Athlete Health

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San Diego Figure Skating Communications
Eating Disorders Among
Female Figure Skaters

Ideal Body Weight and Athletic Performance
         Female athletes tend to want to lose weight to be leaner and to improve performance. The question that has not been resolved "Is there a direct correlation between weight and performance?" Many athletes and coaches truely believe that weight loss is directly contributess to improving performance.

Scale Weight versus Body Fat Composition
       Standardized weight charts and not that helpful when considering the ideal weight of an athlete balanced with the health considerations. Muscle mass weighs more than fat mass. Being weighed on a scale causes female athletes to tend to weigh in at the top ranges for their height. As a result, athletes may mistakenly consider their weight as too high based on standardized weight charts.

       Sports medicine professionals prefer to measure an athlete’s body fat percentage. Body fat is a component of overall body composition. The body’s composition consists of    lean tissue (muscle, water, bone) and fat tissue.

       The percentage of body fat of an athlete can be also be calculated based on skinfold measurements of subcutaneous fat (fat stored just beneath the skin). This method should only be used by an expert. It can be be extremently unreliable in the hands of someone without the necessary training and expertise. Even with a professional performing the skinfold measurement, there is still a margin of error (plus or minus 3%).

       Determining the amount of body fat through underwater weighing is more accurate but it takes expensive equipment to be able to perform. Underwater weighing is the gold standard when it comes to measuring body fat.

       There are ranges of body fat that are listed for females (20% - 25%) and female athletes (16% - 22%).  It is important to question "Who decided these ranges and what criteria did they use to determine the ranges of body fat?"  An excellent question is "Are there different ranges depending on the sport that the athlete competes in?"

        There are serious negative psychological and physiological effects of mandatory weigh-ins or body fat measurements on female athletes in sports teams. The Canadian Academy of Sports Medicine issued a position statement calling for the abandonment of routine body composition assessment in female athletes. Other national sports and medical organizations “have suggested that both weigh-ins and body composition assessments be eliminated or at the very least be used with extreme caution (Beals, K., 2004).

Mandatory group weigh-ins that measures the weight of athletes should be
discontinued in sports. The same recommendation is made for
weight limits. Both of these protocols may lead to extreme dieting in athletes.

Source -  SportsMd

The Ugly Side of a Beautiful Sport

         Michelle had arrived at my ice rink for a try out with a male ice dancer; if all went well, she hoped he would ask her to stay and form a partnership.  In preparation for the tryout, she had clearly spent a long time on her makeup and had pulled her hair neatly into a tight ballet bun; she looked nervous and self-conscious as she emerged from the bathroom wearing tights, a leotard, and a shear, wraparound skirt.  
         As soon as Michelle stepped onto the ice, the buzz at the rink was that she had the "perfect" ice dance body.  She was extraordinarily thin, and the smile that was plastered on her face all the time only accentuated the unnatural severity of her features.  She only spoke in a soft, baby-sounding voice, instantly signaling to me that something was wrong.  Michelle's mother thought it would be nice for her daughter to get to know a fellow skater at the rink, and offered to take me out to lunch with the two of them. 

         Michelle ordered an unsweetened ice tea and a garden salad (a bed of lettuce) with no dressing. 
Over the next couple months, I watched her starve her body, surviving only on an apple and a yogurt between morning and night.  All the while, our coaches continued to praise her figure, her mother continued to deny the problem, and I kept quite, never discussing the topic of eating disorders with Michelle, instead beginning to wonder if I was eating too much. 

         Several years later, my coach, who is an Olympic Champion ice dancer, told me about a horrible story she had read in some celebrity magazine about women with eating disorders: "Did you know that this is an illness? Its like an addiction to being thin!" she said, as if this were some newly discovered disease.  To my amazement, my coach really did not know that anorexia was a prevalent problem among skaters, most likely because the obsessive and disordered eating behaviors of the skaters she had trained with, and the skaters she trained, had always been considered "normal."
         The world of figure skating today is filled with extraordinary jumping ability, gravity-defying lifts, grace, beauty, fierce competition, and an alarming number of female athletes with eating disorders and body image issues.  These problems are especially prevalent in the pairs and ice dance divisions, but exist across all disciplines of skating.  It has long been evident that women in competitive, aesthetic endeavors, like ballet, gymnastics, modeling, and acting, are at higher risk for developing eating disorders. 

