Athletes have great bodies. What else can you expect from people who are fit for a living? It is literally their job to be in the best shape of their life, which, depending on what kind of person you are, can be something to be jealous of or not; depends on how working out for at least three hours every day sounds to you. Though there has been a general rise in (regular?) people’s interest in being as fit as elite athletes thanks to “fitstagrams” and the popularity of Victoria’s Secret Model workouts, it still doesn’t quite compare to the pressure felt by the few whose salaries or college scholarships actually depend on their level of fitness. Their soul purpose is to perform to their best ability, so any athlete at an elite level dedicates an incredible amount of time, focus and energy on making their bodies as fit as possible for their sport. Though there are many pluses to living this sort of lifestyle, for one, living healthily is, well, healthy, and abs for days are not a bad deal either (see ESPN’s Body issue), there are some downsides when a majority of what consumes your life is based on your body and its appearance; namely, eating disorders.
Eating disorders are common among high-level athletes; particularly female athletes reporting attitudes or symptoms of disordered eating. It occurs most commonly in sports with weight requirements or certain aesthetics. As a gymnast, I can tell you these pressures are all too real; every sports meeting on the topic of mental health singles out gymnastics as one of the sports most at risk for eating disorders. It is a sport where tiny bodies are seen as ideal, and where girls who have not even hit puberty basically dominate the field. Puberty, especially in gymnastics, is kind of awful in this respect, as trying to stay at your usual level of fitness while your body is changing is difficult. I used to have two bowls of ice cream for dessert around three times a week when I was in high school while training as a gymnast … that’s just not possible for someone in their 20s (or if it is let me know how please).
On top of that, spandex leotards are also the least forgiving piece of apparel one can wear. All of this makes it hard for one to maintain a positive body image and not give in to the pressures to have the perfect body. Shawn Johnson just recently came out about how she had disordered eating when she was at the very height of her career at the 2008 Olympics. It can be a vicious cycle: those at the top feel like they have to be the prime example of how little body fat one can have, even if it endangers their ability to do the sport, and those who look up to them think this is how they are supposed to look like and beat themselves up trying to achieve the same unsustainable image.
Even those insta-famous girls that rack up those mad amount of likes for “cute work-out pics” or bikini shots advertising some new “fitness” tea have started to come forward about the miserable reality behind their pictures. They’ve also discussed how caught up they were in this negative body image and trying to create the perfect picture. The pressure to have this perfect image seems to be not just for those competing in a sport, but it has transcended through to pop culture now too.
All of these combined factors make it difficult for an athlete to not constantly think about how they look and what they’re eating, which is what puts them at a greater risk for eating disorders. What’s good is that people are more and more starting to recognize this a real issue, and that maybe the old ways of encouraging people to “look in the mirror before you eat a piece of chocolate” could be harmful psychologically (that was a real thing said to my team once in club).
Cornell has meetings every year at the beginning of school to address the issue, among others, and offer help if needed. Nobody’s perfect, and especially in sports where there is so much demanded of you, it is hard sometimes to not crack a little under the pressure. What’s good is that now there is more awareness, especially schools are now addressing this issue, and people are starting to get more comfortable with accepting their body and acknowledging publicly the pressures that athletes face in regard to their body image.