By: Kelsey Olsen
*Disclaimer- the names have been changed to protect those that came forward to tell their stories*
The earliest memory I have is being four years old and watching my big sister do cartwheels around my twin sister and I, in our living room of our comfortable Seattle home. My mom was yelling at her to not flip in the house, but my twin sister and I were mesmerized, we wanted to flip just like her. It wasn’t until three years later, after moving to the east side of the state, that my mom started to take us and our athleticism seriously; she decided to put my twin and I in competitive gymnastics, my big sister and I in club swimming, and all of us in dance. At seven years old, it was hard for me to take anything seriously, until I saw the Junior Olympic gymnasts do flips at our gymnastics gym. I fell in love and slowly became obsessed with the sport that would put me in therapy for years.
When I was nine years old, I discovered YouTube and the endless flipping videos it held. If I wasn’t at school or the gym, I was watching cheerleaders and tumblers, like Kiara Nowlin, flip and flip and flip. I started talking to my coach about being like Kiara and what I would need to be like her when I grew up. This was the first time I ever heard someone other than my mom or doctor talk about my weight in front of me. My coach told me I needed to stop eating pancakes every Sunday morning if I wanted to be light enough to flip like that. I remember coming home from practice that day and asking my mom why my coach was telling me I couldn’t eat pancakes anymore, that’s when I started paying attention to the number on the scale.
I would spend hours on YouTube looking at how the amazing gymnasts looked, so thin, tiny, and perfect. I would stand in front of the mirror in my leotard and squish the baby fat that still outlined my tummy and cheeks, a common thing for only a nine year old to have but I could never see it like that. When my mom would pick us up from school she would always bring us a protein cookie (still disgusting to this day), a sandwich, and some sort of crackers. I was too focused on being light that I would sit in the back of the car, fake eat, hide my uneaten food in my gym bag and then throw it away at the gym. The only meals I would eat were oatmeal at 5 am and then whatever my mom made for dinner that night at 8:00 pm. It wasn’t until I went in for my annual physical when I was 10, that my doctor told my mom she needed to feed me before I was diagnosed as malnourished. My mom didn’t say a word to me as we left the office, a silence I would never want to hear for the rest of my life. Once we pulled into the garage she looked at me and said, “I need your gym bag. Now.” I flew up the stairs, trying to remember if I had thrown away yesterday’s evidence, only to have her catch me throwing the food away in the bathroom garbage can.
That was the start of a different life for me. I switched to competitive club cheer and as I was leaving my gymnastics coach’s office I heard her say to my mom, “Good for her, she needed to move on. She was getting too fat for this sport.” That comment alone made me strive to be a jean size 00 until I was 16. It’s comments like these that coaches don’t understand can ruin someone’s self image, especially if they’re only 10 years old. That coach used to compare all of my teammates against each other with our body shape, our hair, our dance moves, our competitors and their videos on social media, even the snacks we would bring during practice. It affected a lot of us, my old teammate, Jessica*, reached out to me with a similar story.
Jessica was a couple of years older than I was, as well as a couple of levels better than I was. She reached her peak in her gymnastics career when she was 15, but it came at a cost. She moved gyms when I was nine and she was 13, so I only got to see her at competitions and birthday parties. Jessica had to switch gyms because her mom got a new job an hour and a half away, except it was almost like she didn’t have to switch coaches. Her new coach was a man and had a way different coaching style than our coach, but he would compare the girls more and even weigh them before every Saturday morning practice. Jessica was never a big girl, at only 5 feet and 4 inches and 120 pounds she looked like every other gymnast competing at her level. One Saturday practice, that all changed. She came in after a birthday party the night before and had only one slice of cake, to be two pounds heavier than she normally was at the usual weigh in. Not a big deal, except it really made her coach mad and he screamed in front of the whole gym, “This is why you never get first, because you think winners actually eat cake.”
