When I work with clients who struggle with eating disorders, very often I find that they have a history of being athletes, whether high school, college, or professional. Through my experiences with these clients, I’ve realized that life as an athlete can be tricky to maneuver, because while taking part in sports and athletics are wonderful ways to boost physical, mental, and social wellness, these pursuits can also put an individual at risk for developing an eating disorder. According to various studies on athletes, approximately 62% of women and 33% of men who participate in aesthetic and weight-class sports struggle with disordered eating (Bonci, 2009; Byrne et al., 2001; & Sundot-Borgen & Torstviet, 2004).
I want to emphasize that being an athlete, in itself, will not guarantee that you will develop an eating disorder, and I definitely do not want to discourage any individual from their (or their child’s) pursuit of athleticism. Instead, I want to emphasize that certain elements specific to athletics can increase an individual’s risk for developing disordered eating. An athlete may use various eating disorder behaviors (dieting, excessive exercise, binging and purging, and other compensatory measures) to meet different goals and fulfill certain pressures that athletes often face.
Eating disorders do not discriminate in the types of athletes they may affect, but participating in certain types of athletics may increase one’s risk for developing these disorders due to the nature of the sport. In particular, sports and exercise that focus on body aesthetics, weight, musculature, or endurance can create a heightened concern regarding body image.
For instance, sports focused on aesthetics tend to idealize a thin or lean body – these include dancing, figure skating, diving, bodybuilding and gymnastics. Subsequently, an athlete who participates in these types of sports may feel driven to engage in disordered eating behaviors – restriction, excessive exercise, purging, etc. – in order to maintain thinness to improve their performance or enhance their appearance. Athletes who partake in endurance sports, such as track or swimming, may also hold a belief (one that is not necessarily accurate) that thinness leads to better performance, and thereby might engage in disordered eating behaviors to lose weight. Moreover, for weight-class sports such as wrestling, karate, or rowing, athletes may diet to reach a body weight that is the lowest but with the greatest strength.
For athletes who are adolescents, they may experience even heightened body image pressures; these individuals are likely to be undergoing significant body changes during puberty and may subsequently notice changes in their athletic performance. Thus, adolescents may turn to disordered eating behaviors to manipulate their body, and therefore enhance their athletic achievements.
Being an athlete almost requires a competitive nature that motivates the athlete to keep improving their stamina and performance. Athletic coaches help reinforce this mentality by encouraging athletes to work harder and go above and beyond to surmount their goals, whether this means winning first place in a swimming race, earning the highest score in a gymnastics competition, or beating another team in a basketball game. Such a competitive drive can lead the individual to do whatever it takes to enhance their performance, including changing their diet, increasing their exercise regimen, using diet pills, or turning to other weight-control behaviors – whatever can help them change their body in a way that is conducive to their performance. With this competitiveness may also come perfectionism, which is also seen in many people with eating disorders. The individual will create impossible standards for themselves, which can help fuel the eating disorder to try and meet these unrealistic goals.
Keeping Up Appearances
Unfortunately, society has created certain standards and expectations for what the ideal body type should be. Thus, not only are athletes susceptible to these common body image stressors that permeate society, but they may also encounter another level of societal appearance pressures — regardless of whether a certain body type might enhance an athlete’s performance, simply being an athlete can create pressure to “look” like an athlete (i.e. a ballerina “should” be thin, or a boxer “should” be muscular). Thus, athletes may engage in restriction, excessive exercise, overeating, use of pills/steroids, or other compensatory behaviors in order to mold their body into how they think an athlete’s body should look. For someone who very strongly identifies with being an athlete, keeping up this appearance may be a significant part of their identity.
Subsequently, these specific aspects of athletic culture may increase an individual’s risk for developing an eating disorder. Such components, along with other general risk factors for disordered eating – low self-esteem, family dysfunction, trauma, other mental health disorders, genetics, etc. – can make an eating disorder even more likely. For anyone who is an athlete and is struggling with an eating disorder, please know that you are not alone, and that treatment is available to help you recover.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you or a loved one is struggling with weight stigma, eating disorders, or body image concerns, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment.