Eating Disorders and Performance Sports

By: Eleanor Clarke, LMHC-A

My struggle with body image and disordered eating began very young; what eventually became an overwhelming obsession started as mere discomfort in my skin and dissatisfaction with my body. Performance-based sports thrive on this foundational insecurity – as much as I loved and still love dance and cheerleading, I know the aesthetic nature of the sports significantly contributes to the proportionally high rates of eating disorders among these athletes. Now, as a cheerleading coach and eating disorder therapist, I hear the same body-shaming comments from athletes as the ones I used to say to myself. The sport has only become more demanding and elite

I’m constantly in awe of these athletes, though I simultaneously feel worried at times for the pressure they experience both from themselves and others. I hear a few themes from both my athlete clients and the athletes I coach that I want to specifically explore today by emphasizing three simple truths: 1) life is more important than your sport, 2) your body is an instrument, not an ornament, and 3) your worth is inherent, not earned.

  1. My life is more important than this sport.
    The first theme I’ve noticed is over-emphasizing the role of a sport in your life; this is especially dangerous when an athlete confuses disordered eating with athletic performance. For example, if I believe being a cheerleader is the most important role in my life and I also believe restricting my calories or overdoing it in the gym is part of how I make myself the best cheerleader I can be, then these eating disorder behaviors feel directly tied to my identity. This is an especially easy slippery slope to fall into in high school and college athletics. As much as I want my cheerleaders to value their sport, take the privilege of cheerleading seriously, and pour themselves into doing their best, I never want them to falsely believe that being a cheerleader is more important than being a kind friend or healthy person. Very few sports last an entire
    lifetime, and this is unfortunately true for sports like cheerleading and dance – most people don’t continue dancing or cheering past high school, and only a tiny percentage will continue dancing or cheering post-college. If identity isn’t found outside the sport, the adjustment to no longer having the sport is even more painful. Sports are so fun and life-giving, but they are not the most important part of your life.
  2. My body is an instrument, not an ornament.
    The second theme I see is performance-based athletes caring more about the way their bodies look than the way their bodies function: rather than focusing on the body feeling capable and moving with ease, aesthetic sport athletes often fall into the trap of judging athletic ability on the body’s appearance. I’ve seen clients I work with and athletes I coach focus on weight loss and muscle definition for aesthetic reasons only to find they sacrificed actual athletic performance in order to accomplish these goals. One of my favorite body image books to date is More Than a Body by Lexie and Lindsay Kite – this line, “my body is an instrument, not an ornament,” is the book’s mantra. When we perceive our bodies as objects to be looked at rather than as functional carriers of ourselves, we completely misplace the purpose of our bodies. Aesthetic and performance-based sports often misdirect this focus. Athletes, by nature, have to place some focus on their bodies; this does not have to be unhealthy or obsessive, and many athletes do an excellent job of caring for their bodies in an appropriate way. This balance is difficult in performance-based sports, as athletic performance can easily be confused with aesthetics and appearance. This tendency to confuse aesthetics and athletics makes it all the more important for athletes like cheerleaders to perceive their own bodies as instruments for their own use, not ornaments to be objectified.
  • My worth is inherent, not earned.
    Finally, the third theme I see is the exhausting attempt to earn worth and value through a sport that can never actually deliver this type of fulfillment. Many athletes struggling with eating disorders are desperately trying to achieve worth and value by striving for an impossibly perfect version of themselves. As a result, their self-evaluations are often negative and the eating disorder becomes a false but nonetheless perceived way to achieve and feel worthy. It is, therefore, vitally important that athletes, especially performance-based athletes, understand that worth is inherent, not earned. Athletic achievement feels powerful and satisfying, but it does not increase the amount of worth and value you have – neither does an athletic season of struggle,
    loss, injury, or pain reduce the amount of worth and value you have.

  • In Luke 12:7, Jesus says, “In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” We, as God’s children, have worth and value that we cannot alter by our actions – including our eating behaviors, workout habits, and athletic abilities. Your life is more important than your sport, your body is an instrument of use not an ornament to be looked at, and your worth is inherent – don’t let your eating disorder confuse these foundational truths.

Thank you Eleanor for a wonderful post! Connect with her on Instagram @eleanorclark_lmhca

And pre-order her Body Neutrality book on Amazon at this link.

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