Going for the Gold: Athletes, Eating Disorders and Body Image
Posted July 13, 2012

Even for those of us with little to no athletic talent (myself included), the Summer Olympics is an exciting time to watch the world’s finest athletes compete for recognition, honor and glory for their respective countries. Every four years the familiar images return: the passing of the torch, the gleam of gold, silver and bronze from the podiums, the faces beaming with pride. This time, the subject of eating disorders among athletes is also a topic of conversation. Notably, British triathlete Hollie Avil competed in the 2008 Olympics but declined to participate this year and is quitting the sport altogether to focus on her mental and physical health due to an eating disorder and depression. After a coach recommended that she lose weight to run faster, her weight dropped significantly but along with that came disordered eating habits and depression.

While the increased attention on eating disorders and Olympic athletes is bringing awareness, it is also important to recognize that disordered eating can occur with sports at all levels. Risk factors for athletes in any age group include sports that emphasize appearance or weight requirements (gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding or wrestling), individual competitions and endurance sports. Female athletes in judged sports have a 13 percent prevalence of eating disorders, compared to just 3 percent in the general population. Youth and adult sports are not limited to a casual game on the weekends anymore; youth sport league in many sports now go year-round. It’s also not just a concern for females; more and more male athletes are being diagnosed with eating disorders at younger and younger ages, even while still in middle school.. There are ways to reduce these risk factors in sports on every level, including:

  • Positive, person-oriented coaching style rather than negative, performance-oriented coaching style.
  • Social influence and support from teammates with healthy attitudes towards size and shape.
  • Coaches who emphasize factors that contribute to personal success such as motivation and enthusiasm rather than body weight or shape.(Source:  “Athletes and Eating Disorders: What Coaches, Parents, and Teammates Need to Know,” National Eating Disorders Association)

Even so, the perception of athleticism and bodies is still primarily based on a model of thinness for men and women. In the recent issue of ESPN The Magazine‘s annual “The Body: Bodies We Want,” there are mixed messages of positive body images with reinforcements of how fitness and athleticism is represented.

It’s okay to stare. That’s what The Body Issue is here for. Each year, we stop to admire the vast potential of the human form. To unapologetically stand in awe of the athletes who’ve pushed their physiques to profound frontiers. To imagine how it would feel to inhabit those bodies, to leap and punch and throw like a god. To … well, gawk. So go ahead; join us. (Source: ESPN The Magazine)

In looking at the athletes represented, all have well-defined muscles and shapely, attractive bodies. In reality, it is difficult to distinguish these athletes from models in fashion magazines. How is it different to “gawk” at these bodies than the unrealistic representations in other magazines?

It was disappointing that ESPN did not highlight one of the most-discussed athletes who will be competing in the 2012 Olympics. She is the embodiment of strength and athleticism, plus courage and determination. Her name is Holley Mangold, a 22 year-old who has only been competing in weight-lifting events for the past three years but is already breaking records and heading to London for the opportunity to win a medal for the US. Holley doesn’t look like the other athletes profiled in the ESPN “The Body” feature, but her body is just as capable of competing as any of those photographed. Holley may not look like your typical supermodel but she can lift over 300 pounds- a real-life superhero. She is truly an athlete to stand in awe of for her body and talent.

You don’t have to be the parent of or an Olympic athlete to learn to recognize the warning signs of eating disorders and promote a positive body image. From parents to coaches, teammates and fans, we can all do our part to squash the negativity about athleticism and body image that can contribute to eating disorders. After all, today’s child could be tomorrow’s Olympic gold medalist.