Little Girls in Pretty Boxes

by David M. Edwards and Mary Allen

On Feb. 4, 1983, the death of singer, Karen Carpenter, from heart failure associated with anorexia nervosa brought the seriousness of eating disorders into the public's awareness. Most women in our society feel pressure to be thin - to emulate an unrealistic physical image portrayed by Madison Avenue. Perhaps nowhere is that pressure more intense than in the related fields of entertainment and athletics. Sports that emphasize weight control, thinness and appearance - placing athletes at risk to develop eating disorders - include gymnastics, cheerleading, dancing, figure skating, diving, swimming, crew, track, wrestling and equestrian sports. Olympic gymnasts, in particular, have recently come under scrutiny due to the death of Christy Henrich and the revelations by high profile athletes regarding their struggles with eating disorders. Two members of this community who are active in the effort to educate coaches, athletes, parents and the general public about the hazards associated with eating disorders are former Olympic gold medalist, Cathy Rigby and Suzanne Yoculan, head coach at the University of Georgia.

Cathy Rigby

Cathy Rigby performingIn the 1968 Summer Olympics at Mexico City, a blond, pigtailed 15-year-old girl earned the highest U.S. scores in gymnastics. She captured the hearts of millions of people around the world and changed the course of women's gymnastics in the United States. That teenage athlete was Cathy Rigby, the first American woman to win a medal in World Gymnastics competition. She holds 12 international medals, eight of which are gold. While Cathy excelled in the Olympics, she also suffered from an eating disorder.

"We didn't know very much about nutrition. Neither did the coaches," Cathy said, recalling how her eating disorder started. The coaches would tell the athletes what their weight should be, somewhat arbitrarily. Cathy weighed about 94 pounds at the time and was eating one meal a day to maintain her weight at the prescribed 90 pounds. One night, near the end of training camp, the team went out for pizza to celebrate. "I had three pieces and panicked, knowing I would be weighed-in the next day." Cathy knew one girl on the team was taking laxatives but had no idea it was her way of maintaining her weight. Another girl said she threw up everything she ate. That night Cathy tried the latter method, but it didn't work. "When I hit puberty and went up to about 104 pounds two or three months later, I worked a little harder at either starving myself or becoming bulimic."

Cathy's recovery began in the early '80s after she went through a divorce. "I tried to get professional help before that. Even the psychologists and psychiatrists back then, I think, had to look it up." Her early experiences with treatment met with little success. It wasn't until she remarried that a break came. Her desire not to repeat her past failed marriage, along with the persistent encouragement of the man who is now her husband, Tom McCoy, eventually led to a treatment situation that worked. "The two of us got help for it - him to understand it and deal with me and not try to feed me scrambled eggs."

Today, a successful actress and mother of four, Cathy is free of her eating disorder. In her appearances at colleges and universities, she talks about her experiences in a positive way. "What I try to do is to lure people into the story," she said. Gymnastics is "a sport that demands absolute control, both emotionally and physically." It can be difficult to tell when the quest for excellence crosses over into obsession - when the passion for the sport becomes overshadowed by greed or abusive control. Cathy echoes the thoughts of other experts when she points out "the very thing that makes anybody a great athlete many times predisposes them to become affective-compulsive people." The powerful emotions, interaction with the coach and parents and the strain of reaching for an almost unattainable goal can be more difficult to balance than any part of a gymnastic routine. "Even in the best of situations, it's a little dysfunctional. It's a lot of pressure," she said.

Cathy Rigby and Suzanne YoculanCathy Rigby has come a long way since she was one of those super-competitive teenagers. Now she says "I don't want to compete against somebody else. I want to do the best I can for myself. This is a competitive world and that's unrealistic, but there's always going to be somebody better - there will always be somebody worse." Her advice for young athletes is to "maintain that joy and passion that you have the minute you walk into a gym." It can be extremely difficult to keep everything in perspective. Cathy was able to overcome her problems when she "started to focus on other things that I wanted in my life, not just something that I thought would please somebody else." Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn is "to reach your own goals, your own gold medals of achievement."

Suzanne Yoculan

One of the most influential people in a young gymnast's life - frequently even more than the parents - is the coach. A young athlete training for the Olympics may spend as much as eight to 10 hours a day with the coach. This relationship can be one of uplifting transcendence or one of humiliation and abuse. More often, it probably falls somewhere between those extremes. While some coaches, such as Bela Karolyi, have drawn criticism because of their methods, others deserve praise.

Suzanne Yoculan has had tremendous success coaching young gymnasts, but she has also worked to protect these young athletes from the physical and emotional dangers associated with the sport. Two-time NCAA Coach of the Year, Ms. Yoculan has coached the University of Georgia gymnastics team to three national championships, six Southeast Conference titles and nine regional championships. She has coached Olympic gymnasts Lori Strong, Andrea Thomas and Hope Spivey-Sheeley.

