Eating disorders are a silent problem in athletics
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). The organization also says that 24 million people are dealing with an eating disorder in the U.S.
If this is true, why are we still not talking about eating disorders? We aren’t talking about them because they are uncomfortable. A problem surrounded by many harsh stigmas. People suffering with eating disorders are viewed as frail, inadequate and unable to handle society. Instead of giving people the help they need, we are isolating them and guilting them for their illness.
Carly Spanjers (‘12) talked about her struggle with anorexia nervosa in chapel when she was a student at Minnehaha. Spanjers experienced the stigmas throughout her battle with her disorder.
“I feel there is a pressure to be overly conscience on your looks,” said Spanjers. “But at the same time I have seen on multiple occasions girls and boys with eating disorders being publicly shamed and condemned. Statements like ‘eat a hamburger’, or even using the word ‘anorexic’ very loosely, are staples to American culture.”
American culture is known for its noisy nature, but when it comes to serious topics we often become silent. Frequently it is addressed in a joking or condescending way. Not wanting to deal with this huge issue, America brushes it off, even jokes about it instead. We are all contributing to this even if we don’t realize it.
Eating disorders in the athletic world
America is also a sports-obsessed culture, but the problems associated with athletics are still ignored. Gymnastics, dance, and swimming are sports that are associated with eating disorders because of the advantage of being small and the judging aspect of those sports. Sophomore Lucy Awe participated in gymnastics and knew about the dangers of eating disorders but with no help from her coaches.
“Eating disorders have been a part of gymnastics for a long time,” said Awe, “but it was never really talked about. It was something that people would try and cover up. I think the first time where it really started being talked about was after the death of Christy Henrich. She was a world-class gymnast, at a meet one of the American judges said that she was too fat, she developed an eating disorder after hearing that and ended up dying from it.”
Thirteen percent of athletes competing in a judged sport have eating disorders compared to three percent in refereed sports. Sports that incorporate judgment in the performance are affecting what these athletes are valuing.
“It’s a sport based on the evaluation of judges and there’s not really any way to change that,” said Awe, “however I do think that there are ways to make eating disorders not so common in the gymnastics world. I think the topic of eating disorders is one that should be discussed between gymnast and coached and parents. Young girls and even boys should know what it is and how to feel secure with themselves in the sport.”
Feeling safe in your own body is important and having a way to talk about it, especially in a sport such as gymnastics, will
help. But there is still the image society is portraying as “perfect” and the importance society puts on looks and perfection.
SuLin Kelley (‘13) also spoke in chapel about her battle with purging anorexia while she attended Minnehaha. She said what drove her to start was stress and wanting to be the “perfect size.” This created problems for Kelley. She ended up becoming so skinny that her athletics were hindered because of it.
“I feel like I have high standards for myself and when I don’t meet those standards, that’s when my anorexia goes full throttle,” said Kelley. Where are these standards of perfection coming from?
Media’s unhealthy standards
Sixty-nine percent of girls in 5th to 12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape, according to the ANAD. Girls and boys are being told what to look like when many times that is unattainable. ANAD reported that only 5 percent of American girls have the desired body type. Why is society portraying to young people an unhealthy image?
“Our society can be ignorant to eating disorders,” said Spanjers. “Eating disorders come in all shapes, genders, and sizes, and are by no way limited to anorexia and bulimia. This is something that our society doesn’t understand…. I think that it is easy for our society to forget how serious eating disorders are.”
Time for change
There needs to be a shift in society. Society should be accepting people for their flaws so that young people don’t develop problems with body image.
Spanjers encouraged individuals who are battling eating disorders to reach out for help from people and support organizations they trust.
“For me, it often feels like struggling is not okay,” she said. “And if I am struggling, I should hide it or keep it a secret…. We live in such a fast-paced culture that is always looking on moving forward quickly and doesn’t spend the necessary time in the present to accept struggles. Instead, we are often forced to bury our struggles deep inside us, till they are consuming… I know that when I share my stories past and present, others know it is okay to share their struggles as well. You would be surprised how many people around you have shared the same struggles as you.”