         Like ballet or modeling, the private world of competitive ice skating encourages, even demands, its females to be thin; the sources of pressure within the skating community not only need to be recognized, but the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) needs to acknowledge its part in the eating disorder phenomenon.  It is time for the USFSA to take steps to change the atmosphere that is driving women to destroy themselves in attempt to meet an unrealistic and unhealthy ideal body image. 
It is difficult to say how many ice skaters have eating disorders, as there has been very little formal investigation into the matter. 

         I was only able to find one article specifically about eating disorders in skating: it was called The Hidden Madness, featured in the September/October, 1994 issue of Blades on Ice magazine.  The article sites a 1989 study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which found that female skaters were on average, well below the calorie levels recommended for moderately active females, and that forty-eight percent of the women had EAT [Eating Attitude Test] scores within the anorexic range.  [1]

         Additionally, eating disorders seem to be affecting female athletes of a variety of sports.  In a 2002 study of 425 female college athletes, 43% said they were terrified of being or becoming too heavy, and 55% reported experiencing pressure to achieve or maintain a certain weight. Most said the pressure was self-imposed, but many also felt pressure from coaches and teammates. [2]
         The most common eating disorders among ice skaters are most likely anorexia nervosa, characterized by refusal to stay at even the minimum body weight considered normal for the person's age and height, bulimia, when the person uses various methods -- such as vomiting or laxative abuse -- to prevent weight gain, and disordered eating which may include dietary restrictions and obsessions accompanying body image and self esteem issues. [3]               

         Any of these disorders can lead to a condition known as the "Female Athlete Triad", which is a combination of disordered eating, amenorrhoea, and osteoporosis.  Between restricting caloric intake, whether it's cutting out food groups or vomiting after meals, and excessive exercise (many skaters train more than six hours per day), female athletes may produce decreased levels of estrogen.  This leads to a condition known as amenorrhoea, defined by a decrease in periods to less than 6-9/year.  [4]      

         Often times the female will stop menstruating all together.  The combination of inadequate nutrition, especially inadequate calcium intake, and low estrogen levels can contribute to the third component of the Triad: osteoporosis.  This weakening of bones due to the loss of bone density and improper bone formation can put young women at risk for developing stress fractures. 

         Females with eating disorders are at great risk for a number of physiological and psychological problems.  Some of the physical symptoms include slow heart rate, heart fluttering, heart failure and death, low blood pressure, feeling cold all the time, frequent illness due to impaired immune system, brittle hair or nails, loss of hair, stress fractures, fatigue, and overall weakness. Psychological impacts are equally damaging, and include a negative or warped body image, depression and anxiety, decreased ability to concentrate, and a total obsession with food and weight.  [5]

         Female athletes, especially those in aesthetic related sports, seem to be at higher risk for developing eating disorders, but the question of why remains controversial.  According to a 1990 pamphlet printed by the U.S. Olympic Committee, An eating disorder is a symptom of underlying emotional distress.  It is first a coping mechanism and then becomes an additional problem.  The athlete who has an eating disorder will also have a history of low self-esteem and difficulty with problem solving and handling stress. [6]

         While it may be the case that some female athletes develop eating disorders because of deep emotional problems, many ice skaters with eating disorders believe that the competitive nature of ice skating, and the pressures of the skating community, drove their illnesses.  Says senior level ice dancer, "I get really upset when experts say eating disorders are caused by something from the past, something deep-rooted. They don't understand the pressure there is in this sport to be thin. Pressure that causes us to go to extremes. Honestly, I wouldn't be so obsessed about my weight if I wasn't skating.  [7]  " It seems the U.S. Committee is trying to dismiss this possibility.

         I suspect that elite female skaters possess a number of personality traits that are necessary to become achieved skaters, but also make them more susceptible for developing an eating disorder.  Motivation, competitiveness, and perfectionism are all common characteristics of successful skaters. Skaters often will go to great lengths to accomplish their skating goals; they may move across the country for a partner or coach, or give up education to spend more time at the rink.

         Unfortunately, if a skater this motivated believes that losing weight will help her achieve success, she may take extreme measures to lose weight quickly, and the physiological and psychological consequences can result in a spiraling problem of addiction and fear of gaining the weight back.  Also, the perfectionist personalities of many skaters may make them more prone to attempt to "perfect" their bodies, often with an unnatural and unhealthy body image in mind. 

