‘A tough balance’: Body image as a gymnast

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Stanford gymnast Addie Stonecipher ’23 cannot place the exact moment the switch flipped, when she started viewing her body in a more negative light, but she remembers weighing herself constantly and watching what she ate as early as the fifth grade. Her parents used to joke about how she was never hungry, unaware that her meager appetite stemmed from self-inflicted pressure to maintain a “gymnast’s figure.”

“I always knew that maybe that body type wasn’t super attainable for me,” Stonecipher said. “I understood that I needed to be strong, but I can remember from as young as, probably 11, not thinking I was good enough or thinking that if I was thinner, maybe I would get new skills or I would be better at gymnastics.”

“It wasn’t even so much like coaches putting that pressure on me, it was just me being hard on myself,” she said.

Stonecipher is not alone. According to a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, almost 30% of female adolescent gymnasts face eating disorders due to their sport, compared to the adolescent female average of 3% reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This high rate of disordered eating can be attributed to the contradictory nature of the body type thought to be best suited to gymnastics routines: short but long-limbed, muscular but thin. According to a 1993 study conducted by Edith Cowan University, most elite gymnasts are below the 30th percentile for height and weight, with many below the 10th and a few below the third percentile. 

From the gymnast’s perspective, trying to check all the boxes can be draining, especially as one is also trying to perfect routines.

“It’s a tough balance because that more prepubescent super lean, super long body type is hard to get because most gymnasts are short,” Stonecipher said. “It’s really hard to look super lean and long when you’re probably short and you need to be super strong for your sport.”

“You feel like you’re getting pulled in both directions,” she added.

The difficulty of maintaining this body type is one shared by many gymnasts, including rising senior at Tamalpais High School in Marin County and current gymnastics coach Chloe Christensen who, at 5 feet 5 inches, stood taller than most of her peers when she competed. Although she did not let it affect her self-esteem, Christensen recalls the feeling of having to have the equipment adjusted to account for her height.

“I was 11, and a lot of the girls who were at the same level as I was were all eight, nine, 10 year-olds and so they were all very small and able to do a lot of stuff at that age,” Christensen said. “And then me being bigger, I always had to have the bar set at a wider range so I wouldn’t kick the low bar when I was swinging. But I did push through and I don’t think it affected me like some girls.”

Stonecipher further credits gymnast dissatisfaction with their bodies to the nature of gymnastics itself, a sport in which athletes wear tight leotards and are given a score based on their performance. If a gymnast does badly in a competition, it can be easy for them to falsely correlate the two, according to Stonecipher. 

“I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but especially when you’re not doing as well in gymnastics and you’re trying to be strong and trying to be skinny, you’re not viewing your body in a positive light,” Stonecipher said. 

(Graphic: Martha Fishburne)

Coach interviews collected by the 1993 study found a tendency to choose more attractive athletes. According to one anonymous coach from the article, while they “don’t do selections based on that [attractive features], it is an aesthetic sport so they need to have a nice face if you can.” 

Though the study was administered over two decades ago, this mindset remains common among some coaches. A 2020 essay published by former gymnast Samantha Brodsky unveils current coach pressure to slim down. She recalls being told, “Fat girls don’t flip fast” while learning tumbling passes.

On top of pressure from coaches, athlete-on-athlete competition can exacerbate existing body image issues, according to Christensen.

“When you show up to a meet, there’s a lot of girls there, so for a lot of people that did suffer from struggling with their body image, going to a meet and seeing other girls who have their ideal body image and placing really high makes it really hard,” Christensen said. 

These experiences are supported by a Journal of Sport Sciences article that found that body image issues notably increased during the competition season. 

However, there is a silver lining, as some coaches such as Christensen make a point to have an open conversation about gymnastics and its damaging effects on body image.

“Because I know of what’s happening now, as a coach it makes me more aware of helping girls out,” Christensen said. “The most important thing for me is just to be nice and open with them and letting them know that when you’re at gymnastics you’re safe and if you need to talk you’re able to.”

Furthermore, the transition between grade school and collegiate gymnastics has allowed Stonecipher to enter into a far more supportive environment. 

“Before college, I was in an atmosphere with a lot of younger girls who were training a lot of hours a week and a lot of girls who hadn’t hit puberty before and who are super skinny,” Stonecipher said. “Going from that to going to college, a program where girls are my age or older and they look more like me and the atmosphere is just much more positive.”

Despite the supportive gymnastics environment Stanford cultivates as well as the overall push for a more body-positive sport, Stonecipher believes the widespread body image issues among gymnasts speaks to the deeper problems within the sport. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a teammate who’s had no issues with her body and didn’t wish that anything was different, and I think that definitely says something about the nature of the sport,” she said. 

Contact Martha Fishburne at martha.fishburne ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Martha Fishburne is a high schooler writing for The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.