Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Link between skaters and eating disorders

Once while doing some research for this site, I came upon a book about nutrition for athletes. It included a small section about nutritional concerns specific to figure skaters. The very first sentence in that paragraph stated that skaters have to watch their weight, because they need to look good for the judges.

Was I surprised? Yes. Should I have been? Probably not.

"Image is everything."

Why do so many skaters fall into eating disorders and other habits of disordered eating? Why do so many feel self-conscious about their bodies? A lot of it has to do with the fact that appearance is such a big issue in this sport. Skating, along with gymnastics and synchronized swimming, is widely known as an "image sport." How a skater presents themself carries just as much weight -- no pun intended -- as their athletic ability.

With the skimpy skirts and fitted dresses, it's no wonder that female skaters feel self-conscious about their bodies, and may feel a great pressure to be thin. Sadly, my research has shown that many skaters have gotten direct or indirect comments from coaches regarding weight. Comments of that nature can also come from fellow skaters, parents, and sometimes even from judges.

Such expectations come from outside the skating world as well. Among many spectators -- and even those who do not necessarily watch the sport -- there is the expectation that a figure skater will have a certain body type. Unhealthy weight loss may go unnoticed or played down by peers, parents, and coaches, who will assume that a skater's "diet" is a normal part of participating in the sport. My grandfather used to watch skating on television and comment that so-and-so has chubby legs, without regard to the fact that these "chubby" legs are all muscle. Fans will discuss a skater's body in much the same way they might gossip about an actress or other celebrity. It's a sad fact in almost every sports arena, but it is much more common in gymnastics, ballet, cheerleading, and figure skating -- and this is precisely the problem. Aesthetics should never take precendence over health or athletic performance.

Factors in each branch

Freestyle. Unfortunately, to be successful in ladies' freestyle skating, you need to be able to do triple jumps. Obviously, it is a lot easier to execute such moves when you are small and light. This is almost a catch-22 situation, however, because if a skater loses too much weight, they will lose muscle, and therefore strength as well. The legs which are supposed to look the best on the ice may not have enough "oomph" to launch the skater high enough into the air in the first place! It's extremely frustrating, and contradictory, that some coaches often seem to ignore this principle. Joan Ryan revealed in her book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes how a great many "elite" coaches will weigh their skaters weekly or even daily, and punish them if they gain even a few pounds. Other coaches may inadvertently contribute to the problem by suggesting that a skater lose a few pounds to get better height on her jumps.

Pairs and dance The lady in a pair team is also encouraged to be smaller in both stature and size. This is partly for the jumps, and partly to make it easier to perform the spectacular lifts that pairs skating is famous for. Jumping is not so much of an issue in ice dance, although the image issue most certainly, and also because muscle strength is not needed for explosive jumps, it may give coaches an extra "reason" to push their dance students to lose more weight.

Synchronized skating. There may be a sort of "peer pressure" as far as weight issues, especially because in synchro, conformity is stressed and skaters are usually encouraged to look at least somewhat similar to one another. With around eight to twenty members on a team, however, there is bound to be a wide range of sizes and shapes among skaters. A larger skater -- or one who merely perceives herself to be larger -- may feel self-conscious if she starts comparing herself to her team mates. And sadly, again, coaches may play a role in promoting the "weight wars." There at least three so-called elite level U.S. Senior level synchronized skating team coaches who have threatened to pull skaters out of line if they do not lose weight -- even if she is a more skilled skater than the slimmer alternate who will replace her!

Men's skating. The weight issue does not seem to be as prevalent in male figure skaters, regardless of which branch of skating they are involved in. However, it is important to note that doesn't mean that male skaters do not develop eating disorders or other body image and food issues. As I cannot stress enough, eating disorders are NOT just about weight. They may be significant factors, but they are seldom the only ingredients in this potentially deadly recipe.

Other contributing factors

Because of other events I have dealt with in the past, I don't doubt that I would have developed an eating disorder, or at least some other unhealthy behavior, regardless of my participation in this sport. Many skaters develop eating disorders whether or not they are getting any sort of weight-related comments from others. It is the psychological issues which put the "disorder" in eating disorder. If the "issues" did not come out in the form of an eating disorder, they probably would have manifested themselves in a different manner.

Low self-esteem is a very common theme seen in people with eating disorders. After a "loss" in a major, or even minor competition, a skater may feel a sense of defeat, and turn to an eating disorder to regain a sense of worth. Or, worse still, will blame their weight for whatever shortcoming they perceive in themself. ("I will be a better skater once I lose a few pounds." "I need to be thin in order to win." "I bet she rejected me from the team because she thought I was too fat.") Perfectionism is also common in people with eating disorders... and a common trait in many skaters as well.

Some skaters may develop eating disorders in response to other stressors... harrowing competition schedules, struggling to balance school and skating, family problems such as divorce, or a result of abuse or molestation by family members, coaches, or other people in the skater's life. An eating disorder can become a coping mechanism, much like drug abuse, self-injury, or other unhealthy behaviors.

What we can do

I emphasize that figure skating per se does not cause eating disorders, but many factors in the sport can make its athletes more prone to them. It is important that we raise awareness about this growing issue. U.S. Figure Skating has done a good job with eating disorder and body image questionnaires being distributed among its elite athletes, but there is still so much more we can do. Coaches need to educate their students about the dangers of eating disorders, and that while image may be important, a skater's health is even MORE important.

Likewise, judges need to put less emphasis on the image issue and more of a focus should be put on what the skater is DOING. There is a fine line between judging artistic aspects of a program such as extention and grace of movement, and judging a skater based on the shape of their body, or how good they look in their costume.

Research shows that the proportion of eating disorders in athletes is far greater than their prevalence in non-athletes. This is NOT how it is supposed to be. Figure skating need not continue to have the reputation for causing life-threatening eating disorders. Together, we can make the necessary changes. We can make a difference in this sport.

Evan Keraminas

Navigate the Eating Disorders Section
Anorexia Nervosa Bulimia Nervosa ED "Not Otherwise Specified"Binge Eating Disorder
Causes of eating disorders Physical and emotional effectsSigns and symptoms Getting help/Recovery
Why figure skaters? ED questionnaireBooks on eating disorders Eating disorder links
Issues of diagnosisSubmission formHealthy coping skillsBody image links
Healthy eating/Nutrition Self-injury

Back to Figure Skating and Related Issues