This week (February 21-27th, 2022) is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Unfortunately, the sport of gymnastics and eating disorders have been intertwined for decades. A 2009 study of all-sport female college athletes found that ~2% were clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder, while 25% showed disordered eating behaviors. When specifically looking at aesthetic athletes, including gymnasts, the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors almost doubled! And what's even more shocking, is that the prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating are often significantly under-reported, meaning that even more gymnasts are likely to be struggling!
The dangerous link between gymnastics and disordered eating was highlighted in a short film put together by SHIFT Movement Science and Gymnastics Education, entitled The "Perfect" Gymnast Body
This week, I wanted to take the opportunity to share more about some common warning signs for negative body-image and disordered eating that are common among gymnasts.
Comparison and body checking tend to go hand in hand with one another and are often a gateway to other disordered eating habits and eating disorders.
Theodore Roosevelt once said “comparison is the thief of joy.”
We can draw from his wisdom as we consider how routinely comparing our bodies to the bodies of others may lead to or be an indicator of poor body-image and disordered eating.
In the social media age, it is very easy to fall into what is referred to as the “comparison trap.” This trap of getting sucked into social media, and viewing others' bodies, weight and performance as the ideal body and comparing that to what we see in our own bodies. The problem with comparing ourselves to the highly filtered and edited bodies we see online is our bodies can never live up to that standard of "perfection" (which sounds oddly familiar to the basis of a certain sport we all know and love..).
Comparison is not limited to what we see on social media; it is also tempting for us to compare our body to that of a teammate, competitor, or well-known gymnast, and believe their body is the ideal gymnast body and ours is not. This comparison can be perpetuated by teammates and coaches who may praise another gymnast for their fitness level, beautiful lines, performance, or strong "self-discipline" with food and/or exercise.
Comparing our body to what we see online, to our teammates, or others around us can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and even anxiety about our own body’s natural (perceived) imperfections and flaws. If you are feeling this way, you are not alone. This is unfortunately so common in the world of gymnastics. Gymnasts come in all shapes and sizes (just watch any NCAA meet)! There is no such thing as a perfect gymnast body (or perfect body in general). Your body can perform incredible skills and does need to be like someone else's in order to be successful.
Unfortunately, comparison can often lead to habits of body checking. Body checking, sometimes also known as mirror checking, is the habit of compulsively checking on the imperfections of your body as a way to calm your stress around the areas you may feel most insecure about.
In general, body checking or mirror checking for a gymnast may look like:
Measuring body parts
Routinely pinching body fat or muscle to see if it has changed
Repeatedly checking to see how leotards or clothing fit
Comparing old photos with recent ones
Looking in a mirror for extended periods of time
Routinely evaluating how one specific area of the body looks in a mirror
Seeking reassurance from others about size and weight
The problem with comparison and body checking is it literally steals you away from satisfaction and contentment with your own body, setting a standard for the body or weight you see as desirable. When these two areas gain power over you, it may lead to other unhealthy or disordered eating practices and poor performance and confidence in the gym.
If you, or someone you know is struggling with comparison and body checking here are a few things that can help break these unhealthy habits:
Limit social media intake. Set timers on your devices for how much social media can be consumed on a daily basis. Identify accounts that may be drawing you into the comparison trap and unfollow them.
Say goodbye to the scale. It’s not easy to stop weighing yourself, especially if it is a regular part of your routine. Many therapists recommend throwing out your scale and asking for “blind weighing” at appointments, which is when you ask to step on a scale facing away from the number or not be told about your weight at doctor appointments. If you do not feel comfortable being weighed at an appointment and it is not medically necessary (at which point, you can ask to be blind weighed) you are allowed to request not to be weighed! Remember that your body and your worth is not defined by the number on a scale.
Train in clothing that fits properly. Clothes and leotards are meant to fit you (not the other way around). If the clothes you are wearing make you feel uncomfortable or no longer fit, it may be time to say goodbye to your old favorite leotard that is getting too tight. It is okay if your body has grown or changed. Celebrate your body growing by finding a new favorite leotard that fits comfortably.
Identify body checking behaviors. You may not be aware of how often you engage in body checking. Try to take notice when you do and track the frequency of the behavior in a journal or on your phone. As you do this, consider asking yourself the following questions:
How do I feel after checking my body?
Does this body checking impact my behavior and thoughts? If so, how?
Is this benefiting me in any way?
Body positivity. If you are struggling with comparison and body checking you likely have some negative self-talk about your body going on. Identify the statements you make to yourself about your body and begin to replace them with self-affirming statements like “my body is strong,” “my body is worthy of love,” or “my body does incredible gymnastics.” It may be helpful to write body-positive statements on a sticky note and leave it on your bathroom mirror, or in your locker, gym bag, or somewhere you will see it regularly.
Talk to someone. If you are falling into the comparison trap or habits of body checking, I want you to know that you are not alone. These are common behaviors, especially in the sport of gymnastics, but that doesn't mean they are habits to ignore. It is important that you talk to someone you trust about what you are experiencing. This could be a parent, coach, teammate, registered dietitian or therapist.
NEDA has a quick and easy screening tool (appropriate for ages 13 and up) to help determine if it's time to seek professional help.
Seeing a registered dietitian or therapist may be scary or feel unnecessary, but they can help you reflect on the root cause of comparison and body checking and help you develop a plan to reduce and stop these intrusive habits before they develop into further disordered eating and more severe eating disorders.
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, you can find more information on The National Eating Disorders Association website.
This blog post was guest written by Holly Murray. Holly is a former level 10 and NCAA gymnast and nutrition student. She now works for Athlete's In Action, a faith based organization that counsels and mentors collegiate athletes. You can follow Holly on Twitter @HollyMur21