Tumbling Down

Eating Disorders and the Female Athlete

The response in a few sports—gymnastics in particular—has been to initiate some changes in organized competition. In the aftermath of Henrich's death, USA Gymnastics organized a task force, which implemented an educational program for coaches that includes material on the Triad as part of the curriculum, as well as a nationwide referral network of nutritionists, sports psychologists, and medical specialists. And in what may be the most significant change, U.S. gymnasts are no longer subject to weigh-ins.

But is all that enough?

Otis believes that the standards by which certain sports are judged promote a bias toward tiny, prepubescent female athletes. This, she says, is where changes must be made. "When Olympic figure skating did away with the compulsory figures and began emphasizing the more athletic moves, you began to see much younger female athletes competing in those sports," says Otis. The compulsory-figures component of Olympic competition favored the more experienced athletes who were better able to perform the more graceful moves in figure skating. In the most recent Olympic competition, however, the compulsories were eliminated and the judging of performances was weighted heavily toward double, triple, and even quadruple maneuvers, which younger, lighter female athletes can more easily perform.

The result? A continuing trend in figure skating—and in gymnastics thanks to similar rules—toward younger and smaller athletes who are more capable of performing the athletic feats that are prioritized in competition. The highest-profile competitors in gymnastics and figure skating for the last Olympics were 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu and 15-year-old Tara Lipinski, respectively.

So getting small and staying small has become a bigger and bigger priority. "The average weight of Olympic gymnasts in the late '60s was 111 pounds compared to 89 pounds today," observes Otis. In 1976 the average age of U.S. female gymnasts was 17.5 compared to 15.9 in the '92 Olympics. With trends like these, eating disorders are bound to follow.

In response, several sports, including gymnastics and tennis, have implemented age limits. "They're looking to make it 'women's' gymnastics and not 'girls' gymnastics," says Otis. But Otis still insists that this sort of change must be done in concert with reform of the way these and other sports are judged.

So what is the legacy of Christy Henrich?

"We're now looking to amend the age and weight requirements in a number of women's sports. Events like lightweight crew, which encourages maintaining a low weight while requiring strength and endurance are being eliminated," says Otis. Although there isn't enough data to say how awareness of Female Athlete Triad has changed women's sports, the message is out there. "Coaches and athletes are aware the energy imbalance created by eating disorders harms an athlete's performance," says Otis. But whether women move beyond conventions about the female ideal and sports will be determined by issues other than the Triad.

The Voice's Fourth Annual Women in Sports Series

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