Jessica never told her mom about this comment, instead put it on herself to eat better. When you’re 13, an elite athlete, and your parents watch your every move, it was a little difficult for her to change her eating habits until her freshman year of high school. It was then that she found out she could just tell her parents she was eating breakfast and lunch at school, but in reality she would eat a protein bar before morning practice at 5:30 am, drink only water after, skip lunch, eat some fruit snacks after school, and then finally whatever her mom made for dinner that night. All the while, she was working out close to 35 hours a week. She started getting really good at gymnastics, throwing skills she had never dreamed of throwing at only a level 8. By the time she turned 15, she was 5 feet 4 four inches, and 105 pounds. It wasn’t enough and she was never satisfied. She would constantly say no to going out with friends, in fear of overeating at a restaurant, she would even lock herself in the bathroom during a birthday party to make sure she skipped on cake. Jessica would spend hours on Facebook and Youtube stalking gymnasts her age and level and comparing herself in the mirror. She always thought if she skipped just one more meal and worked out just five minutes longer, she could look like them too.
Her mom finally started seeing how baggy her leotards were starting to get on her, even those skinny jeans everyone was wearing were starting to look like flare jeans on her. Right before regionals, her mom decided to come to a Saturday morning practice, a rarity for her working single mother. When Jessica’s weight was called at 104, followed by praise from her coach- her mother lost it. She walked onto the floor, grabbed Jessica by the hand and pulled her out of gymnastics for the rest of her life. Her mom called my mom crying, I still remember being in the car when she called, “You’ll never guess with this SOB did to Jessica. She weighs 16 pounds less than when I brought her to that gym! Now I have to take my daughter to therapy because I let someone make her think she was fat.” Jessica is now a certified dietitian that works for a college, focusing on the gymnastics team to make sure no one follows in her footsteps.
I went from gymnastics, to swimming, to cheer, to diving and made a lot of friends on my way. One of my best friends was a girl named Cassidy* that I got the chance to be teammates on the University of Vermont swimming and diving team. She was a year older than I was, but we both specialized on 3 meter diving and had every practice together. Her story is a little different than mine and Jessica’s, because her eating disorder stemmed solely from social media and at an older age.
Cassidy was also a gymnast when she was younger, but fell in love with club diving at age 10. Since the two sports are quite similar, it wasn’t much of a transition- only instead of a leotard, it was a swimsuit and instead of a spring floor, it was a pool and a spring diving board. She was 15 when Instagram started to become a big staple for teenagers to show off their lives, their friends, and most of all their bodies. Although she was never fat, she was 5 foot 7 inches by the time she was 16 and towered above the rest of her teammates. Female divers and gymnasts are typically the smallest athletes, that allows them to flip through the air faster and allows divers to have little to no splash. Every meet her team would go to, she would look at pictures after and because she was so much taller than everyone, she was so embarrassed by how much she stuck out. So she decided to take control over the only thing that she could, her weight. She would stalk female athletes on Instagram and Facebook and take note of any diets they would post or any at home workouts that could shave inches from her waist, not that she even had an inch to lose.
By the time Cassidy came to UVM, she was 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 120 pounds. Our diving coach noticed this and urged Cassidy to see the team dietitian. Cassidy would always politely say she’s fine, and then go to the student gym at night and run 3 miles on top of the two workouts she had that day. She told me she would look at professional athletes’ social media and do anything she could just so she could look like them. It was easier when she got to college for her to skip meals, workout more, and say she was broke so she wouldn’t have to go out to eat with her friends. By the time the 2016 America East Conference Championships came around, she was 110 pounds. This was something that even the swim coach was concerned about at this point. He would make sure to have other girls eat with her and report back what she ate, noticing it was a lot less than a D1 collegiate athlete should be consuming. Cassidy kept affirming to everyone she was fine and “in the best shape of her life” until she got onto the 3 meter at the championships and blacked out. Luckily she didn’t fall to the ground or into the pool, instead her knees buckled and she landed on the springboard face first. It was finally clear to her, she needed help. By the time I joined the team fall 2016, Cassidy had come back from eating disorder rehab and was put on trial period training with the team.
If social media can affect a college athlete like that, just imagine what it can do to young female athletes now. I wonder if social media was prevalent when I was younger, if I could have ended up hurting myself worse than I already did. Although those are success stories of the same situation, there are so many other stories from female athletes that don’t have a happy ending. Coaches and “insta-famous” athletes don’t understand the effect they have on younger people. Although it’s not ideal, those athletes with a large following need to make sure they promote self love just as much as they promote their own brand. If little girls can see the love that famous athletes have for their body, it can help those girls to learn to love their body as well. We always progress in today’s society, I feel as though we need to also progress with the way people coach and speak to other people’s children. We need to normalize the fact that there are different body types and that it’s okay to not be perfect, because let’s be honest perfection will never exist.