Throughout many years, cheerleading has been believed to be an enjoyable group activity to stay fit and healthy. However, cheerleading has been a leading reason for eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia among all other sports. Bulimia is less severe than anorexia because bulimic people tend to consume a minimal quantity of calories, while anorexic people perceive their body as fatter than it actually is and starve themselves. However, they are both dangerous eating disorders that put the lives of those suffering from any of them in danger.
In fact, both social factors and psychological affect the development if eating disorders in cheerleaders. The social factors include: idealization of a standard weight, competition among the cheerleaders, and coach pressure. On another hand, the psychological factors include mainly understanding performance, demographic factors such as gender and race, and exercise orientation. Cheerleading is a sport in which the females get lifted and perform stunts often. That lead to the idealization of a standard weight for cheerleaders who get pressured by their coaches.
Borgen and Corbin (1987) found that female athletes involved in activities that emphasized leanness (ballet, gymnastics, body building, and cheerleading) more often had eating disorder symptoms similar to those of individuals with anorexia than female athletes in sports that did not emphasize leanness such as swimming, track and field, and volleyball(Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 320). In fact, the types of sports that emphasize leanness are feminine and demand a very light and lean body for the best performance. In addition, these types of sports usually count on appearance as a main opponent with their revealing uniforms.
In fact, cheerleaders’ appearance counts for their success: they wear revealing attires which highlight their bodies and make them very noticeable. So, people expect cheerleaders to be small and thin just like they expect sumo fighters to be fat and big. So, the girls feel pressured to meet people’s expectation because any slight additional weight will be noticed easily (Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 323-324). As the author said, they wear revealing costumes that increase body consciousness and dissatisfaction. They become perfectionists when it comes to their body which is one of the main causes of bulimia.
The girls will either develop subclinical eating disorders or clinical eating disorders (Thompson & Digsby, 2004, p. 85). The ones with subclinical eating disorders will not have severe lifetime consequences. However, the girls with the clinical eating disorders will suffer from lifetime consequences like problems with their periods or breast feeding. In addition to the standard weight and the competitive environment, another social factor would be the coach’s pressure. Coaches pressure some female cheerleaders to lose weight even when they’re below average weight.
One of the reasons is that those girls should be lifted by male cheerleaders in their routines. If the girl is not very light, the male cheerleaders risk being injured, therefore ruining the routine (Reel, J. J. & Gill, D. L. , 1996, p. 87). Coaches are so worried about the males tossing and lifting their cheerleaders that they ask the girls to maintain a weight standard below average. So, for any girl under 5 feet 7 inches, weight standard is set at a maximum of 120 pounds. The problem is that the cheerleaders believe that their coaches are right and that they should have the lowest weight possible. Reel, J. J. & Gill, D. L. , 1996, p. 88). Furthermore, they do not want to feel like they’re a heavy burden for the male cheerleaders lifting them. A coach claimed that smaller and thinner girls can demonstrate more flexibility and expertise when performing. In addition, Coaches do regular weight in for the cheerleaders so that adds more competition because each girl wants to be the best, in other words, she wants to be the lightest between all the other girls. As the social factors were discussed previously, there are also psychological factors that contribute into eating disorders.
First, there is the thought that a better performance (stunts, lifts) is due to a lighter weight. Like runners, gymnasts, figure skater, they should maintain a low body weight in order to give the best performance while stunting and performing (Thompson & Digsby, 2004, p. 85) Even though coaches believe that fat loss results in a better performance(Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 322) , research by Weltman (1990) found that every 5% fat loss decreases performance, capacity, and strength. As such, the coaches pressure the girls to keep a low weight, and by doing so, they are teaching the girls to miss-perceive their body.
Their body consciousness becomes negative because they feel like the always have to lose weight. In addition, under the psychological factors, there is the demographic factors are gender and race. A research by Johnson et al. (Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 318) showed that over 9% of female athletes had a certain eating disorder or disturbed eating and 58% were at risk, while less than 1% of the male athletes had eating problems and 38% appeared to be at risk. (Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 318). Simply, women tend to care more about their look and image than men.
