How the beauty standard in Rhythmic Gymnastics has affected us
TW: EDs, Body Image
Names of sources have been abbreviated to maintain confidentiality. Many thanks to RGwellness for allowing me to use the statistics that she’s found! Check her page out at www.instagram.com/rgwellness
The first time someone commented on my weight was when I was eight years old. My coach pointed to my tummy and said “ 哇！这个肚子真大!” (Wow! Your tummy is very big) To be very honest, I had many other priorities and didn’t really care at the time, but I have always remembered it. Three years later, I’m 11 and have my first weighing scale. I’ve made a handwritten chart, which I’ve pasted on the wall, with my goal weights for each week written down and my weight each day. It’s Sunday and I still haven’t reached my goal weight of the week yet which was 36kg. I’m really upset and am trying to stand on different parts of corners of the weighing scale to make myself lighter, but with no success.
“Once when I was 10 and on a diet because of gym, my Chinese tuition teacher was explaining a phrase, likening it to a hamburger. I burst into tears because I was just so hungry.”-K
Ever since I started doing Rhythmic Gymnastics (RG) competitively, losing weight and counting calories has been a part of my life, with varying amounts of success. Many of my teammates and friends have experienced pressure from themselves and others to lose weight, feeling ashamed and insecure about their body types because of the beauty standard in RG. These are our stories.
Some statistics about body image in RG
To gather the thoughts and experiences of people in the RG community, I interviewed 15 gymnasts from Singapore, who have all done Rhythmic Gymnastics competitively internationally and nationally, for lengths ranging from 4-10 years, with a median length of 9 years. RGwellness has also graciously allowed me to use the statistics she has gathered, where she surveyed 400 gymnasts from 48 countries.
· 93% of the 15 gymnasts I surveyed have felt self-conscious about their body type and weight because of Rhythmic gymnastics. This is concordant with the 92.6% that RGwellness found in her survey. This is significantly higher compared to the 61% of female teens(2) who do not do rhythmic gymnastics and feel self-conscious about their body type.
The 15 gymnasts in Singapore
· 13 out of the 15 have had coaches make negative comments about their weight
· 8 out of the 15 have gone on a diet because of gymnastics
The 400 gymnasts surveyed by RGwellness
· 85.4% knew at least one person in the sport with an eating disorder
· 49.1% said they know over 4 people in the sport with an eating disorder
The beauty standard in RG
Photos from Pinterest
In rhythmic gymnastics, the ideal/ most beautiful physique is one in which a gymnast is very slim and has slender long legs with complimentary long arms and a short torso. It is considered by many that having these long lines makes you more elegant, graceful and beautiful and many gymnasts aspire to have this body type, working towards it with different and often restrictive diets and exercise. In reality, it is true that a lighter and fit body can allow one to better and more easily execute movements like jumps and turns. In addition to this, one would also be getting fewer injuries from training as there is less stress and strain on their knees and ankles due to their lower body weight.
“Honestly diets in gymnastics are unavoidable because gymnasts need to be skinny to look nice on the mat. Being lighter also helps gymnasts to execute their movements faster and they will get less injuries from training” - A
“Inevitably, in this sport 90% of the people probably have some sort of body dysmorphia but there is nothing we can do because gym is a physically demanding sport and if you’re heavy it limits you.”- Z
“Gymnasts are always expected to be skinny, after I looked back at my past larger self, I realized why people made the comments they made” - C
Downsides to attempting to achieve this beauty standard
There is nothing wrong with getting fitter to be able to perform better at your sport. However, very often gymnasts take it too far, losing an unhealthy amount of weight in short amounts of time to achieve an unachievable body. This can result in many momentous and undesirable side effects that can affect them for life, as well as hindering their ability to continue training well.
“When I went on an extreme and drastic diet to lose weight for gymnastics, I lost about a 5th of my body weight in 3 months. As a result of this, I lost my period for about 2 years, got bruised very easily during training and had quite a few injuries during this time. On a medical check-up with my school, my PE teacher said that I was at risk of Osteoporosis because of the large amount of weight I had lost.” -K
“Dieting made me feel pathetic because I could only eat one fruit per day? I felt like I never had enough energy to go through such strenuous trainings. I was also angry and frustrated whenever my diets wouldn't make me lose enough weight, even though I knew that it was not possible for my body to become the type that my coach wanted as everyone’s body type is different and mine could never become like that.” – T
Coaches pushing their gymnasts to go on a diet
There have been times when coaches force gymnasts to go on diets, threatening them with physical training as “Punishments” or kicking them off the team.
