Gymnastics and dancing communities create toxic standards for body images

By Leah Salzenstein

This is a photo of the adult large leotard I was assigned in early 2020. This leotard, an adult large, is made by GK Elite leotards and is 23 inches long and 11 inches across the waist. For reference, this leotard fits women sizes 0-4.

Female gymnasts and dancers perform in an environment where being 5- foot, 115 pounds is considered overweight and those females are given adult large size apparel. G-d forbid you’re over 5 feet in high school, since puberty is considered abnormal, as they are expected to stay child-size forever. If they need a larger size of sports apparel, it will need to be customized and shipped to them (for an extra fee of course). As if the snarky comments and public shaming wasn't enough, this haunts many female gymnasts and dancers.

Why in a sport that is so demanding on the body, are the athletes expected to look so skinny and small? She’s not a graceful gymnast, they would say. This is the largest size we have, another would say. Suck in your stomachs girls, a coach tells a young group of girls, who are already hyper aware of their ‘imperfections”. Coaches and fellow athletes ask “Why did she starve herself?” but the week prior they told that girl she needed to “start eating healthier” with a smirk on their face. That same girl does sit ups after meals - or skips them entirely.

According to an NCAA survey, 51-62% of college gymnasts have or had engaged in disordered eating habits. This isn’t a surprise to the gymnastics community. I guarantee if you go into any gymnastics gym, and you go into the women's restroom, there will be a young girl inspecting herself in front of the bathroom mirror. Another female dancer will look in disdain at that girl’s totally healthy, normal, beautiful body. The athlete inspects herself through the full length mirror planted on her bedroom door, picking apart every “flaw”. She thinks: why did I eat this morning? I’m never going to be able to complete that skill now. Coach was right, I do need to start eating healthier. This is the mindset of an 11-year-old girl.

Gymnasts and dancers make up an alarming portion of even elementary girls suffering from eating disorders and displaying body dysmorphic tendencies. This isn’t a coincidence. From one story to another, it is obvious that the gymnastics and dance world is severely lacking in body positivity. Many, like myself, would agree about it’s toxicity. This is my story as a gymnast, and the story of my friend, a sophomore dancer, Elizabeth Driscoll.

I started gymnastics when I was around nine. I began to notice the toxic environment of the sport right away when I first started competitive gymnastics. Much of the shame I received at a young age wasn’t what was told to me. It was the silent, judgmental glances and passive-aggressive comments. The feeling of exclusion, solely based on looks. I heard comments that “the bar sunk too low when that one girl went on it''. I watched when it was a competition to see who could eat the least before practice.

By age 12-years-old I displayed signs of bad eating habits: counting calories and cutting out foods that I deemed “bad”. By age 14-years-old I would completely force myself to not eat before meets, hoping I would look like the other girls in my leotard. I didn’t notice how bad it was getting until I started to feel dizzy at practice, and I felt tired all the time. At my worst, I weighed myself up to five times a day. I felt even more defeated when my competition leotard didn’t fit right, and I had to schedule a special meeting with my coach to discuss sizing. For reference, I am just 5-foot, around 115 pounds - completely normal for a 15-year-old girl. My coach told me that the adult large (the leotard I was originally assigned) was the largest leotard size they had unless I wanted to pay an extra fee for them to “customize” one for me. I sat in my car and cried for an hour after this meeting. Since my mom didn’t want to pay an extra fee, I personally took this “opportunity” to use this leotard as “a motivation” to starve myself even more. Eventually, I fit into the leotard, but I still didn’t feel fulfilled. Now, looking back, I realize how absurd the whole thing was. Usually I wear small to medium clothing size. Why am I an adult large leotard? The adult large leotard is only 23 inches long and 11 inches across the waist. My mom, an actual adult, wouldn’t be able to fit this leotard over her head. My sister, a collegiate soccer player, couldn’t wear this leotard. Why is a child an adult large? Why force female gymnasts of all shapes and sizes to fit into one size?

My turning point began at age fifteen, almost sixteen; I had finally reached my “desired body”. I realized I wasn’t any happier than I was before. If anything, I felt worse than I did before, miserable even; my body hurt all the time and it was hard to get through my daily activities. Although eating more than a small plate of food made my stomach hurt just thinking about it, I knew I had to start somewhere. Over time, I realized my life and worth was more than what the scale told me. Eventually, I started visiting my scale less and less. I started to feel better, more energized, and happier overall. I started to be healthy again. My idea of healthy, not my coaches’ or my teammates' ideas. I used to be worried that if I gained weight it would affect my gymnastics performance, but I learned that it actually helped me. Being my version of healthy made all the difference in helping me overcome my disordered eating habits, physically and, equally, mentally and emotionally.

