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Rated: E · Essay · Research · #1869899
This is a tenth grade research paper..let me know if it sounds professional enough! :)
Over eight million Americans struggle with either Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, and seven million of those affected people are females.  Not to be taken lightly, these eating disorders possess the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness (“Eating Disorder Statistics”).  While the primary cause of eating disorders deals with genes, Anorexia and Bulimia can also easily be triggered by participation in elite athletics, gymnastics being at the top of the list due to the nature of the sport and the strict yet subjective judging guidelines.  The health complications from these diseases harm gymnasts’ bodies and performance, and death sometimes occurs as a result of the damage eating disorders inflict on a gymnast’s body.  Famous retired gymnasts who have been eating disorder patients before, such as Jennifer Sey and Christy Henrich, highlight what it is like to deal with Anorexia or Bulimia during and after their career.

         The two main eating disorders that exist are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.  Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a loss of appetite, a desire to lose an unhealthy amount of weight, and a falsely perceived body image (Vorvick).  Though the affected person is not usually significantly overweight, they have an intense fear of gaining weight and an unhealthy drive to reach perfection.  An Anorexic restricts food intake and finds excuses to exercise obsessively.  The likelihood of one to be affected by Anorexia depends on genetic predisposition and social atmosphere. For example, people who have relatives with eating disorders are more likely to also be affected by one.  Likewise, subjecting someone to criticism about their performance or goals, or throwing a person into the midst of a tumultuous life style can cause the onset of an eating disorder as a way to cope (Vorvick).  On the other hand, Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder in which a person eats a large amount of food at once and then attempts to get rid of it by unhealthy means.  Sometimes a bulimic person uses laxatives or diuretics to stimulate the excretory systems, but the most common way to expel food from their body is by vomiting soon after they finish a meal (Vorvick).  Bulimia is greatly associated with a need to control everything in one’s life.  Genetics play a role in triggering the illness, as do a negative self-image and the feeling of loss of control.  Bulimia and Anorexia most commonly occur together in a disorder called EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), but when Bulimia affects a person alone, it is usually because the person started out with Anorexia, but could not lose weight as drastically as they wanted through starvation (Button et al).

         The risk of an eating disorder affecting an athlete is higher than the risk of eating disorders victimizing people who do not compete in sports.  The likelihood raises so drastically among athletes because the highly competitive atmosphere involved in athletics promotes (among other things) “perfectionism, high achievement motivation, obsessive behavior, control of physique, and attention to detail”  (Cintado).  In that list alone there are four major risk factors to triggering Anorexia and Bulimia.  When an athlete enters such a high level that they train in a Junior Olympic program and become an “elite” athlete, their risk of being affected by an eating disorder and suffering from disturbed eating patterns increases even further.  At the elite level, coaches expect everything to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time.  Athletes are encouraged to train excessively, even through pain, until mastery in a certain skill is reached.  Weight becomes a performance maker, or a performance breaker, and commonly, coaches will keep strict watch on their Olympic hopefuls’ weights.  The scrutiny of performance and weight plays a big part in driving elite athletes towards disordered eating and excessive exercise, which ends up going primarily unnoticed because those behaviors are seen as acceptable in elite sports (Buchholz et al).  Further increasing chances of having an eating disorder is gender.  Females are at a much higher risk than males, and thus have to worry about the “Female Athlete Triad,” which consists of three factors: amenorrhea, osteoporosis, and disordered eating; the former two being brought on by the third (Torstveit and Sundgot-Borgen).