“When my coach repeatedly asked me to continue losing weight, I felt quite hopeless. I was already doing my most to eat nothing and I knew I couldn’t hit her target anymore with dieting alone so I had to think of other ways to lose weight. In the past, we went on an extreme diet where we had to lose at least 1kg per week, so I just ate one Apple each day . Every Monday I went to training feeling nervous because it was weight taking day. We would come early to run around or suntan hoping to lose some water weight. After the weigh in we would binge eat like crazy because we were deprived. If you didn’t meet the target that week you would get a punishment but it varied according to my coach’s mood. An example of a minor punishment was writing an apology note for being too fat and making promises to her such as “today I promise to take note of my food intake and not eat so much all the time “ There were also intense, mad and crazy punishments where she brought us to the park and we ran up and down the stairs and jumped rope for super super long in the hot sun. It was so bad I thought I was going to faint.” -Z
“My Coach called me a fat elephant multiple times, screaming at me that I needed to lose weight. After a while I grew numb to this and it didn’t really matter to me when she said things like this. However what hurt me the most was when she said that I could join the group and go for competitions if I had lost enough weight and she was satisfied. I worked really hard and went on a drastic diet, till she was really happy with me but in the end she still replaced me one week before the competition and it made me feel really used. She basically forced me to lose weight for me to only be her backup option for the team, making lots of empty promises. It was really difficult for me to like gym again after this.” -K
“The worse part about going for overseas competitions was eating with our coach. I felt really judged and self-conscious whenever she was eating with us because I knew that she would make fun of me for what I had eaten later on in training.”
“My coach made offhand remarks or comments about my weight, sometimes telling me in a joking manner to run home instead of taking the bus”- C
“It made me consider my food choices more and I felt sad.”- J
“I was indifferent to it, I did not really care about her thoughts”
“Coaches shouldn’t be an additional burden and shouldn’t push gymnasts to lose weight. The gymnast should instead lose weight when they feel the need to”-Z
“Coach shouldn’t focus too much on body type. Instead focus on strengthening muscles and joints to support the body “
More stories of what we did to lose weight
“I Went vegetarian for 1.5 months, and lost 3 kg. I got even more stressed because I was cutting out all the foods I was so used to eating, and I felt exhausted even though I wasn’t training.” -KY
“After a while, the negative thoughts from the offhanded comments from my coach and the weight I gained during the holidays started piling up. Especially after thinking about how gymnasts are supposed to be really skinny, I was like… oh no. To make things worse, the circuit breaker in Singapore happened, CCA stopped and I started to get really worried about the amount of exercise I was getting, so I started dieting. It was pretty healthy at first and I was losing 1.5-2.5kg a week. However, after a while it became a habit and I continued losing weight.”
Effects on the daily life of gymnasts
“I felt sad. Dieting affected my mood the most. It is very tough being hungry and going about your day. During recess when everyone went down to buy food and ate freely, I felt so envious to see people eating with no restrictions.” – Z
“It made me feel sad that I couldn't eat all the nice food that the people around me were eating. I was also stressed that my friends would notice me not eating and would pressurize me to eat or pity me.” -T
“On some mornings it was really difficult for me to walk up the stairs in school. I felt really lightheaded and dizzy at times because I wasn’t eating enough. Honestly it made me too sad to go downstairs and see all my classmates and friends eating food during recess when I knew I couldn’t. I also did not really have the energy to socialise so I would just stay in class myself.” -K
Long term effects on mental health of gymnasts
“Even after stopping gym, I’m still really insecure about my body. I continuously think about losing thigh fat and gaining more muscles. It's really scarring because this notion of needing to lose weight or being scared to step on the weighing scale will probably haunt me forever.” -T
“I regret whenever I eat too much. Sometimes when I eat to satiety, I feel bad. I feel as though I should always be a little hungry after I finish eating” - Z
“Even though I don’t do gym anymore I still constantly feel the need to lose weight. Sometimes I can still hear my coach’s voice in my head screaming that I’m fat.”
“It became a constant cycle of hating food and hating yourself because your body was what was supposedly holding you back. I quit 6 years ago and to this day I still struggle so much with body image because of a skinny=pretty mentality that was constantly reinforced during my gymnastics career” -taken from RGwellness page
What should be done about this?
“I think that this topic is really unspoken about and remains a taboo in the gym community, although its actually very common amongst gymnasts especially if u train from a young age.” We should really make this topic less of a “taboo” and destigmatise it. Let’s look out for one another instead of just turning a blind eye when someone you know is having difficulties with this. Together, we can all learn how to spot the warning signs of a friend who has an eating disorder and can support each other
“Everyone's body types are different and it's so hard to attain the chopstick like figure that other gymnasts are having. I feel this is very detrimental to the body because firstly, it stunted my growth and secondly, dieting or losing weight will definitely not last in the long term but in fact cause even more weight gain once the dieting stops.” -T
“Why does the standard always have to be ridiculously skinny? Gymnastics nowadays values a gymnasts aesthetic over skill. I’ve seen gymnasts who are of normal size and weight (considered overweight in gym) having much more or even the same levels of stamina, speed and agility as someone of a significantly smaller size” -KY
Not everyone can have the thinnest body that matches the beauty standard in RG. We each need to find the right weight where we are at our healthiest and where we can train at our optimum level. You only have one body that’s going to be with you for the rest of your life, so treat it well!
Find out more about this in this article on the Straits Times https://www.straitstimes.com/sport/pressured-to-lose-weight
and this video
1) RGwellness on Instagram www.instagram.com/rgwellness