The Brutality of Sports and Self-Image

Adam Rippon is winning medals and hearts at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. The bronze-medalist is proud and out. He caused a stir when he criticized US Vice-President Mike Pence for Pence’s history of oppressing LGBTQ+ people.

The Olympic figure skating pictogram.

I’d offer you a picture, but all that’s available is bb!Adam with his curly mop-top, which deserves to stay in the past, honestly.

Rippon is one of the first out-and-out gay American Olympians. Many Olympians have come out after the fact. The list is lengthy: Ian Thorpe in swimming, Johnny Weir in figure skating, and Caitlyn Jenner are all LGBTQ+ Olympians who came out after they were done participating in sports.

Rippon is different. He’s unapologetically gay. He’s proud of it. Add in the fact he’s 28 at his first Olympics, in an event that favors younger people, and a star is born.

Rippon’s story fascinates for another reason: He’s perhaps one of the first to unabashedly acknowledge the struggles male figure skaters—and perhaps male athletes more generally—have with body image.

An Encounter with Athletes

I had been dating my now-partner for only a few weeks when he invited me to a holiday BBQ with some of his friends. I nervously circulated through the group of mostly athletes, feeling decidedly out of place. My boyfriend knew (almost) everyone there, and virtually everyone was an athlete. I was a newcomer and a non-athlete. I was an outsider.

 

As such, I mostly observed during that interaction. It’s how I react to strange people in strange situations; I become a wallflower. It’s a useful trait for a writer. I melded back into the crowd, and a group of guys began chattering about their diet.

 

Now, in athletic circles, diet doesn’t always mean what we think it means. Athletes tend to use the word in the more scientific sense. A diet is whatever you eat. It doesn’t have to be geared to weight loss. Different diets focus on different things—building muscle, losing fat, increasing carbs, ensuring you have enough electrolytes, getting enough iron, and so on.

 

Nonetheless, it struck me to hear men talking about diets in such a candid fashion. They went further. Most of them had a  for sweet tooth, but usually denied themselves (my boyfriend was—and still is—the exception). The conversation turned to cravings for sugar.

 

“Sometimes,” one of them said, “I just want chocolate so bad.”

“I’ve eaten whole squares of baker’s chocolate because that’s all we had in the house,” another chimed in. “Just, like, three or four squares.”

 

My boyfriend, perhaps typically, chimed in with a story about how he once ate an entire coconut cake and made himself sick enough that he can no longer stand the taste of coconut. Or the time he ate so many Oreos he puked. The list goes on.

 

Judging Bodies

The New York Times reported on Adam Rippon’s own struggles with diet. Rippon’s coach told him he wouldn’t be able to properly execute spins and jumps because he was “bottom heavy.” She suggested speed skating instead.

 

Rippon’s mother had been a dancer and struggled with disordered eating herself in the 1980s. When she caught her son participating in similar sorts of behavior, she intervened. Rippon recovered, somewhat, until he came under the tutelage of a different coach. Trained in Soviet-era Russia, the new coach had to relearn his language; you can’t out and out call an athlete fat these days. The coach admitted that, even though he’s saying different words now, he’s still thinking about he can make “the elephant to fly.”

 

Rippon’s coaches aren’t the only ones passing judgment. In figure skating, there are quite literally judges. Judges regularly pass comments on competitors’ bodies, both male and female. Male figure skaters from earlier eras report harmful comments by judges, encouraging them to engage in disordered eating.

 

Rippon acknowledges disordered eating among men is something of an open secret in figure skating. It’s probably an “open secret” in other sports as well, particularly if we consider binge eating, over-exercising, and other forms of disordered behavior.

 

The Pervasiveness of Food

One thing you’ll notice about athletes is everything revolves around two things: the body and food. Much as training is an enormous part of their lives, so is food. Food is fuel. Food is also a reward.

A picture of coffee, which some Olympic figure skaters say figures heavily in their diet.

Some admitted to living on virtually nothing but coffee.

Athletes are also incredibly disciplined and driven, determined to get the best results from their bodies. If one is “too heavy” or “heavy bottomed” for one’s sport, then one begins to seek ways to control the body. Adam Rippon can’t necessarily control his genetics, but he can control how much he exercises, what exercise he engages in, and what food he eats.

 

Runners tend to develop what’s known as “runner’s anorexia.” While they appear to eat “normal” amounts of food—three square meals per day—they actually don’t eat enough to replace the calories they burn through training. Almost as often, anorexia and over-exercising appear together.

 

Eating disorders are predicated on control and a fear, however irrational, of gaining weight. If you’d been told from the time you were ten that you couldn’t participate in the sport you loved because your body wasn’t right, you’d probably develop a troubled relationship with your own self-image as well.

 

Body Dysmorphia and Disordered Eating

The usual start of disordered eating is an individual becoming dissatisfied with their body. The stereotype is the “fat” girl who begins dieting after bullying. She becomes obsessed and revels in the control. From this, she develops a sense of accomplishment in “mastering” or “taming” the body. At the same time, she develops a creeping fear she’s still fat, no matter how she appears in the mirror. She believes that if she loses control for even a moment, she’ll revert to what she was.