         Due to the fact that it is a weight restrictive sport, gymnastics lies at the higher end of the spectrum of elite athletics that cause the most eating disorders, closely followed by figure skating, diving, and cross country running.  Gymnasts are significantly more likely to exhibit disordered eating patterns because a thin, girlish, pre-pubescent body is often associated with success in the sport.  The standard Olympic death defying stunts gymnasts must perform are thought to be more difficult to master when the athlete is heavier.  In fact ,in a study done nationwide, 51% of athletes and 53% of coaches reported that “in [their gymnastics] club, having a lower body weight seems help an athlete succeed” (Buchholz et al).  When envisioning the ideal female gymnast, athletes see a girl who does not have hips, breasts, or fat around their midsection, an area where it is natural for women to store extra fat tissue (Cintado).  The authoritarian nature of most gymnastics coaches also contributes to the development of disordered eating.  Gymnasts weigh-in weekly in most gyms and coaches encourage unhealthy weight loss and force the young girls to keep a controlling watch over what they put on their plates.  By pushing gymnasts into this kind of atmosphere, the responsibility for the increasing negative self-image among the girls is thrust onto their coaches (Sey).  Not only do coaches possess the ability to guide the athletes toward unhealthy means of losing weight, judges can also push female gymnasts towards eating disorders as well.  The judging guidelines for gymnastics routines have a certain strictness about them with numerous rules.  Because of the complexity of the system, an increasing number of judges now just look for girls who appear “pretty” while performing their routines.  Pointed toes, elongated neck, and opened fingers are worth significant amounts of points in a floor exercise.  The biggest problem with this judging system lies in the fact that the appearance of a gymnast has the potential to significantly sway a judge’s final score.  From the way a gymnast’s make-up is done, to the leanness of the athlete, a judge can take off points pretty much anywhere he or she chooses (Cintado).  The changing mind of society about the way girls should look and the importance of a size double zero has also influenced the mindset of the sport.  In a study done with the nation’s elite gymnasts, 27% of gymnasts said they worried about the way they look, and 11% of those athletes thought they were significantly overweight.  Even more important, 39% of athletes admitted to engaging in dieting behaviors, including vomiting after eating  (Buchholz et al).  Furthermore, in 1976, the U.S. gymnasts had an average weight that is more than 20 pounds above today's average gymnasts  (“Gymnasts Risk Female”).

         The major health complications that eating disorders present to the non-athlete also apply to elite gymnasts, but with an increased risk due to the tumultuous stunts and high-anxiety atmosphere of the sport.  Anorexia can not only be fatal, but may force a young gymnast to end her career early due to brittle bones caused by malnutrition, a condition also known as osteoporosis.  In addition, athletes may lose their periods, called amenorrhea, experience hair loss, chills, and an overall weakened immune system (Torstveit and Sundgot-Borgen).  Two major famous gymnasts are associated with eating disorders: Jennifer Sey and Christy Henrich.  Sey is a national elite gymnast from the 1980s who trained with the Parkettes, a gym that is known for its harsh regimes and practice schedules.  Donna and Bill Strauss, her coaches, encouraged unsafe weight loss when Sey’s goals became too high for her to reach.  When she reached the end of her career, Sey had full-blown Anorexia with Bulimic tendencies; and she was weak and tired from surviving for so long on only “fruit and laxatives” (“Jennifer Sey”).  Due to her eating disorder, the injuries and fatigue became more and more consistent, until she finally broke her femur, ending her career for good.  About her gymnastics experience, Sey says in her interview with Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation, "My entire life was plagued by thoughts of subparness.  I never felt good enough. Just one notch shy of perfection, one slot shy of number one” (Sey).  Sey uses the obstacles she faced in elite gymnastics to inform athletes, coaches, and judges alike about the growing eating disorder epidemic and to justify her decision to give up for good the life of an Olympian.  Another example of a profound tragedy in the world of gymnastics is Christy Henrich’s story.  While competing in an international meet, Henrich, at that time an Olympic hopeful, was told by a judge that if she lost some weight, her scores would improve dramatically (Cintado).  In reality, Henrich was already on the lower side of her BMI chart, but she continued to lose weight.  Eventually, complications from her eating disorder ceased her gymnastics training, but Anorexia followed her into adulthood.  Henrich died in 1994 from multiple organ failure due to her eating disorder at a weight of 60 pounds (Pace).  She is seen as the epitome of eating disorders in gymnastics.

          Eating disorders are growing in prevalence among athletes.  Those who are at a greater risk include elite athletes and female athletes, and gymnasts are at the top of the list because of the fixation on perfection, goals, and weight; as well as the influence that coaches and judges have on the young girls.  Complications such as the Female Athlete Triad can result from Anorexia and Bulimia, and like in Christy Henrich’s case, death can occur.  Due to the realness of the eating disorder situation in gymnastics that has been exposed by advocates like former Olympic gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Jennifer Sey, programs are being implemented in gyms to increase awareness among athletes in an attempt to bring back the true competitive and fun purpose of elite gymnastics.  After all, what is the point of defying gravity if one takes no enjoyment in doing so?

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