EATING DISORDERS AMONG ATHLETES GAINING HIGHER PROFILE
By Al Mattei
(Note: Some names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
As the story goes, Jennie left the safety of her family unit to attend college, where she became an instant star on the varsity field hockey team.
Jennie was strong, quick, and aggressive for her high school field hockey squad, and these attributes served her well in the college game.
Then, the coach attempted to give her advice on how to improve her game. Her advice had nothing to do with skill, positioning, or VO2.
The coach said, "Lose weight."
Jennie had followed her coach's advice to the letter up to then, and had achieved success on the field. She had no reason to believe that the issue of weight could not be used towards personal success.
The weight came off. And off. And off.
Jennie began losing weight to such a degree that she weighed a reported 89 pounds by the time she had to go to the hospital.
Field hockey players are not supposed to be the kind of people classified as being at a high risk of contracting an eating disorder. Or are they?
When stories of anorexia, bulemia, and unhealthy weight gain are told, especially where young women and teenage girls are concerned, one aggravating circumstance is often an activity where a low weight and thin body are desired -- ballet, gymnastics, figure skating, and the like. Or is it?
A major study released by the NCAA some years ago examined trends in eating disorders in athletes in a cross-section of sports. One surprising revelation is that many athletes with eating disorders do not fit the stereotype of the "little girl in a pretty box."
Eating disorders, according to the study, were found in athletes male and female, in both individual and team sports. Some of the sports found to have the greatest numbers of athletes with eating disorders are not the ones you would believe: football, basketball, wrestling, and basketball.
Given the potential prevalence of eating disorders among athletes, the question is, why?
Jennie's story comes at a time where women's health issues have become part of the women's sports revolution. Whether it has been the WNBA's public-service advertisements regarding breast cancer, or the publicity given to Sheryl Swoopes after the birth of her son Jordan, there has been a focus not only on the athletes on the field, but on the health of women everywhere.
Eating disorders, however, remain as silent as they are mysterious. As such, they are often misunderstood, both by health care professionals and people close to the afflicted.
There are three major types of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a distorted perspective on one's own body image which causes them to see themselves as fat, even though they may be dangerously thin. Anorexics refuse to eat anything or eat only selected items (such as removing the fatty yolk from an egg) and lose large amounts of weight.
Bulemia nervosa is similar in the subject's self-perception. However, the bulemic will eat normally, only to purge the food from the system either by vomiting or consuming large amounts of diuretics or laxatives.
Finally, the binge eater is not one who loses weight rapidly; rather, the opposite is true because of out-of-control eating.
What brings out eating disorders in athletes is hard to pin down across a large segment of the population. Reasons given for eating disorders range from a lack of self-worth to a loss of control to latent trauma from physical or sexual abuse.
Often, a trigger can be even the heightening of on-field pressure rather than a single precipitating event. And, with athletes gaining world-class proficiency in their field at increasingly younger ages (Tara Lipinski, Mia Hamm, Jennifer Capriati, Dominique Moceanu), the pressures are sometimes becoming all-consuming.
Thalia was a phenomenal lacrosse talent who started her very first high-school game her freshman season, thanks to a powerful shot and good speed. The following autumn, she went on to become a star in the first half of her sophomore field hockey season.
Her field hockey coach, however, noticed something about her performance as the season went on.
"Thalia just ran out of gas," she would say to anyone who would hear. "She wound up having no strength by the end of the year."
For reasons only known to her, she rapidly lost weight late in the season. Her body started to bruise much too easily. She slowed down. She could not maintain her intensity.
Fortunately, Thalia's mother, a health-care professional, was able to intervene before there was permanent damage.
Tales like Thalia's affect millions of Americans, nearly all of them female. No statistics exist as to how many of them are athletes. But what is known is that individual stories illustrate what can happen to female athletes if coaches put too much pressure on them.
The pressure can be in the form of having to perform off-season, having to participate in the weight room with the rest of the team, or having to endure comments during practice.
A coach can, especially in many high-dollar scholarship programs, be more negative than positive. Destructive criticism, like that of Jennie, can focus on her weight rather than her playing ability.
However, there is a school of thought where these kinds of words can be more than unwise or inadvisable. They may indeed be illegal.
Leslie Haywood, a professor at SUNY-Binghamton, goes as far as to say that the "inordinate preoccupation with what female athletes eat" constitutes a form of sexual harassment, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
While she uses the cases of male coaches and female athletes in her examples, Haywood's argument illustrated how vulnerable female athletes are to controlling coaches of either gender.
She cites a survey, conducted by Ladies' Home Journal and Seventeen magazine, where nearly half of respondents were unhappy with their appearance. And nearly 30 percent rated themselves as feeling "very" or "somewhat" uncomfortable about their bodies.
Haywood's assumption is that women's athletics should be an empowering experience, and foster, in her words, "self-esteem ... character building, camaraderie, and learning."
The survey, however, does not appear to indicate that the typical American woman is invulnerable to the coaches to whom millions of parents and guardians trust their children.
The NCAA, to its credit, has been concerned for some time about problems presented by eating disorders. A video presentation from 1989 presents a simple plan of action and intervention for those concerned that an athlete may have an eating disorder. Though much more has been learned since then about the subject, the list still has practical applications today:
1. Don't make weight the discussion point.
2. Using a gentle honesty, focus the discussion on health.
3. Get professional help.
In the wrong situation, the fragile minds and bodies of young athletes can become broken rather than strengthened. And sadly, after the damage has been done, the athlete is often left to suffer and recover outside the team atmosphere. Jennie, for example, has had little contact with the field hockey team or its administration since being hospitalized.
Thalia, however, is ready to resume her lacrosse career after much counseling and soul-searching. She received plenty of help from within her family -- both at home and within her high school. It should serve as a model for some colleges when this kind of thing happens to its scholarship athletes.
For more information on eating disorders and how to understand them, check out a comprehensive website from the National Institutes of Health. In addition, EDAP (Eating Disorders Awareness & Prevention), has compiled a sizable list of resources.