October 15, 2015

BROFSKY | Unhealthy Thoughts

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The life of a college athlete: You have to perform well and you have to balance this with an acceptable GPA. Practice isn’t optional. You must devote multiple hours each day to progressing; this means no going backwards. Expectations are always rising. You must stay in shape, stay focused, stay healthy.

Outside the bubble of athletics that blends college life with the rest of the world are all of the pressures marked by media and the rest of society. They say, mostly to females, to look a certain way. To be thin. And they seem to love you a little more if you’re skeletal.
Eating disorders are real, and they are dangerous and frightening. Perhaps starting out as a seed of a thought inside a person’s mind, they generate dire medical concerns.

Eating disorders are most common in sports that have weight requirements, emphasize appearance or are endurance sports. Generally, this is also true for sports that focus on the individual. In 1992, the American College of Sports Medicine published the statistic that 62 percent of athletes participating in sports like figure skating and gymnastics develop eating disorders. It’s especially hard for these athletes when they reach puberty. They must adjust their techniques to account for their changing bodies, but for many it just translates into pushing to lose weight and return to their pre-pubescent size.

I talked to two Cornell athletes – one male and one female – about the pressures they feel. I have changed both of their names to protect their privacy.

Aidan said he was able to turn the extra competitive pressures into something positive. It’s a life skill to be able to react and perform under pressure. However, it isn’t always so easy. His coaches try to take the pressure off and stress that running competitively is “just a race.” Still, he has seen teammates here and elsewhere change the way they eat and be encouraged to lose weight by their coaches. Sometimes this escalates to the point of obsession.

Lily says, “Being an athlete, people expect you to look a certain way.” They expect to see someone in shape, who looks fit and muscular. It’s an extra standard to live up to.
In high school, I remember hearing friends on the lightweight crew team talk about how they couldn’t eat for days before weighing in, that an extra pound added could jeopardize all that they’ve worked for. I would see skaters skinny as twigs complaining that they were fat in the mirrors of the locker room.

These things don’t always start off so obviously. There’s a hazy line between intense athletic training and obsessive compulsive exercising. Psychiatrist Kimberly Dennis has even noted that denial has been somewhat ingrained in athletes as they have to overcome physical limits daily. Denial mixed with perfectionism can create this perfect storm in the development of eating disorders.

Many athletes believe that controlling their calorie intake can help them overcome challenges, but in the long run, it has the opposite effect. World-renowned figure skater Jenny Kirk said, “There are so many things in skating that a competitor can’t control, particularly the judging, and I felt that if I were a certain weight, I would feel more in control of all those external variables. What really happened, though, is that the disorder started to control me, and it took over my life.” Control is a wonderful thing we like to think we have. But when we give control to unhealthy thoughts, we can lose ourselves to them.