could largely come from the sport as opposed to society. “I think [poor] body image comes from high levels of stress and being overwhelmed, not being able to cope properly with that,” Miller said.
Eating disorders and extremism aside, being more slender has its benefits. Most plainly, nutrition and exercise will keep a person’s body healthy and typically slimmer, but for athletes it has more specific benefits. Gymnastics, for instance, caters to more petite bodies.
Suddaby said that it’s easier to do skills while being smaller and more slender. “Anyone can be a gymnast, [but some are] just going to be less competitive. Generally speaking their potential will be held back, as in how good they can be. If they’re heavy, they’re going to run into more overuse injuries, too…there’s a much greater chance of getting hurt,” Suddaby said.
Cheerleaders deal with this frustration, too, as they need to be very precise and in sync with the rest of their squad to achieve success. Miller said to do so, they need to remain in their best personal shape. “I think that if you’re worrying about your physical appearance, it should be in order to be fit and healthy, not about trying to be the thinnest that you can be,” Miller said. “Focus on being healthy and fit and the body weight that will give you the best success in your sport, not so much make you look the best.”
Stolting reflects on ending her dance career due to herniating a disc in her spine after being dropped by a partner at practice, and said that “my biggest regret is just not enjoying [dance] when I was there … sometimes I was too worried about the little details that I didn’t see the big picture.”
Suddaby also believes that athletes need to learn the realities of their own bodies, and coaches need to be able to teach them to do that healthfully. He said rehabilitation should be focused on the solution, not the problem; coaches should use the sport to teach kids there are better ways to succeed than by abusing their bodies. “It takes time and it takes caring, and we try really hard to create an environment on the team where you can really be you and not hide who you are,” Suddaby said. “It’s a place where it’s relatively safe to fail and pick yourself up.”
Taryn Pire is a sophomore writing major who may not be able to do a back handspring but has a killer somersault. Email her at tpire1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.