The dangerous games we play

[originally published January 16, 2012]

Self-reflexivity is crucial to my research here in India. I play women’s rugby. I’m studying women’s rugby. I’m always comparing and contrasting my experiences and realities with those of the women I work with — they are innumerable.

As a participant-observer-researcher, I sometimes think that we couldn’t be more different; other times, our sameness is striking…and proves to be a wake up call.

***

 A hit to the gut at the All-India women's tournament, August 2011 in Pune.

A hit to the gut at the All-India women's tournament, August 2011 in Pune.

My recent research focus has been looking into issues plaguing women’s sports on a global scale. I’ve hit three big ones: the incidence of sexual abuse; the understanding and presentation of sexuality in sports; and the rates of disordered eating & the female athlete triad, two issues that have proliferated in recent years due to globalization. All three topics have been noted by WomenSport International as some of the foremost problems seen in female athletics.

I recently sat down with an India women’s rugger friend who, in a former time, was a nationally competitive judo athlete. The world of weight-class sports is a notorious breeding ground for disordered eating (I refer here not only specifically to anorexia nervosa and bulima nervosa, but to a gradated spectrum of unhealthy dietary habits) and I wanted to know more about her experience.

I asked about her training methods.

She told me about the popularity of pre-match crash diets, the binging on bananas to instantly move up a weight class, her own skipping of meals and sun-up to sun-down training regimen and encouragement by her coaches to only eat sweet limes and lose weight at any cost. “The coaches don’t care,” she said “and the athletes will do anything to win.” After that description, I asked her about the specifics of eating disorders and what she knew. “Like anorexia? Or what’s the other one — bulimia? Yeah I don’t know… I think you only see that stuff happen in like, models.”

What? But you just said… There was an evident disconnect in her train of thought.

But why?

For my friend, was the “correct” training synonymous with disordered eating habits, thus making them passable and unnameable? Or was her lack of labeling symptomatic of a lack of health education?

It has been theorized that an individual’s need for control over their body is essential in the development of disordered eating. Bodily control — and pushing the boundaries of ones body — is a fundamental part of being an athlete. These two dangerously go hand-in-hand.

I started scouring articles and journals and conference presentations on the topic. I knew about eating disorders but the triad was something I had only heard of in passing. What was it all about? The term first coined in 1992, the triad is a three-pronged condition that, according to some sources, may affect as many as 66% of collegiate female athletes in the United States. The American College of Sports Medicine refers specifically to the different levels of three inter-related health problems found in women athletes: a) low energy availability (eating disorders), b) menstrual irregularities (amenorrhea) and c) bone loss (osteoporosis).

What I read were bullet-point lists, clinical rhetoric describing red flag warning signs and symptoms. Pages.

upon pages

and pages

and

Oh, my God.

then it hit me.

My cognitive film reel flashed back and I saw, in one fell swoop, the pieces of my own past simultaneously fell together:

the breaks, the stress fractures, the fatigue the slow healing time the cysts the groin pain the missing calories the weight loss the nine mile post-practice runs the distrust of my body and the obsession of why I couldn’t make my body perform how I wanted it to andIFitwasn’tgoingtothenIwasgoingtoMAKEit and

What?

I choked up —

Half, because of my demons finally had a name, and half out of the sheer realization that:

Fuck. I’m not the only one.

Like my friend, why could I not see this in myself? Where was this same disconnect?

***

Over the years I’ve seen friends and teammates and roommates suffer from disordered eating. I saw them starve themselves and heard them put their fingers down their throats in the name of sex appeal and sundresses. But me? I love my meaty haunches and am proud that yes, I inherited my mother’s impressive linebacker-sized wingspan. My calves are thick but they’re agile and man, pedicurists may reel in horror when they see my feet, but those tiny fast twitch muscles have served me well over the years. I’m an athlete playing a bulky sport: I wasn’t chasing aesthetics, but achievement. But that vein of perfectionism — maybe it’s reaching a superficial goal for one person, or a peak performance for another — runs deep and dangerous. In this singular battle, our cruelest opponents can prove to be ourselves.

Unfortunately, both of these stories don’t represent the minority of female athletes in the States. And, with the rapidly globalizing world — and rapidly industrializing India — I can only surmise that these numbers may take a turn for the worse.

For years researchers believed that these health problems were specific only to the Western world where, in recent times, thin has been in. It’s a beautiful thing that body politics and ideals are colorfully varied the world over; however, Western influence is quickly creeping into the larger cities of India. Just look outside: women are buying skin bleaching cream and dressing in duds from the runways of Milan. It’s here, in these cosmopolitan, often middle-upper class settings where women are most at risk. Disordered eating is most commonly found in the more comfortable socioeconomic classes living in industrialized countries. And, it’s this burgeoning social circle of women in India who are now finding the extra time, money and agency to partake in athletics.

Here, the lack of knowledge among the athletic circuit about health problems in general (forget health problems specifically related to women athletes) in this quickly industrializing nation has some scary potential. One wonders if India’s unstable sporting world — one that has no infrastructural health education or support for athletes or coaches — is about to get even more rocked.

But what can be done?

Because we have the resources, let’s start at home in the States. Researchers suggest preemptive health testing and annual checkups and medical clearances. Unanimously, they urge education for athletes, for their coaches, for their administrators and anyone involved in sports to be aware of this growing issue and be sensitive and in-check with the state of their own well-being (in the case of the athlete) or that of the athlete they (in the case of the coaches, trainers, doctors, administrators, etc.) are looking out for. To educate ourselves and each other. But in nations — such as India — where less emphasis is put on the health and safety of the athletes (more often than not the funding, infrastructure and knowledge simply isn’t there) comes only second to winning…

what’s a girl to do?

I firmly believe in the stress I put on this topic. I stand as an example of a professed sportswoman, wannabe-sport sociologist and ramshackle fitness guru — things that should make me pretty aware and adept, right? — who just got slapped in the face with a moment of clarity. Even with education and resources available back  ever-athletic America, I still didn’t have a name for these struggles. Was it denial, or was it a blatant misunderstanding of a problem that’s plaguing thousands of female athletes across the globe?

Let’s start the discussion. It’s time to get the word out for our women, no?

For further reading on the body in society or the topic of globalization and eating disorders, please see:

  1. The Body in Society: and Introdution
  2. WomenSport International: Female Athlete Triad Task Force
  3. Eating Disorders and Cultures in Transition
  4. Eating and body image disturbances across cultures: a review