As we gear up for turkey day, it’s hard not to think about them: pretty, perky, and petite. As the Eagle cheerleaders take center stage, they are the center of attention, much of it focused on their appearance. And whether they are professional cheerleaders or college or high school level athletes, many struggle with body image issues and eating disorders.
“I love cheering, but feel like I am always on,” says Caitlyn, a cheerleader from Bensalem, Pa. Caitlyn began to develop signs of anorexia when she made the varsity cheerleading squad. “I am a flyer, and feel like I have to keep my weight down to perform well. I also want to look good in my uniform.”
Caitlyn’s situation is not unusual. Toni Torres-McGehee, Ph.D., an assistant professor of athletic training at the University of South Carolinastudied 136 Division-I and Division-II college cheerleaders to determine if position (base, flyer, etc.) and uniform style (full or midriff uniforms) affected eating disorder incidence or body image dissatisfaction. Participants were surveyed for weight, height and perceived ideal weight.
The study concluded that the cheerleaders were “highly disposed to eating disorders.” 33.1 percent had some risk of eating disorder characteristics and/or behaviors. Cheerleaders sporting belly-baring, midriff uniforms were most likely to have body-image issues. The position the cheerleaders played did not seem to significantly influence whether there were eating disorder or body image issues.
Eating disorders continue to rise among athletes, especially those involved in sports like cheerleading that place great emphasis on the athlete to be thin. This is a dangerous trend. Athletes with eating disorders are at a higher risk for medical complications such as electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrhythmias. Sports like cheerleading are physically strenuous and put pressure on the body. Athletes with eating disorders are also at greater risk for osteoporosis, severe dehydration and fatigue and kidney failure
In addition to concerns about revealing uniforms, cheerleaders often have perfectionistic tendencies, including competitiveness and fear of failure. There may be pressure from coaches to succeed. There is often a misconception about body size as it relates to peak performance. In fact, being undernourished decreases performance. Low weight does not compensate for lack of energy.
Identifying athletes with an eating disorder is not easy. They are often secretive or blame their eating and exercise regimen on their training goals.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to remember that help is out there. Seek the support of a therapist that works with eating disorders.