Friday, August 14, 2015

Female Athletes: Let's Focus on the Positive

I recently completed and interview composed of many questions related to running, training, nutrition, etc., etc. When I got to the last question however, I paused.

"What are your views on the female athlete triad?"

I thought for a few moment about how I wanted to answer this question. Sure, I know a lot about the female athlete triad. With my background in exercise physiology and nutrition, my dissertation study on appetite and female runners, and the fact that I'm a female athlete myself, yeah I know quite a bit about the female athlete triad.

The textbook description of the female athlete triad is a syndrome that can occur when women, often endurance athletes, have low energy intake or disordered eating, leading to the loss of the menstrual cycle (amenorrhea), resulting in low bone mineral density and possibly osteoporosis. It's a snowball effect, as one symptom impacts the next, with impacts the next, etc. It's all too common in endurance sports, and it has very serious negative health consequences. And we know this.

So why, then, do we put so much focus on it?

The female athlete triad is not breaking news. Not at all. It was given a name many, many years ago and dozens of research studies (dating back to the 80's), articles, books, documentaries, movies, podcasts, magazine articles, probably cassette tapes, CD's (what else am I missing from the 90s?), etc., have been produced on the female athlete triad. The triad's prevalence among athletes in sports such as running, swimming, cycling, gymnastics, and figure skating (to name a few) is well known. There are so many stories of female athletes who have "suffered" this path.

+++++++++ Role Models++++++++++

As a kid I was obsessed with gymnastics and I idolized Nadia Comeneci. There was a movie, Nadia, documenting her gymnastics career that I watched more than once. Despite winning a gold medal at the Olympics, what I remember most from the movie was the extreme training regime and eating disorder. I'm sure that wasn't the goal of the movie, but it was glamorized in sorts. Looking back, I don't think that was a great way to portray a strong female athlete. I looked up to this gymnast, and it told me was that eating disorders were part of being an Olympic champion.

Another memory I have is reading the book "Pretty Good for a Girl" when I was younger. I LOVED this book because it was about an female runner who could hold her own in a sport dominated by men. It was inspiring and I very much resonated with the story. BUT, it did place a lot of focus on the dark side of endurance sports:

"You are a girl. You are a girl and you want to show the world what you're made of, blood and steel and backbone, guts. So you start running. Running so all those eyes who see just a girl will know what you can do. Your legs take the hills, eat up the road, the sky, the birds, parts of your heart, strong through your chest and then your throat, stride by hungry stride. And you do it really well, too, you run and run and run. Better better best. Breathe and deeper breathe. Until the exhaustion creeps into your bones, steals the fire from your face." 

The book was about addiction, self-esteem, and the female athlete triad. But not in a good way. Kind of like the way the police officer in DARE told us that taking Ecstasy felt like a full body orgasm. But we should never take it because it's bad.


That really makes kids not want to take drugs. The same is true about celebrating eating disorders in female athletes. Is that really how we want to tell the story?

It seems that every book, movie, or article about a successful female athlete also focuses on the disordered eating. What message does that send? Yes, I think it's important to be open about struggles, but does every single story about a female athlete have to involve a struggle with food?

And if it does, let's actually be real about what it's like.....

Eating disorders are not attractive. They will not make sure you faster, more successful, or help with self esteem.  They are not sexy. And worst of all, there are some very serious health consequences. Like death. Sound good? I didn't think so.

+++++++++++Moving Forward+++++++++++

So, instead of always telling the same story, let's talk about some strong, successful, badass women who are kicking ass right now. Let's glamorize the hard work, dedication, and lifestyle they have chosen to lead. Isn't that a better way to inspire young athletes?

And, maybe, just maybe, if we don't always focus on the female athlete triad (at least in the media) someday there will be more books, articles, movies about strong, healthy women to look up to.