         This ideally has been reinforced in the skating world in a number of ways, which I will explain after one further point. Also contributing to disordered eating and body image issues in female skaters is the tremendous amount of stress involved with competing in a high level activity. Many times, a skater becomes so wrapped up in competition and skating in general, that her self-esteem becomes directly related to her competitive success.

         When the skater doesn't do well in a competition, or isn't succeeding the way she'd like to, she can redirect her efforts into "fixing" her body. This is especially a problem in ice dance, a discipline in which there are few obvious markers of improvement in daily practice.  Progress is very slow and continuous, and the sport can become frustrating, as it takes a long time and a great deal of luck to "make it."  Girls looking for tangible results may turn to "improving" their bodies, thinking that this will help them in some way.

         Where does this standard for an ideal skater's body come from?  The reasons for wanting to be tiny are probably different in the various skating disciplines.  Freestyle skaters are lead to believe they will be able to jump higher if they are lighter.  Pairs skaters are worried about being too heavy for their partners to lift them over his head, and as Karen Carpenter explains, ice dancers are supposed to look like delicate ballet dancers with long, thin lines.  [8]  Ballet, in turn, has an exceptional incidence of eating disorders (estimates are as high as one hundred percent), linked to a powerful body standard that dates back to a popular eighteenth century dancer.  [9] As described on Something Fishy, Website on Eating Disorders,

         The primary reason that a dancer will develop anorexia is traditionally a ballet dancers are slender. When it is known throughout the world that the best dancers in the world are thin and only the thin ballet dancers get jobs, it is easy for a dancer at a young age to think that anorexia is the only way for them to become and stay thin. To a dancer the pressure to be thin is very great. Before anyone looks at the way they dance or the way they move, the way they look is the first thing noticed. "An ideal has been set in place in the dance community which reflects the general public's desire to see thin women on stage. [10]

         In addition to trying to look like ballet dancers, the top ice dancers are extremely thin and have set a standard that now seems to be expected. Skaters are constantly getting messages from the skating community, whether subtle or explicit, to be thin.  Probably the most influential source of pressure is the coach.  A number of coaches are known to demand their students to be unnaturally thin, even taking abusive measures, like publicly weighing their students, calling them fat, and dictating their diets. 

         These coaches demonstrate that they are in the business to produce winning skaters at whatever cost.  There are certain training rinks in which it is known that nearly every female skater has an eating disorder, most likely at the direction of her coach.  Other coaches are less explicit, yet their comments contribute to eating disorder behavior.  Coaches may complement an anorexic skater's physique, unaware of a problem. 

         The skater is likely to feel afraid of disappointing her coach if she were get back to a healthy weight.  Judges have also been known to make comments regarding a skater's weight.  Other times, a skater will interpret a comment like "You need to improve your line" to mean "You would look better if you were thinner."  [11]

         Pressure also comes from other skaters, parents, and skating fans.  I have overheard male partners make joke about the size of their own partner and other female skaters.  Comments such as "I got a hernia trying to lift my partner" are very frequent, and need to be seriously addressed, as they are not amusing in any way.   Additionally, the elite female skaters who serve as role models to young girls are often unnaturally thin and set the standard for a skater's body. 

         Moreover, I have witness parents of young skaters restricting their diets, and warning them that they will become fat if they don't "watch out."  Other times, parents turn a blind eye toward their daughter's disease, as was the case with my friend Michelle.  This is most likely because the parents believe that being thin is just another prerequisite for skating success, and it is easier to deny a problem than address it. 

         It is disturbing and unfortunate that being extremely thin has become normal in the skating community.  Even skating fans have come to expect that skaters be tiny and beautiful, as if training alone results in super-model physique.  There are many online forums in which fans openly discuss an individual skater's body, whether she is too big, too skinny, or too unattractive.  Perhaps fans do not realize that most competitive skaters do read these forums, in the hopes of finding some positive regard of their skating.  One of the longest threads on a popular skating forum, is titled, Are female skaters too thin? The range of responses ranges from defenses of the clearly anorexic, to criticism of those deemed "too big" and who should "never show themselves publicly in a skirt."  One comment, for instance, states:

         Figure skating is a competition! If you don't have the proper body type, you just won't make it. It's not biased or anything, it's not as if there aren't any overweight skaters competing at the top level because people don't like that they aren't thin, it's just that they don't make it to the top level. Period! I would rather see skinny skaters than overweight people, because I know that these skaters are that skinny because of their intense training. They seem healthier to me than those plus sized models that you see everywhere now. If someone is training to be an elite skater, and they are overweight, that says to me that they aren't training hard enough. It's pretty tough to train 20-25 hours a week on ice, not to mention going to the gym, doing pilates, ballet, etc.,, and not be skinny.

