Cracks in the surface

The challenges behind aesthetic sports

by Caity Hui

I remember looking out over the horizon. The sun was just rising and rays of pink were kissing the calm blue of the Alboran Sea. My body ached as we ran down the beach towards our coaches standing at the edge of the lookout-heart pounding, feet digging into the sand with every step. It was day three of training camp.

I began my career in rhythmic gymnastics when I was five years old. During a recreational class at my local church, the head coaches of my former gymnastics club scouted me and brought me to join its provincial team. The training was tough, but nothing unexpected for an athlete. We practiced nine to 12 hours a week, travelled to competitions across Ontario, and, if we competed well, our team returned with medals.

However, the definition of 'well' seemed to change over the years. While rhythmic gymnastics is judged based on three categories—difficulty of elements, artistic value, and execution of the performance—the interpretation of these categories is often subjective, leading to judging politics and what seemed like alliances formed by clubs.

This aspect of interpretation made competition difficult. While the sport primarily rewarded athleticism—the girls who had more difficult tricks and executed more challenging elements did tend to receive higher scores—its aestheticism left room for judgment beyond who could run the fastest, or who could jump the highest. Factors such as who captivated the audience, who smiled more, or whose costume was shinier, suddenly had an impact. When judging became arbitrary, looking good on the carpet became important.

It was hot, and we were sitting in a circle on the soft carpets of the gymnasium. The ceilings of our high performance training facility stretched for yards, the air holding its breath in anticipation of the whiz of ribbons piercing the open space and the loud clack of clubs. It was unlike any other facility I had ever seen in Canada.

The older girls sat behind the younger ones, pinning their hair up in buns. By now, we were used to the sharp jabs of the bobby pins and mentally preparing for the morning warm up. One of our coaches approached us and took an older girl aside. I couldn't tell what they were talking about—more than half the team also spoke Russian—but Jessica* returned with red eyes and silently started our stretches. It was only several hours later that I found out Jessica had been deemed too large for the group she was competing with; it was her responsibility to shed weight over the next few weeks of camp. What didn't make sense to me was that Jessica and I were practically the same size.

Stemming from these situations is an ugly side of rhythmic gymnastics. In stark contrast to the elegance of bodies moving in tandem, or the breathless arch of a ribbon tossed into the air, lurks a dangerous pressure to maintain a slim physique and exude a perfect performance. Within my own team, I watched several girls struggle with mental health issues intertwined with the messages we were sent during training camps. Listening to a coach tell another gymnast to slim down can only make you wonder whether you should be doing it, too.

It was only several hours later that I found out Jessica had been deemed too large for the group she was competing with; it was her responsibility to shed weight over the next few weeks of camp. What didn't make sense to me was that Jessica and I were practically the same size.

Yet the numbers also suggest something is at play. In 1992, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) survey reported that 51 per cent of the participating gymnasts identified mental health challenges in their peers—a percentage, according to the study, that is far greater than in any other sport.

While the literature lacks the extensive research to support such findings, a paper published in the Journal Biology of Exercise in 2012 investigated the experiences of five former competitive rhythmic gymnasts. Using semi-structured interviews, the researchers concluded that the sportswomen taking part in the survey were more at risk for suffering from eating disorders due to two primary reasons: First, the girls exhibited many of the behaviours and personality traits common to people struggling with disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia—such as perfectionism—and second, the girls submitted to the food intake restrictions that were forced upon them by their surroundings, including both coaches and parents.

Crowded around the restaurant table, we eagerly awaited our meal. After a gruelling five hours of jumps, stretches, elements, and running in the heart of Marbella, Spain, lunch was a welcome break, and the restaurant sponsoring our training cooked traditional Mediterranean dishes. To our surprise, however, the owners came out and announced to us that our coaches had requested that we were no longer to be served bread during the meal. They wanted us to limit our carbohydrate intake. Unfortunately, the rest of the meal was a seafood soup. My options for lunch quickly deteriorated. With no carbohydrates and a shellfish allergy, I headed back to the afternoon five-hour session with little to fuel my practices.

