The nature of athletic competition requires participants to be highly in tune with their bodies. An athlete's success is largely determined by the fitness of his or her body. As long as athletic competition has been around, serious athletes have shared a concern with achieving and maintaining a body type that will allow them to be as successful as possible in their chosen activity. Although the ideal body type is very different for a gymnast or a sumo wrestler, both kinds of athletes put considerable time and effort into the pursuit of the "perfect body" for their sport. This quest is complicated by rapidly changing but often contradictory theories in sports medicine.
When considering athletes who often follow highly specified diet and exercise patterns, the question arises as to whether this behavior should be classified as "dieting." In the introduction to this volume, "dieting" in the modern sense is defined as "regulating food intake in order to gain or lose weight and/or affect one's overall health". In the case of the most serious athletes, the effort to achieve a perfect sport-specific body does involve the maintenance of a desired weight; therefore, most athletes can be categorized as "dieters" by this definition.
While all athletes are encouraged to stay as lean and muscular as possible, two types of sports in particular lend themselves to the most drastic dieting: those involving weight classes and those where success is determined by judging. Sports falling into the first category include wrestling, weight lifting, and crew. Coaches in each of these sports frequently weigh their athletes and encourage them to drop or gain weight to meet weight requirements. This commonly leads to large weight fluctuations which can be extremely stressful on an athlete's body.
Sports involving judging are also particularly dangerous because their goal is not to reach specific weight requirements but to achieve a certain appearance. Since the focus is already on appearance, it is a very small leap to the development of a distorted body image (Brownell et al. 1992). Sports in this category include gymnastics, figure skating, dance, and diving (Vincent 1989). These activities also tend to draw young women from the age group that is already supposedly at the highest risk for the development of distorted body images and/or eating disorders (Byrne 2002: 256-9). When this high-risk population participates in a sport where they are being judged while wearing small, tight clothing, the physical and emotional results can be disastrous.
There are countless horror stories about anorexic dancers and wrestlers passing out from dehydration while trying to "make weight," but it is important to realize that these cases are the exception, not the rule. In most cases, sports are extremely beneficial to a person's health. When approached in a healthy way, athletics can dramatically raise self-confidence and improve body image.
SLG/Sarah Gardiner See also Body building; Hormones in Dieting
Berry, Tanya R. and Howe, Bruce L. (2000) "Risk Factors for Disordered Eating in Female University Athletes," Journal of Sport Behavior 23: 345-54.
Brownell, K.D., Rodin, J., and Wilmore, J.H. (eds) (1992) Eating, Body Weight, and Performance in Athletes: Disorders of Modern Society, Philadelphia, Pa.: Lea & Febiger. Byrne, Susan M. (2002) "Sport, Occupation, and Eating Disorders," in Christopher G. Fairburn and Kelly D. Brownell (eds), Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook, 2nd edn, New York: Guilford Press, pp. 256-9. Dickey, Christa and Gavin, Jim (2003) "Disordered Eating and Body Image Disturbances May Be Underreported in Male Athletes," American College of Sports Medicine News Release, March 7, available online at <http://www.acsm.org/publications/ newsreleases2003/disorderedeating_030503.htm> (accessed March 4, 2007). Grivetti, Louis E. and Applegate, E.A. (1997) "From Olympia to Atlanta: A Cultural-Historical Perspective on Diet and Athletic Training," Journal of Nutrition 127 (Suppl): 860S-868S. Smith, Bryan W. (2004) "ACC Sports Sciences Feature: Weight Loss in Wrestling," Atlantic Coast Conference, December 5, available online at <http:// theacc.collegesports.com/sports/m-wrestl/spec-rel/ i20 504aac.html> (accessed March 4, 2007).
Vincent, L.M. (1989) Competing with the Sylph: The Quest for the Perfect Dance Body, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company.
Ziegler, Paula (1998) "Body Image and Dieting Behaviors Among Elite Figure Skaters," International Journal of Eating Disorders 24 (4): 421-8.
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