Eating disorders: The dark side of figure skating

Figure skaters go great lengths to preserve their ‘body image’ which has serious repercussions on their health.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics
'Body image' pressure is felt by male skaters as well as female [Reuters]

The figure skating competition has grabbed headlines at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

However, two competitors who made huge impact four years ago are absent from the Games.

US skater Gracie Gold, 18 at the Sochi Olympics four years ago, seemed destined for bigger things after winning team bronze, while 15-year-old Russian skater Yulia Lipnitskaya dazzled the crowds with her flexibility, grace and technique on the way to gold.

But due to eating disorders, both have quit the sport permanently.

Skating blends sport with art, and requires competitors to combine technical excellence with creative inspiration.

A gold-winning routine is not merely a combination of flawless jumps and spins. It also captures the imagination with an aesthetic that incorporates the choice of music, choreography, costume and, in some skaters’ minds, their appearances.

Many skaters believe that they’re being judged not merely on the crispness of their triple flips, but their figures as well.

This has long had toxic consequences in terms of mental health.

But until Gold’s announcement last October that she would not be competing in the Pyeongchang Games as she was still “undergoing treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder”, this remained an underside of skating that many have been reluctant to acknowledge.

“Gracie coming forward was radical,” said Joe Johnson, a Team USA figure skater.

“We’re now seeing an unprecedented number of people talking about mental health issues in skating. It’s not something there’s ever really been an open dialogue about.

“Skating is taxing, emotionally and physically. You train six hours a day for about 1,000 hours a year. All this to compete for just a few minutes. A lot of skaters keep quiet about any worries or issues due to a perceived fear of appearing weak.”

In a sport where athletes push themselves to extremes to achieve perfection, a lot of young female skaters feel pressured to fit their bodies to a stereotype where slimmer, smaller and more streamlined is seen as better.

“During my first couple of years competing as a skater, I was struggling with an eating disorder,” said Karina Manta, another Team USA skater.

Karina Manta (left) admitted to having an eating disorder in the first few years of her career [Reuters]
Karina Manta (left) admitted to having an eating disorder in the first few years of her career [Reuters]

“I felt I had to achieve this standard of what female athletes in the sport should look like.”

But this pressure is not self-inflicted.

There are numerous stories of training camps where female figure skaters, competing in singles, have had their weights compared with those of medalists from other countries. Those competing in pairs have been told they’re “too heavy to be lifted”.

“A lot of coaches will argue that their comments on a girl’s weight are performance-based,” said Johnson.

“Some coaches have a saying that ‘fat don’t fly’. Regardless of your height or natural build, they believe if you’re outside a certain weight range, you won’t be able to execute jumps, and that’s what they use to justify these statements.”

Under pressure

Many gifted young skaters find themselves reaching the national or international level just as their body is naturally changing as they go through puberty.

The pressure of competition, as well as from their coaches, can push them to deliberate starvation in an attempt to hold back biology.

Encouraged by her coach Eteri Tutberidze, Lipnitskaya would sometimes subsist on a diet consisting entirely of powdered nutrients.

“The rhetoric in skating, which I think causes a lot of eating disorders, if that if you starve yourself, your body won’t change,” said Manta.

“A lot of the girls are terrified about their bodies filling out, starting to get curves, and that changing the physics of their jumps and so they’ll try and stave off the natural process. There are girls who’ve gone a year without a period because they’re not feeding themselves properly.”

The physical consequences can be drastic. Skaters needing to be robust enough to withstand forces up to 100 times their body weight when landing a jump, and many suspect that a sizeable proportion of the stress fractures and major injuries which afflict young skaters are linked to inadequate nutrition.

Gracie Gold, 18 at the Sochi Games four years ago, has withdrawn from figure skating [Reuters]
Gracie Gold, 18 at the Sochi Games four years ago, has withdrawn from figure skating [Reuters]

“If you’re not eating properly, your bone density will be lower, and injuries will happen,” said British ice dancer Penny Coomes who is now trying to advise younger athletes on the subject.

“A huge amount of energy and strength goes into a routine, but because of this old-fashioned aesthetic of what female skaters should look like, you see these young girls striving for something that’s just not realistic.

“In our sport, most of the time you’re being told all the negatives – what you’re doing wrong and what doesn’t look good – and yet to perform under that much pressure, you have to go out there with so much belief and confidence in your body and your ability.” 

Eating disorders are not unique to the female athletes. While the pressures regarding body image are undoubtedly most intense for female skaters, there are male skaters who feel similar expectations.

“While the women are told they need to look super skinny, be super light and liftable, men feel a pressure to make their limbs look longer,” said Johnson.

“I’ve met guys at the elite level who have got injured because they’re restricting themselves to the exact number of calories required to see a four-minute programme through.

“There was one skater who would calculate his meals so he ate exactly as many calories as he burned. Anything else he ate during the day, he would throw up because he was afraid the extra calories would affect his line quality. 

While the women are told they need to look super skinny, be super light and liftable, men feel a pressure to make their limbs look longer

by Joe Johnson, Team USA figure skater

“He never felt he could talk about his problems with anyone and be taken seriously.”

So what can skating do to tackle this hidden epidemic?

“The US Olympic Committee has dedicated nutritionists and sports psychologists who have been appointed specifically to advise skaters in the national team on these topics,” said Barbara Reichert, a director at US Figure Skating.

However, Johnson and others believe more needs to be done to change the mentalities in skating right down from regional levels.

“It’s a very nuanced issue, and people don’t realise the amount of damage a one-off comment at a coaching camp can do,” he said.

“The main rhetoric which needs to go away, is people actually complimenting a skater for looking skinny. There’s a culture of comparisons and coaches telling skaters what they believe a healthy body looks like when there’s enough pressure on young athletes in this sport to begin with.”

Source: Al Jazeera