Operation Thin-spiration: Body Image Issues for Athletes

Lettuce-only salads, one slice of meat per day and strict rules against pasta, soda and bread—these are the staples of a popular “Worlds diet” making the rounds online (where Tweets like “Oops! So much for my Worlds diet” are standard fare). “I often hear my athletes saying, ‘Have you seen that gym’s Worlds diet?’” says Tanya Roesel of Midwest Cheer Elite. “It’s a bad time of year for body image. Everyone’s going to Florida, where they’ll be either in swimsuits or the spotlight.”

Roesel is especially sensitive to the issue of body image, as she’s had two athletes hospitalized due to issues with anorexia. “In one case, it became blatantly obvious as the athlete got thinner and thinner; during snack breaks, the athlete wouldn’t eat at all,” Roesel recalls. “Our coaches were picking up on it, but the parents were in denial.” It was a magazine shoot that finally brought the problem to light for everyone involved. Adds Roesel, “When the magazine came out, we almost fell over—the photo was so shocking. The bones were sticking out in her face and you could count her ribs.” By the time the Level 5 athlete was admitted to the hospital, she weighed 70 pounds.

Of course, not all body image issues are quite as apparent—often presenting in more subtle ways. At Shine Athletics in Orlando, Fla., it’s not unusual for gym owner Sydney McBride to overhear young cheerleaders in the training room talk about having Jamie Andries’ abs or Maddie Gardner’s silky mane. “With the rise of the cheerlebrity trend, I often see pictures of girls in crop tops posting quotes about wanting abs like a certain cheerlebrity or a body like another girl,” says McBride.

The aspirational talk isn’t relegated to just cheerlebrities, as athletes often compare themselves to celebrities, models they see in magazines and even siblings or friends. It’s all part of a deep-seated dichotomy unique to the cheer industry: it’s essential that athletes be fit and healthy, but what’s to prevent them from taking it too far?

The Breaking Point 

Healthy body image is certainly a potent concern for youth across the board, in part due to “unrealistically thin images of females that are so prevalent in visual and print media,” according to expert Ron A. Thompson. Yet cheerleaders may be especially at risk for developing issues—thanks to a perfect storm of unique factors including exposure, scrutiny, self-esteem and pressure (both internal and external). “They are performing in front of spectators, and there is high pressure to look good,” says Thompson, co-author of Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders.

For flyers, the feelings may be even more heightened. “My athlete who got really ill said that every time she went in the air, she felt like she was standing on a scale. All she could think about was whether the bases could tell if she’d gained or lost a pound,” says Roesel. “For that 30 seconds a flyer is in the air, all attention is on her. They’re wondering, ‘Is my stomach hanging out? Do I have love handles on the side of my shorts?’” A September 2012 study by the University of South Carolina corroborated Roesel’s statement, finding that showed flyers had the highest risk of developing eating disorders, and that the risk was directly related to the uniforms they wore.

No matter what role an athlete plays on the team, poor body image can lead to an array of unhealthy behaviors and even put an end to his or her cheer career—affecting performance and general well-being. “If poor body image drives athletes to diet, over-exercise or engage in any form of disordered eating, they will be putting her physical health at great risk,” says Claire Mysko of National Eating Disorders Association.  “They’ll have less energy, strength and focus to devote to their sport.”

The danger of developing eating disorders also looms large. Adds Mysko, “Not every person who struggles with poor body image will go on to develop an eating disorder, but poor body image is certainly a major risk factor.” (See sidebar for a rundown of common eating disorders.)

How You Can Help 

Cheer professionals can make all the difference for athletes who are struggling. “It’s important for coaches to encourage athletes to live their version of a healthy lifestyle and to stop comparing themselves to others,” says McBride. Find out how McBride and others play an important part in warding off issues at their gyms:

Mark what you say: Words can conjure images, and it’s important to make sure you’re not sending a harmful message. “As coaches, we can help encourage a healthy body image by not using words like ‘thin’ or ‘skinny’ and instead using words like ‘fit’ and ‘healthy,’” says McBride. Sean Powers, director of all-star tumbling for Connecticut-based Spirit Zone, agrees. “The word ‘diet’ just screams bad. I use ‘meal plan’ instead,” he says.

Educate yourself, your teams and staff: At Midwest Cheer Elite, Roesel employs a personal trainer who offers free daily strength & conditioning classes and gives frequent nutrition talks; she also makes a strong effort to educate both her athletes and staff on all facets of body image. At Spirit Zone, Powers and his colleagues “try to promote healthy eating, along with appropriate training programs for all athletes.”

Mysko says this type of education is essential for all cheer professionals in the gym environment. “These are complex issues, and knowledgeable coaches are in a much better position to help [athletes] develop a healthy sense of self and intervene when they see problems,” she says.

Instill best practices: Coaches are not infallible and may be partial to cheerleaders who have a certain body type. However, it’s important to be conscious of presenting information in the right way. “Focus on cheerleaders’ abilities rather than weight and appearance when assigning positions because they do notice who gets chosen,” advises Sonya SooHoo, who conducted a study on body image among adolescent cheerleaders at the University of Utah.

Uniforms are another area where coaches can set a positive example. Roesel gives athletes and parents the option of choosing long shells or midriffs, which she says helps set their minds at ease and step out more confidently on the mat. “Allow cheerleaders to choose uniforms that don’t make them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious,” says SooHoo.

Communication is key: Coaches need to convey the message that healthy eating and nutrition are important, and Mysko adds coaches should reach out to the cheerleaders who are likely candidates for body image issues. “A coach can help get her on a healthy path or he/she can reinforce the negative thoughts in that cheerleader’s head,” she says.

Although certain facets of cheerleading do hold high risk for bringing out negative body image, the sport can also be a great platform for instilling positive eating habits, confidence and well-being in athletes. McBride views her role as a way to help develop these essential life skills and encourages other cheer professionals to do the same: “We have the opportunity to create positive role models and teach youngsters to be themselves.”

-Dinsa Sachan