Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues Among US Olympians
Now a college coach, when she was young girl, Misty Hyman first thought being athletic would be a way for her to feel more attractive, more confident. She believed that looking powerful and strong would make her beautiful. Then she hit her teenage years. “I started to have a sense of what I looked like to other people, and that became an important part. It was confusing to determine what’s best for my body in terms of my performance and, ‘Hey, I like getting this attention,’” Hyman told USA Today.
As a teenager, Hyman began to obsess over what she ate. While her first concern was her swimming ability, she also wanted to look slim and pretty around girls her own age. So her self-image became an inner battle. “Competitive swimming can be really extreme -you’re training a lot,” Hyman adds. “You do have to have a lot of calories. You do end up with shoulders that are bigger than the average woman, sometimes bigger than your guy friends.”
Hyman now admits she developed an eating disorder when she was in high school. For almost 10 years, she was bulimic. “Binging and purging was my, I guess, outlet,” Hyman, 37, said. “Part of it was my own insecurities. Part of it was my own control, the sense of being in control or something I could control. It wasn’t strictly just a body image issue or strictly just, ‘I’m trying to perform better.’ As an athlete I think there were other emotional challenges that I manifested into my eating disorder as a way of coping. It wasn’t something that I was necessarily secretive about. My coaches were aware, my parents were aware, and I wasn’t shy about it.”
When her food obsessions spun out of control, Hyman says she felt like she was not herself anymore. She was not alone with this struggle for control. Maya DiRado, a competitor in the 200 and 400-meter individual medleys and the 200 backstroke in Rio, told USA Today that she has known many swimmers that have experienced eating disorders.
“I’m sure a lot of it has to do with being in a swimsuit every day, but I think also it seemed like they wanted control,” DiRado said. “It was this one tiny piece that, even if you weren’t swimming well, you could control what you were eating and how you were looking. That’s really hard, but all of the girls that had issues, it took a long time, but they’re back and they’re a lot better. But it was a long road. I think you see this across a lot of sports.”
Jennifer Carter, director of sport psychology at Ohio State University Sports Medicine Center, said the risk for eating disorders among female athletes can generate false physical concepts, such as the idea that being thin means better performance.
Male Athletes May Be Challenged by Body Image Issues as well
“We know that there may be different factors affecting male versus female athletes,” Carter said. “In terms of the body type that athletes are going for, we know in our culture that thinness for women and muscularity for men is the cultural ideal of beauty right now.”
Because of the unusual shape of his indented chest, swimmer Cody Miller admitted that he struggled with body issues, too. “At swim meets, I walked around the pool deck awkwardly while people stared and pointed at me. I was weird and abnormal,” Miller said, in a post on imgur.com.
For the male swimmers, the ideal body may mean a narrow torso, large broad shoulders, and abs that are chiseled into a perfect “six-pack.” Like poster boy Mark Spitz did before them, swimming sensations Mark Phelps and Ryan Lochte have become Internet sex symbols. This kind of attention can mean added pressure to conform to incredible expectations. In the LBGTQ community, this type of dilemma has been labeled the “Adonis Factor.” For gay males, bisexuals, and transgender people, these kind of self-imposed standards may become as complicated as the societal challenges they face.
You Don’t Have to Live with Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues
Our eating disorder treatment programs also treat males. At Center for Discovery we are dedicated to providing comprehensive integrated residential treatment programs for both girls and boys, from ages 10 to 19. Understanding that any form of behavioral disorder is as unique as the set of problems or challenges each person or family might be struggling with, the methods of personalized treatment at our family-based residential centers are as unique as each individual’s set of problems, challenges, or gender issues.
According to a 2011 study in sports psychology by A. P. Karin de Bruin, young athletes of all genders may often struggle with what some call “contextual” body images, or two different types of body images. One for their sport, and one for their life away from their sport. For example, a female swimmer may be proud of her powerful shoulders in the pool, but feel negatively about them when she can’t shop for clothes that fit her at a nearby mall. “We know that the negative body image in either context can be a risk factor for eating disorders,” Carter said.
Hyman said her eating disorder ultimately interfered with both her schoolwork and her swimming, but said it never reached a point that endangered her life. After winning a gold medal in 2000, she retired four years later to seek recovery from her eating disorder. While working at a resort on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hyman began to have a more normal life. “What I discovered when I gave myself permission, was to eat what I wanted and not worry about my weight and not worry about my physical performance,” she said. “I did gain weight at first, and then I realized that people still liked me, that I could still perform on the job, that I was still a productive human being, that I could still have a lot of fun, that I could still have this really rich and fulfilling life.”
Having a child helped Dana Vollmer avoid an eating disorder. After giving birth, Vollmer wanted to regain her athletic form as quickly as possible. But as a new mom, having control over body was a challenge when she prepared to return to being a competitive athlete. “I realized that the other girls couldn’t care less. That the pressure was all coming from me,” Vollmer said. “It was more about having enough calories to still nurse Arlen, too. We had a mom group, and I really liked this: Someone told me, ‘Your child is not going to remember lying on your bony collarbone and biceps. They want to be snuggled and protected.’ And that was kind of her way of saying don’t become overly obsessive losing the baby weight.
Without obsessing over her weight, Vollmer, 28, got in shape faster than she expected and qualified for the U.S. team in just 15 months. In Rio, the medal-winning swimmer nearly became first to win Olympic gold after giving birth.
“You’re basically half-naked your whole life,” Vollmer said. “It’s something that I think has to be approached very carefully by coaches and by parents.”
Stop Struggling with Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues
Call Center for Discovery now and speak to an admission specialist at 800.760.3934 or fill out this form for a FREE confidential assessment. All calls are completely FREE. Center for Discovery’s team of experts are highly trained professionals with years of experience in successfully helping families and friends cope with eating disorders. Get the kind of answers you need to help someone heal, with a holistic family approach to recovery from eating disorders.