Elizabeth Driscoll also endured an abused body image as a dancer for twelve years. I empathised as she told me her story.

“One time my dance teacher told all of us to suck in our stomachs, and she looked directly at me. I could tell it was directed towards me because everybody else in the class was ‘how dancers are supposed to look’: skinny, thigh gap, all of that. We were about to take our dance photos for our competition, and she said that right before the photo. That really did not help my self esteem. It really tore me down. No matter who says something mean to you about your body, it especially hurts you when your coaches say these things to you,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll also witnessed coaches bully other girls because of their body type.

“The main teacher, the one who owns the studio, was teaching a class with me and some other girls. One of the girls was thirteen, a little bit of a bigger body type and shorter. The teacher told her, for her to be in the competition dance the next year, she needed to ‘work on that weight. You need to try to look like the other girls’. As if the dance community wasn’t toxic enough, that was enough to tear someone down,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll developed an eating disorder trying to meet these unreachable and unreasonable demands.

A group of elementary school girls condition on May 10. This group of girls joined the United States Association of Gymnastics (USAG) and are Level 2 gymnasts. They wore leotards and unitards - enforced by the female gymnast dress code, uncomfortable in revealing clothing at such a young age.

One of the main reasons my eating disorder started was because of the comments my dance teachers have told me: ‘you need to look this way’, ‘this costume doesn’t look right on you’ and things like that. That was one of the main causes [for my eating disorder] because I wanted to look like the girls in my classes, and it was really hard to not look like them. Then I started starving myself and making myself throw up because I wanted to look like them,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll also reported that coaches not only shamed girls for their body types, but also gave them fewer opportunities to perform, especially in the yearned for lead roles.

“There was one time where we got our dance costumes, and we were getting sized and everything. So then my teacher was like ‘I got this really cute costume for you guys’, and she showed us the costume. We all agreed that we liked it, but then the next week she said they didn’t have it in everyone’s size, looked at me, and then said we’d have to get a different costume instead. Everyone in my class was a little disappointed that we had to switch costumes because we liked the 1st one better. Of course, I felt like it was my fault,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll pointed out other troublesome qualities of other dance studios in our area.

“From talking to other dancers around school, I think my dance studio is more body inclusive than others,” Driscoll said.

How could her dance studio be more body inclusive than others?.

Driscoll explained that some dance competition teams at other studios just won’t let dancers on their team if they are over a certain weight.

“You could be the best dancer at that studio, and they won’t let you compete because of the way you look”, Driscoll said.

How is this allowed? Why can people get away with body-shaming just because they are the head of a dance or gymnastics company? Bullying someone, especially because of their appearance, an aspect an athlete cannot control, can lead to many mental health issues: low self-esteem, depression, social anxiety, and in many cases, eating disorders. Eating disorders can kill. Why have we let this toxic environment engulf our youth? How many more girls have to struggle before these sports become more body inclusive?

Dance and gymnastics coaches should be trained how to interact with kids - not body shaming them. Instead, collectively talking to a dance or gymnastics team about body positivity could make the youth more inclusive themselves. Driscoll agrees.

“Especially in sports, like dance and gymnastics, where you have to wear tight fitting clothing, such as leotards, coaches should be teaching more about body positivity rather than teaching about food portion control,” Driscoll said.

On May 10, 11-year-old Mya Soveck, a level 6 gymnast, and Joseph Youhana, a 13-year-old level 9 gymnast, both complete the same skill on the bar apparatus. The outfit comparison is astonishing; one gymnast, the female gymnast, is forced to wear an outfit that is tight-fitting, while the other gymnast, the male gymnast, wears a baggy t-shirt and flowy shorts. No wonder so many female gymnasts have low self-esteem when it comes to body image since they are forced to show their body from a young age to a judgemental crowd.

This toxicity runs deep not only in our community, but worldwide, so Driscoll also gave advice for future dancers.

“In dance, people always expect you to be skinny, 5’5”, blonde or brunette, and both coaches and dancers have these stereotypes about what these girls should look like. But girls of all different heights, weights, sizes, ages, skin colors, anyone can perform beautifully and athletically. Just because a dancer doesn’t fit the traditional look doesn’t mean they are any worse or better than anybody else.”

Athletes should just try to be themselves because we are all born with a body type, and we need to know that is ok. Confidence is a better look than an eating disorder.

From my journey, I have also learned something along the way: in the end it’s not going to matter what others think of you. When I starved myself, people would sometimes tell me, ‘Wow Leah you look so good, is there something different about you?’

They didn’t know what I was doing behind closed doors. I thought this new validation from others that I longed for would make it all worth it. In the end, I realized that it didn’t matter what others thought about me. I just needed to learn to accept myself and eventually love myself for who I really am, inside and out.

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