The Stigma of Eating Disorders in Sports 

Nicole Powichroski, Staff Writer

Eating disorders are one of the most common and least talked about mental illnesses. Oxford language defines eating disorders as “any range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits.”

US Rowing Music City Regatta with heavy weight and lightweight men’s and women’s events. (Credit: Nicole Powichroski)

Eating disorders don’t discriminate against any gender, socio-economic environment, or even cultural background. Most experienced amongst young women between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, 1.6 million people annually are diagnosed with eating disorders.

Less commonly men than women because of the construct that men cannot experience an eating disorder, therefore are less likely to reach out for help to get a diagnosis. The department of health estimates that over four million people are currently struggling with eating disorders.

Only 50% of those diagnosed fully recover from eating disorders not to mention the constant struggles and battles the past experiences have on the developing brain. Eating disorders range from most commonly anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders.

Within the three most common disorders they overlap one other often have sub-categories in them. One of the most common subcategories of anorexia is anorexia athletica.

Anorexia Athletica, or also commonly known as sports induced eating disorder, is a type of eating disorder that is caused by an individual’s sport strive for a specific body type that circulates around lean and slim bodies. 

According to Healthline’s article “What is Anorexia Athletica?” they list the sports that are most linked to eating disorders which include “gymnastics, figure skating, running, swimming and diving, ballet and other types of dances, cheerleading, rowing, horseback riding, wrestling, and boxing.”

The National Eating Disorder Association states that Anorexia Athletica is diagnosed when a person loses at least five percent of their healthy body weight because of excessive exercise and calorie restriction.

The combination of low-calorie intake and excessive exercise is incredibly dangerous for athletes and makes them more susceptible to respiratory problems, mental health issues, and weaker bodies that will not be able to sustain the exercise prescribed to them.

Because of sports pushing a specific body type amongst athletes, those who obtain that body type through an eating disorder often don’t see their behavior as unhealthy because they fit a specific idealistic view within the sport they are practicing.

The most common side effects of anorexia athletica are low energy levels, problems with concentration, more frequent injuries, needed longer recovery in between any activity that raises your heart rate, and dizziness.

This does not include the long-term effects anorexia has on your body that can cause organs to shut down, periods to stop making women infertile, and lowering immunity making you more susceptible to getting sick.  

Anorexia Athletica can come from several different sources. Most commonly it comes from coaches pushing their athletes to fit a certain weight group or body type they think will make them a better athlete. World Championships added lightweight rowing to the sport in 1974 for men, and 1985 for women.

For men the weight limit was 160 pounds, and for women it was 130 pounds. Originally this section of rowing was designed for shorter athletes to compete against each other in a fairer race compared to racing against athletes who were nine inches taller and seventy pounds heavier.

Although the intentions likely were not harmful, this turned into an eating disorder phenomenon. Girls and boys who were on the cusp of the weight requirement would cut weight weeks before a race to be able to weigh in as lightweight.

Cutting weeks before a race creates the beginning of an unhealthy cycle of training your body to get used to a lack of food in short periods of time which can build into a long period of time.

Most cases of eating disorders go unreported and untreated in rowing because girls and boys continued to race, and winning races assuming lightweight was helping them secure their speed. US Rowing has since removed lightweight rowing after almost fifty-five years of being in play.

When announcing this on the US Rowing website, they brush over how damaging it had been for over fifty years. Simply stating it is for the health of the athletes undermines to struggles and hardships the athletes underwent for years.  

Although eating disorders are dominated by women, even in sports, wrestling has one of the highest rates of eating disorders and most commonly in men. Also, a form of anorexia, atheltica bulimia, is increasingly popular in wrestling.

A study proved that amongst all high school men that experienced an eating disorder, they were most common among the boys that participated in wrestling. Wrestling has weight classes, and the problem comes with people who are in between weight classes.

If they are on the smaller side but weigh slightly heavier, they will be paired in a higher weight class and get demolished in meets because they just missed their lighter weight class.

Therefore, bulimia is so prevalent in wrestling athletes will lose weight the day before a meet in order to fit in the lighter weight class and go against people who are smaller than them, instead of gaining a few pounds to be in a healthier, slightly harder weight class.

They will purge and be the bigger athletes in a lighter-weight class. It is an unhealthy cycle that is so popular and nearly encouraged in wrestling that it gets ignored in teams and schools. 

USA Gymnastics has had countless scandals and issues with its athletes. Most popular with their sexual assault cases, eating disorders are also incredibly common within the sport. Most predominately with female athletes.

The stereotype around gymnasts is to be small, muscular, and skinny. It is no secret gymnasts have body image and eating issues with tight leotards and staring at mirrors constantly like issues with dance as well. It is also common for the coaches to mention visual aspects of their body if they think their athlete does fit a certain gymnast beauty standard.

“Eating Disorder Hope,” wrote an article on anorexia in gymnastics stating, “Coaches are often male and can be strict and demanding.  To ensure a competitive edge, they may instruct girls to lose weight, teach them how to diet, tell them what they can and cannot eat. Routine weigh-ins become the norm.”

When an adult figure to teen sees as much or more than their own parents feeding toxic and unhealthy standards of living to their athletes, it creates an unhealthy environment and relationship, they will then endure with food that can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

To some athlete’s coaches are like parents, and teens look to these adults for safety and clarity, which becomes unhealthy when they listen and believe everything being said about their weight. 

Tyler Potts, junior, is on the wrestling team at Roswell High School and was asked about his experience with weight class and wrestling. “I struggle with body image issues, and I know a lot of people around me do too. It’s not encouraged at Roswell to go to unhealthy measures to gain weight, but I know it happens. A lot of guys go through a lot of extreme measures to drop water weight. I know of people sweating it out, making themselves dehydrated, or just barely eating before weighing in.” 

Izzy Strent, junior, was a competitive gymnast for ten years and was asked about her experience with body image with gymnastics, “I remember vividly once hearing ‘We shouldn’t be able to see your lunches through your leos,’ I think I was still in elementary school when they said that. A lot of us still had our baby fat, I mean we were children we weren’t supposed to be stick thin. They would get mad at us for eating too much during our lunch break and watching us telling us that we would be eating too much. It was just constantly being told that we were too heavy and that we looked too ugly at our weight to be able to be a successful gymnast. Some of the girls just stopped eating during our lunch because they felt guilty about what the coaches told them, we hadn’t even started puberty, yet we were barely ten years old.”