Sisterhood Blog

Are Female Athletes Prone to Eating Disorders?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Are even the most physically accomplished young women vulnerable to eating disorders? And does not listing their weights on sports trading cards prevent it? Or contribute to the problem?

My 10-year-old daughter, Tae Kwon Do high purple belt and baseball fan, gets Sports Illustrated Kids. Before dispatching her new copy to camp, I took a look at the trading cards bound into the issue. Two of the nine cards, which feature young athletes, are about women: Eleven-time Olympic medal-winning swimmer Natalie Coughlin and college lacrosse player Shannon Smith.

The backs of the other cards, of male baseball, soccer, football and hockey players, listed their heights and weights, along with their athletic accomplishments. But on the young women’s cards? Just their heights. Not their weights.

Wondering why, I reached out to SIKids. Spokesman Scott Novak got back to me. The magazine culls their information from material published by team and league annual media guides. Sometimes they include the weight of female athletes and sometimes they don’t. “We simply take that information and publish it on those trading cards,” he said. And that’s all he would say, in addition to “I won’t comment further.”

Clearly it’s a sensitive topic in the world of sports, but I wonder what message this sends to the young girls (and boys) reading SIKids.

Turning to the internet, I found out why. Disordered eating is a health problem faced by fully one-third of female athletes in college, according to this USA Today article. According to the article:

“Athletes are driven personalities, completely focused as people pleasers, almost obsessive-compulsive,” says Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine at the University of Tennessee, which has led the way in offering counseling as part of its sports programs. “People who have addictive tendencies gravitate toward athletics.”

A study published in 2008 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, said that, “women who participate in high levels of athletic competition and have sports anxiety are more likely to experience eating disorder symptoms.”

A 2011 article on the website SportsMd said that some women with eating disorders “gravitates towards athletics.” It cites as reasons that some athletes’ behavior can disguise the behavior of someone with an eating disorder, like excessive exercise, a focus on body shape and size, and diet restrictions. That article also says, “although sports do not cause eating disorders or disordered eating, there are a number of risk factors involved in sports which may lead someone who may be at risk for eating disorders towards disordered eating behaviors.”

Though it’s a shame to think that it’s true, perhaps SIKids and the publishers of statistics from which they draw are right to be concerned.

Natalie Coughlin’s website says that she is “an avid home cook and urban farmer.” Sounds like someone who can enjoy food, right? But on her Twitter feed is a post sent from Australia, where she was training with her colleagues on Team USA for the 2011 FINA world championships in Shanghai.

She really wanted a hamburger, but it sounded like she felt she couldn’t order one by herself. “Dinner out tonight,” she tweeted. “Craving an Aussie-style burger. Hopefully one of my teammates agrees…”

If a professional athlete, burning a gazillion calories a day while training for international competition, can’t enjoy a guilt-free hamburger, then who can? Hopefully my 10-year-old daughter, at least.

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