In addition, men never feel the urge to look thin while women do most of the time. Gender, race, and certain activities that encourage being thin are significant factors for eating disorders (Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 318). By being female cheerleaders, the girl is already at many risks of having eating disorders even without the weight standard. First, all girls have some risk at having eating disorders. In addition, in cheerleading, appearance plays an important role. While practising or performing in front of large crowds, cheerleaders and other people would be comparing the girls’ bodies and looks.
When it comes to race (Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 319), Black women have a lower risk of having eating disorders than white women because thinness is not considered a “beauty” or “ideal” (Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 319) in the Black community. So, as 18% of black women use weight control and less than 23% diet, 33% of white women do that and 69% diet. Research show that gender and ethnicity are significant in the study of eating disorders (Thompson & Digsby, 2004, p. 85). The author conducted a study and the results were (Thompson & Digsby, 2004, p. 6): body dissatisfaction and dieting: 46% of the cheerleaders who responded to the questionnaires said that they trying to lose weight. When it came to race, 50% of black girls had body dissatisfaction while 73. 5% were white. “42. 6% responded by “usually” or “always” when asked if they’re “terrified of being overweight” (Thompson & Digsby, 2004, p. 86).
The girls with the most body dissatisfaction showed the most exercise orientation. The girls with the most body dissatisfaction showed the most exercise orientation (Thompson & Digsby, 2004, p. 87). Even though black females weighted more than white females, hite females reported more body dissatisfaction, more exercise orientation, and tried to lose more weight (Thompson & Digsby, 2004, p. 87). Moreover, high exercise orientation means more body consciousness, which can lead to eating disorders. We always assume or strongly believe that athletes are all healthy. Therefore, we tend to relate their success as a result of being healthy and fit. However, Ron Thompson says in his article “Athletes, Athletic Performance, and Eating Disorders: Healthier Alternatives” that “Yet in the name of commitment and competition, athletes engage in behaviors that are far from healthy.
This has become of increasing concern as a growing subpopulation of athletes is suffering from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other disordered eating patterns (Thompson & Sherman, 2003, p. 317)”. In addition, eating problems on different levels can eventually become serious and lead to eating disorders. One of the symptoms ignored by most coaches and athletic trainers are the athletes’ desires to be thin. When an athlete desires to be thinner while he’s already fit, he’s manifesting characteristics of a person with bulimia or anorexia (Thompson ; Sherman, 2003, p. 24). For bulimia specifically, excessive exercise is significant symptom. Some coaches view excessive exercise positively as motivation but it is actually not healthy and will result in exhaustion for the athlete (Thompson ; Sherman, 2003, p. 324). Different sports have been always idealized and shown to be the best way to perfect health and success. However, many people do not realize that even the most unaggressive sports, like cheerleading; can be the reason behind cases of death due to eating disorders (Woertmann, L. et al. ,2011 p. 209) .
In fact, there are two main reasons that drive cheerleaders to get eating disorders. The reasons are classified in two categories which are social and psychological. The social factors include the idealization of weight, coach pressure and the cheerleading environment. The psychological factors include thought of a better performance and body consciousness. Finally, it is important to note the symptoms of eating disorders that can be demographic, eating signs, and exercise information. Finally, while coaches try to change the girls’ weights, they have the biggest impact on the cheerleaders.
It is not acceptable because they’re putting their cheerleaders’ lives on risk. The possible solutions can be choosing stronger male lifters rather than lighter cheerleaders and making a mandatory training for all coaches. The coaches would take a “psychology of sports” class that would teach them how to treat their athletes.
Reel, J. J. ; Gill, D. L. (1996). Psychosocial factors related to eating disorders among high school and college female cheerleaders. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 195-206. Woertmann, L. et al. (2011). Contextual Body Image and Athletes’ Disordered Eating: The Contribution of Athletic Body Image to Disordered Eating in High Performance Women Athletes. Europpean Eating Disorders Review, 19(3), 201-315. Retrieved November 16, 2012, from the PubMed database. Thompson, R. ; Sherman R. (2003). The Last Word: Cheerleader Weight Standards. Eating Disorders, 11(1), 87-90. Thompson, S. ; Digsby S. (2004). A Preliminary Survey of Dieting, Body Dissatisfaction, and Eating Problems Among High School Cheerleaders. Journal of School Health, 74(3), 85-90.