 

Eating disorders take many forms, and they affect people of all genders and body types. Thin people may develop an irrational fear of becoming fat, or they may develop a warped self-image, perhaps as the result of abuse.

 

Most often, the sense of bodily dissatisfaction begins with an outside source. We are bombarded with pictures of what “ideal” bodies look like. The beauty industry is predicated on making us fear we’re ugly and unlikable. Unrealistic beauty standards fuel an industry worth billions of dollars.

 

They also fuel eating disorders and fatphobia. Fatphobic attitudes are intrinsically linked with body dysmorphia and disordered eating. Fat people are commonly degraded and mocked in TV shows, cartoons, and movies. They’re the butt of every joke. Thin people, on the other hand, are sexy, desirable, powerful. When you’re thin, you can be a real person, the ads subtly whisper in our ears.

 

Instagram and Photoshop have arguably made the pressure to conform to beauty standards more prevalent. Teens are in a particularly vulnerable position. Their bodies are changing, in addition to raging hormones and the importance placed on peer approval. What if someone judges this out of control body to be fat or undesirable? There’s a reason eating disorders typically develop during the teenage years or in the early twenties.

 

Men and the Ideal Masculine

People commonly think of eating disorders as a women’s issue. Girls felt so much pressure to be thin, to conform to beauty standards, that they were in a particularly vulnerable position.

 

No one acknowledged the existence of eating disorders in men. Like many mental health issues, it was determined men were “immune” because they were logical, rational creatures. Women, who were more emotional, were prone to these conditions.

 

Except men are just as susceptible, something we are slowly proving. The rise of Instagram’s gym rat fitness culture has given young boys realistic, if somewhat unattainable, models aplenty. New movies and ads are now adopting these standards as well. Someone commented on Zac Efron’s ridiculously ripped body in last year’s dismal Baywatch and asked if we’ve hit some kind of tipping point, where the portrayal of male bodies is just as idealized, just as objectified as women’s bodies. Efron didn’t look real.

 

The same is true of the weightlifters on Instagram. They perform a particular kind of masculinity, one constructed as desirable. “Look at how strong I am!” these photos say. “Look at how healthy, how virulent!”

 

Adam Rippon and other male figure skaters perform a much different kind of masculinity, one imbued with femininity. Coaches and judges encourage them to be waifish, almost boyish things. Musculature—particularly the “do you even lift bro?” variety—is discouraged. It’s the kind of thing that allows a coach to judge a boy as “bottom heavy” at ten years old, before he’s even hit puberty.

 

While we typically acknowledge this as harmful for young girls, much less is said about the kinds of things said to young boys and how this impacts them.

Divorcing the Body

In the sentencing of Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics doctor, for sexual harassment and assault against many female gymnasts over the years, one gymnast gave a particularly poignant comment.

 

In sports, she said, you learn early on your body is not your own.

 

She used this to theorize why many of the girls—and the adults around them—failed to indict Nassar for his heinous behavior for so long. The girls didn’t necessarily see the violation  to their bodies as a violation because they were so used to surrendering the body to the whims of other people—trainers, coaches, doctors, and so on.

 

In sports, the body becomes something manipulated by other people. One becomes divorced from it; the athlete no longer has ownership of it, although they continue to inhabit it. The body becomes the property of a number of outside people. The more famous you are, the more people who claim ownership.

My boyfriend often talks in a way that suggests he’s divorced from his own body. “The legs don’t want to work today,” he’ll say, or “the body’s very tired.” There’s a clear separation, for him at least, between mind and body. He may be physically tired, but he’s not mentally tired.

 

He’ll also suggest the body is merely a vessel for completing a task. His job is to train and go win races. If the body fails, then it has failed its mission, its purpose.

 

It’s this kind of thinking, I think, that makes athletes so susceptible to outside judgments about their bodies and what their bodies are capable of. By contrast, when I exercise, I tend to frame things in terms of the self: I can’t do that today. There is no separation.

 

Writing about Struggling Athletes

All of this has informed me when I write about sports. Some of my experiences within my boyfriend’s circle of acquaintances inspired me to write the eating disorder storyline into Submerged.

 

What does it mean to be a male athlete, to perform masculinity in a sport that isn’t always known for being incredibly masculine? I wanted to explore how these issues force men not to talk about the issues they’re experiencing and lead us to a culture of silence around male eating disorders, both in sport and outside of it.

 

One thing I’ve learned is sports are indeed some sort of insanity. Athletes are not paragons of health. They are all a little sick in some way, whether from being judged or from learning to enjoy nigh-on torturous physical activity, pushing themselves to some sort of breaking point.

 

I’m a writer, so I can well understand; artists, after all, have a bad rap on the mental health front. Writing is an opportunity for me to explore these issues, however, to open them up more fully and expose them.

 

Stories like those of Adam Rippon only confirm what I already knew, and compel me to continue telling the stories I’m compelled to tell.


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