How figure skaters continue to struggle with body image

By SUDGIE MA | March 29, 2018

DAVID W. CARMICHAEL/ CC BY-SA 3.0 Lipnitskaya (right) retired from professional figure skating at just 19.



Eating junk food is one of my favorite parts of life. It’s not good for me, and I tend to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt afterwards, but in the moment I just won’t be able to stop smiling. This goes for ice cream, chicken nuggets or even a cheap bowl of ramen. That’s why when I’m stressed, I open up a family-sized bag of chips and start wolfing it down. During an all-nighter, I can eat enough for a whole family.

Even when I’m not stressed but just bored, I’ll turn to junk food as an easy “fun” activity to keep my hands and mouth occupied. I really can’t imagine what my life would be like without having the comfort of junk food nearby.

One of the reasons why I admire professional athletes is their self-control. Even if I had the talent and potential to be great at sports, I wouldn’t make the cut simply because I can’t keep myself from salivating over fried chicken. It’s also amazing how professional athletes would have to have this self-control for most of their lives, since they typically start training from an extremely young age. 

As a kid, I’d be buying ice cream sandwiches from the ice cream truck after school everyday. Even in the winter, when the trucks typically wouldn’t be stopped outside the neighborhood, I wouldn’t let that stop me from getting my ice cream — I’d head to the convenience store instead. (It’s no wonder I’ve had high cholesterol for the past decade or so.)

Hearing about how regimented figure skaters’ diets have to be, in particular, makes me extra appreciative of the junk food that I can eat all the time. In the world of figure skating, certain physiques aren’t just important to have for objective athletic ability that increases scores but also for subjective presentation. The way “artistry” is graded in figure skating has always made me uncomfortable, because different judges have different tastes. Even healthy proteins can be of concern to these athletes, because female skaters in particular can be looked down on for being “too muscular.”

So while I enjoy the spectacles that these skaters place in front of my screen while I munch on chips, there’s an incredibly dark background and lifelong pain behind the scenes of some of these performances. In fact, among professional athletes, female athletes competing in “aesthetic” sports like gymnastics or figure skating are at the highest risk for eating disorders. 

While watching the Winter Olympics last month and the Figure Skating World Championships over the past week, I couldn’t help but think about the stars who have come out about their eating disorders. Gracie Gold and Yulia Lipnitskaya come to mind in particular as athletes who have been gravely mistreated. Both of them, skating for the U.S. and Russia, respectively, have retired extremely early in their careers due to eating disorders and poor mental health. 

It was especially heartbreaking seeing Lipnitskaya retire at 19 just half a year ago, seeing as I’m the same age as her. She helped win a gold medal for Team Russia in Sochi 2014 when she was only 15.

Gold wrote at length about how she was criticized for her body and weight throughout her time as a competitor. It was especially brave of her to mention that it wasn’t reassuring to hear that she was “fine the way she was,” from people who didn’t have the same experiences as her. Such comments could come off as ignorant and dismissive. Although she had plans to return to skating after rehabilitation, she revealed just last month that she would transition to coaching instead. 

Her decision shows to me just how little body image issues have been addressed in this sport. Conditions haven’t improved for these athletes. A handful of currently competitive skaters have also come out to share their stories about eating disorders, but I still don’t see any systemic change happening.

Sometimes I wish I could just reach through the screen and offer up my tub of ice cream. But even if I could, it’s a gift that probably can’t be accepted. Even if it were Halo Top ice cream, it’d be taboo because there might be too much protein involved.

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