         This is just one example of the hundreds of naive and, often, hurtful posts that reflect the attitudes of the fan base that skaters are constantly trying to please. Another pressure demanding female skaters to be thin is the media.  Millions of viewers worldwide watch skating competitions, and skaters know that their bodies are being constantly judged. Furthermore, the saying that "the camera adds ten pounds" must be on the minds of female skaters on TV.  In addition, as skating stars have risen to celebrity status in recent years, they are taking part in more and more media activities: commercials, ESPN specials, billboard ads, movie openings, and celebrity talk shows.  The media encourages women to be thin — actresses are expected to be of an ideal body type, and tabloids exploit their every pound lost or gained as an opportunity for profits.

         Finally, the body issues that female figure skaters face can be seen as one manifestation of a larger social expectation of women.  Society demands that women try to fit an idealized, unnatural standard of beauty.  This form of beauty is seen at its most extreme in the fashion industry and in Hollywood, but it influences the general public in many forms.  Women's Magazines are filled with ads and articles telling us how to lose weight, get fit, look beautiful, dress well, and please men.  Young girls grow up playing with Barbie dolls and other girlie accessories, and teenage girls often look up to movie stars and models as role models.

         In order to truly alleviate the problem of eating disorders in figure skating, societal expectations of women must be changed so that women feel their worth is not equated with their physical appearance.  In the mean time, however, the United States Figure Skating committee needs to investigate ways to help prevent eating disorders, and change the overall atmosphere of figure skating that pressures women into becoming sickly thin. 

         The USFSA should mandate that skaters on the National Team meet with doctors, who would evaluate their overall health.  One possible method of preventing eating disorders would be to follow the fashion industry in banning females who have too low a body mass index from competing.  An argument could be made, though, that this method would be unfair given that, much like the fashion industry, the skating world demands thinness in the first place. 

         Perhaps a better step would be to educate coaches on the dangers of eating disorders, and investigate and penalize those known to encourage extreme thinness in their students.  I hope that skaters who have overcome eating disorders will come with their experiences (as did a recent Olympic ice dance competitor, Jamie Silverstein), to help bring about a more open discussion of the eating disorder epidemic.  Once the problem is recognized within the community, we will have a better chance of finding solutions.   

[1] Coss, Kim, The Hidden Madness.  Blades on Ice magazine, Sept./Oct. 1994, Vol. 5, No. 1.    Return to article  

[2] Helmich, Nancy. Athletes hunger to win fuels eating disorders. USA Today. 2 May 2006.  Return to article   

[3] Medline Plus. US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. 20 April 2007.  Return to article

[4] Halbrecht, Dr. Jeffrey L. The Female Athlete. Institute For Arthroscopy and Sports Medicine. Return to article

<>[5]  Eating Disorders. Anorexia, Bulimia & Compulsive Overeating.  6 May 2007.  Return to article  
[6]<> Coss, Kim.  The Hidden Madness   Return to article  
[7] Coss, Kim. The Hidden Madness   Return to article   
<> [8] Coss, Kim. The Hidden Madness  Return to article  
[9]  Ballet Dancers  The Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders. 6 May 2007  Return to article

[10] Ballet Dancers The Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders. 6 May 2007 Return to article  

[11] Coss, Kim. The Hidden Madness Return to article


Recommended Reading:


PDF  Dr. Glori Hinck, RD, MS, DC Thesis: Eating Disorders, Body Composition, and Nutritional Adequacy in Female Athletes. Registered Dietitian (RD). University of Wisconsin Hospital.

Human Performance Lab: St. Cloud State University Eating Disorders. 1994, Eating disorders, body composition and nutritional adequacy in female athletes. Endurance Training. 1998.


The following internet links have been gleaned from personal communications
combined with information from public institutions and athletic organizations/
associations that have a web presence with information concerning team and
individual sports programs:

Sports Health and Injury Issues
PDF  Sports Medicine Links
Female Skaters Are Eating Wrong
Prevention of Injuries
Identifying & Treating Injuries
Preventing & Treating Injuries
Common Sports Injuries
Injury Prevention of Athletes
Protective Equipment

All materials are copy protected. 
The limited use of the materials for education purposes is allowed providing
credit is given for the source of the materials.

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