Hope Spivey-Sheeley, Senior All AmericanHope Spivey-Sheeley, Senior All American.

Ms. Yoculan began learning about eating disorders through her involvement with gymnast Kelly Masey. Kelly was an NCAA national champion as a freshman and competed her entire freshman year at 110 pounds. Ms. Yoculan recalls "Every time she weighed, she cried. Every time she gained two pounds, it affected her performance. If you asked her if she'd had enough sleep, she'd think, 'Do I look fat?' " Kelly returned to school after summer vacation weighing 94 pounds. The pressure resulting from her early success apparently triggered her eating disorder.

"We are a society that's reactive; we are not a society that is proactive. And so until a child dies of anorexia, or until an institution has an athlete who falls down and is institutionalized for anorexia, they don't implement programs," Ms. Yoculan said.

Ms. Yoculan believes that some sports may actually attract people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tendencies. She suggested such people "would excel at a sport where it's really repetitive - an ice skater, a gymnast, a runner - whereas team sports are not like that as much." Not all such tendencies lead to trouble. "The point becomes," she said, "is it a problem? Does it need to be treated? I think when your obsessive-compulsive nature controls your life, that's when it needs to be treated."

Although they may precipitate a pre-existing tendency toward an eating disorder, Ms. Yoculan doesn't think coaches or parents actually cause the disorders. She believes the compulsive nature that makes these people excel in athletics is the same thing that can lead to an eating disorder. "I feel very strongly that the propensity is already there, but it can be triggered by stressful situations," she said.

Education and awareness for coaches, athletes and their families are the keys to dealing with difficulties that may arise. There are videos available from USA Gymnastics, and information is available through the international gymnasts and various federation magazines, which most young, aspiring gymnasts subscribe to. According to Ms. Yoculan, a positive approach would be to "emphasize health and wellness versus diet, if we can make sure that people, coaches understand that eating disorders are addictions and that they need to be treated like any other addiction."

The age at which athletes begin to prepare for high-level gymnastics is a major concern. In her book "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," sports columnist Joan Ryan says "women's gymnastics" and "ladies' figure skating" are misnomers. Traditionally the girls who participate in these sports begin training very young and reach their peak at about the age of 15 or 16. That is beginning to change, however. The International Gymnastics Federation has increased the minimum age for participation in artistic gymnastics in the 2000 Olympics to 16.

The "little girl-pixie" look has been in vogue since the days of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. It is this emphasis on youth and petiteness, however, that is the source of many problems. "They start so young, by the time they're 14 their joints, the wear and tear on their bodies, they're just tired." Ms. Yoculan suggests that if high level training is postponed until the age of 10 or 11, "by the time they're 18 or 19 or 20 they could still be going strong." She mentioned Amanda Borden and Lori Strong as examples of gymnasts who demonstrate "you can be healthy, you can eat well, and you can still be a successful athlete."

Lori Strong, Jr. All American, 1994 NCAA Uneven Bars Champion.Lori Strong, Jr. All American, 1994 NCAA Uneven Bars Champion.

The preadolescent look is certainly not essential to gymnastic performance. "You can have breasts and hips and do the same level of gymnastics. The drama can be the same if it's built up around someone that's 23 years old," Ms. Yoculan said. She believes the standards for the proper size and look for gymnasts have been heavily influenced by what has been shown on television. "College gymnasts need to be televised. The general public is not seeing college-age women on television, so they're only associating gymnastics with 80 pounds and four-foot-eight."

Coaches can have a tremendous impact on young athletes. Ms. Yoculan said some coaches are "so domineering in many cases that they are telling gymnasts how to wear their hair, what music to use, when to start, when to stop, when to breathe." She has modified her coaching practices since becoming aware of the dangers associated with eating disorders. "I never comment on body size or weight, positive or negative," she said. Coaches have a responsibility to wield their power in a way to provide a healthy, positive experience for the athletes they work with. Based on her experiences, Ms. Yoculan recommends, "If, as coaches, we can emphasize performance and not weight, then we're moving in the right direction."

The Female Athlete Triad

USA Gymnastics set up a Task Force to report on the "Female Athlete Triad," defined by the American College of Sports Medicine as "the inter-relatedness of disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis." The preliminary report by the Task Force states that as much as "62 percent of collegiate gymnasts have engaged in disordered eating practices." Furthermore, among the factors related to gymnastics that could contribute to the development of disordered eating patterns was the interrelationship of self-esteem and the age of the gymnasts. The majority of competitive and elite athletes are in middle-school and high school. Studies indicate that self-esteem in all preadolescent and adolescent girls plummets as much as 30 percent from the self-esteem of girls in elementary school.

USA Gymnastics has already taken steps to address the problem, which include:

The Task Force recommends several additional steps "to take a leadership role in diminishing the incidence of disordered eating among gymnasts." These include:


Copyright Quest Publishing Company, Inc. 1996.

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