Over the next two weeks, the pressures intensified. Carbohydrates restricted during lunch translated to carbohydrates restricted during dinner, later resulting in public weigh-ins during training sessions. With our coaches as our role models and our parents overseas, it was challenging to critically assess the situation.

The media, teammates, gender roles, and coaches have all been suggested to play a role in athletes' likelihood for developing an eating disorder or struggling with other mental health challenges. Considering the close relationship between coach and gymnast—a coach can often act as a teacher, role model, or even "substitute parent"—studies are investigating the effects of coaching methods on gymnasts' self-image and behaviour.

According to a paper published in 2006 by Ohio University, 44 per cent of coaches reported weighing athletes and about 30 per cent indicated they had suggested their athletes attempt to lose weight either through food-restricted intake or extra practices. Additional expectations, including attitudes about weight and offhand comments, may also indirectly influence athletes' perceptions of body image. With such a significant number of coaches in the study responsible for pressuring their gymnasts to lose weight, it's alarming that approximately one third of the coaches had no formal training in either nutrition or dietetics.

Gymnastics has been notoriously criticized for its high prevalence of eating disorders among women, and rhythmic gymnastics is no exception. The 2006 study concluded that certain coaching actions inadvertently posed the risk of encouraging gymnasts to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviours, whether or not this was the coach's original intention. Furthermore, rhythmic gymnastics puts a particular pressure on girls to develop long, lean forms—forms that are natural for some athletes, but challenging to maintain for others.

Seven pounds lighter, I returned to Canada unsure of my body, my nutrition, and most importantly, myself.

The situation, however, is still unclear. In 2007, a study was published in Psychopathology that sampled 50 elite rhythmic gymnasts, anorexia nervosa patients, and high school girls. The researchers concluded that while some physical similarities were found between the elite rhythmic gymnasts and the anorexia nervosa patients, no noticeable problems in the gymnasts were observed regarding the behavioural aspects of eating disorders. These contrasting studies shed light on the complexity of this area of research, while highlighting that, regardless of the statistics, mental health is a significant concern within the realm of gymnastics.

Some girls rebelled against the strict conditions, sneaking out of the hotel we lived in for those few weeks to run to the grocery store for sustenance to support their training, or even taking a trip to other restaurants in the area. Others, however, felt uncomfortable about these decisions. The actions, the words, the phrases in a language I didn't understand—all of these factors brought up the potential for us to question whether we needed to look better for the carpet.

The last week of training camp passed by slowly. Due to the changes that had been made to our meals, my energy levels slowly waned during practice. Not only did I feel pressured to worry about looking better for the carpet, but I also was concerned about my performance. I didn't know how to balance the messages my coaches were sending with my knowledge about proper athletic nutrition. Seven pounds lighter, I returned to Canada unsure of my body, my nutrition, and most importantly, myself.

Six years later, the memories of training camp still remain with me. While the sport's powerful beauty and joy left a lasting impression, it's also hard to forget the underlying negativity I observed. Regardless of sport, nurturing one's mental health is important, and this includes creating supportive environments. When a sport combines high athletic expectations with interpretations associated with a judged, aesthetic medium, it is critical to direct extra effort to incorporating trained dieticians and physicians in order to avoid the potentially devastating consequences of this environment.

While I do not speak for all gymnasts, my observations do not stand alone. Whether it is watching and experiencing the responses of a team to challenging expectations, or the tragic deaths of gymnasts gripped by eating disorders—such as American artistic gymnast Christy Henrich—this issue remains a problem within the realm of gymnastics. I love gymnastics and always will, but the beautiful artistry my teammates and I engaged in should never come at such a cost as Henrich's. I hope that with more training and support from experts within the fields of nutrition and mental health, there will be an effort to ensure that girls away at training camp engage in proper athletic nutrition without any feeling guilt about the meals in front of them.

*Jessica's name has been changed for anonymity purposes