Eating disorder culture in leanness sports leaves athletes to confront its effects

Illustration by Soli Santoyo

Emma Schirmer, Contributing writer

In 2015 The New York Times released an article on Mary Cain. She had been one of, if not the, top female athlete for distance running for a couple of years, and the world was starting to take notice. 

A prodigy who had already started breaking records and competing in the Olympic trials during her high school career, Cain entered the world of professional running after she graduated. 

She joined the elite Nike running group, The Oregon Project, where she trained alongside legendary long distance runners like Kara Goucher, Galen Rupp, and Mo Farah. 

The head coach Alberto Salazar thought she showed significant potential and could even come close to breaking the world record for the 1,500 meters. 

Which is why four years later, Cain’s NYT Op Ed titled “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike” shocked the public. 

In the video, she describes the extreme physical and emotional abuse inflicted on her by a system of coaches that ultimately led to her leaving the team. 

Specifically, Cain talks about the dieting practices and behaviors they enforced on her, which included staying at a dangerously low weight and daily weigh-ins. 

This was not an unfamiliar concept to many in the running community. The prevalence of eating disorders in competitive runners has long been unspoken knowledge, according to Global Sport Matters.

Whether it’s introduced through coaches, peers, social media or widespread misinformed rhetoric from outsiders, it runs rampant and is ever present, most notably amongst young runners who haven’t hit puberty yet, according to Stanford Children’s Health

As a runner of 13 years, I’ve seen friends in the community and runners from other teams struggle with disordered eating; and now, many professional athletes speak out about their experience, with the most recent being Allie Ostrander.

For a long time the idea that “the thinner you are, the faster you’ll run” has circulated viciously. It was a common motto heard by many, from coaches, peers, parents and even sometimes doctors well before Mary Cain’s video essay was released. 

This “lighter equals faster” culture is still prevalent today. 

Even if it’s never spoken aloud, it’s often implied through various actions or comments from people within the community, even more so from ones in power, like coaching staff. 

Oftentimes success in running is attributed to skinniness. 

It was very common to hear remarks about athletes’ bodies from coaches or parents, things like “you have the body of runner,” and “your hips got wider, that’ll affect your running.” 

For many young assigned-female-at-birth, or AFAB, athletes the stress of athletic performance can create exercise related delays in puberty. 

This was something I experienced myself when, at the age of 16, I still hadn’t had my first period. A phenomenon that is very typical in athletes. 

So typical, it’s cited in research as one of the biggest predictors of an eating disorder in leanness sports – sports that emphasize achieving a lower body weight for believed increased performance, think running, diving, wrestling, dance etc.  

It’s completely normal to hear of women losing their periods, never getting them entirely, being chronically underweight or dealing with osteoporosis, commonly referred to as the Female Athlete Triad.

But what’s even worse is that it’s often written off or validated by the community itself. 

This dismissal of how serious this issue is is concerning, when in one study they found that 46.7% of female athletes in “leanness sports” had clinical eating disorders, compared to the 21% of the general population. 

Eating disorders aren’t just prevalent amongst young female athletes either. 

Men in leanness sports face similar challenges, and oftentimes feel that they cannot speak up because they have an underlying fear about how others will view them, according to The Washington Post. 

This isn’t just a problem in professional sports, it starts young, when athletes are teenagers and at their most vulnerable. 

In order for progress to be made, education and training on eating disorders needs to deepen, and coaches should be given the resources to help direct athletes to the help they need, instead of perpetuating the behavior. 

There should be clinical sports psychologists, registered sports dietitians, physicians and designated counselors to help athletes, especially young AFAB ones, so as to identify the risk of eating disorders before the negative health effects kick in and the impact on their performance becomes irreversible. 

Athletes’ bodies are not expendable, and leanness sports culture needs to stop treating them like they are.

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