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Thread: Interview: Jenny Kirk on Figure Skating's Eating Disorder Epidemic

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    :) aftertherain's Avatar
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    News Interview: Jenny Kirk on Figure Skating's Eating Disorder Epidemic

    It comes in two parts. The second part is linked in the article. (Sorry if this has already been posted!)

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lesley..._b_430032.html

    Lesleyann Coker: How pervasive are eating disorders in figure skating? In your opinion, what percentage of skaters suffer from the disease?

    Jenny Kirk: Eating disorders are incredibly secretive. If one was to attend a skating competition, or even eat a meal with a skater, it would be really hard to pick out which skaters were and were not suffering from disordered eating. It wasn't until I was on tour, spending months at a time with the best skaters in the world, that I saw how prevalent disordered eating was amongst the top skaters in the sport. Based on my experience there, and after speaking with skaters after leaving the sport, I would say about 85% of skaters have suffered or are suffering with various forms of disordered eating.
    85%? That's a lot of skaters. What do you guys think about this?

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    Dreaming and dancing Bennett's Avatar
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    I have no idea about the %. Disordered eating and the eating disorder would be different. Yet, that still sounds a lot.

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    Go marry the quad if you love it so much DesertRoad's Avatar
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    I think this blog post from Jenny was linked here before, but it's relevant again:

    http://trueslant.com/jenniferkirk/20...-secret-shame/

    She goes into detail on what she observed on tour. I believe her. 85% may even be too conservative. These are people competing in an aesthetic sport in skin tight outfits, where so much, from jump rotations to spin positions are believed to be dependent on maintaining a slim figure. And most elite skaters start training from an early age. Then, as fans like to put it, the "puberty monster" hits. Once a growth spurt upends old technique, skaters may naturally try to lose weight to compensate and get back to their old form. And I think it's dead on what she said in the interview about control. A lot of times, disordered eating is about feeling a sense of some control over your life and destiny when you feel you don't have a lot of power otherwise. Like I said, skaters often start young. Kids often feel disempowered to begin with, and kids in a highly regimented training program even more so. And so much of their fate is controlled by a secretive panel of judges, whose decisions are often inconsistent and incomprehensible. Someone in that position would feel pretty helpless. And such an individual may look to the one thing s/he have a lot of control over: eating.

    Really, there are more than enough factors in elite skating to encourage disordered eating. Even if there was a concerted effort to fight it, it'd be an uphill battle, but it'd be a start.

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    Beliver in Sasha's Perfect Program Tinymavy15's Avatar
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    85% seems very high. I guess it depends on what you consider an eating "disorder." I think many skaters are very careful about what they eat and how much they eat during competition season, Johnny mentioned how little he eats during the regular season and how he gains 9-10 pounds in the spring/summer. I guess this coudl be considered a type of eating disorder but certainly not the disease that some people have. Once that person stops skating competitively they will eat like a "normal" person again.

  5. #5
    Go marry the quad if you love it so much DesertRoad's Avatar
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    It's not about what I consider an eating disorder. It's a disease with a working medical definition. It has very specific symptoms, some of which Jenny listed in her observations. And it's not a mindset that turns on and off depending on the circumstances, because it's not a rational choice.

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    Disordered eating can indeed mean various things. For example I have never suffered from anorexia or bulimia but I had about ten years during which controlling my eating was very obsessive and almost the central point of my life. It was kinda weird, I knew I could easily become anorexic so I kept eating even when I wasn't hungry, forced myself to eat, just to be sure not to fall that way but at the same time I made sure I wouldn't eat much fat or so. And this type of behaviour is definitely an eating disorder, although a less typical one. I would say it is very common among sportsmen (I'm a competitive ballroom and latin dancer).

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    I think a lot of people are food obsessed without necessarily having a specific eating disorder. I know people who are only comfortable eating alone or who have to leave food on their plates, this can be considered disordered eating, even though in both situations the person could be perfectly healthy and eating enough. Disordered eating could even be something as simple as eating in specific patterns, like taking one spoonful of yogurt after every three bites of sandwich. 85% does sound high, but in the US as a whole that rate is probably super high too. Just about every magazine and tv commercial, internet ad, etc boasts a new weight loss gimmick. I think it's also hard because in skating, like in other sports such as gymnastics, many athletes will go through puberty late and change a lot.

    Often times girls are very short and thin during the ages of 10 to say 14 or maybe even 16, so people assume they are just very small and will stay small, but really they are only small because they haven't hit puberty yet and most kids their age have. So then when they are 16 or 18 they finally go through puberty and often times will end up fairly tall and sturdy and will try to resist this. I was a competitive gymnast for many years and was 4'8" and 70 pounds at 12, 4'9" and 75 pounds at 13, then grew to 5'1" and 87 pounds at 14. Because I had grown 4 inches in a year, the doctors thought I was done growing, but I continued to get taller and gain weight throughout high school, at 15 5'2" and 98 pounds, 5'4" 108 pounds at 16, 5'4.5" 118 pounds at 17, 5'5" 122 pounds at 18 when I graduated high school and finally reached my real size. For a skater or a gymnast, being 5'1" and 87 pounds is more ideal than 5'5" and 122, but oftentimes you're body will just grow to the size it's meant to be. The rapid weight gain is scary though, when you are gaining 10 pounds a year for multiple years in a row without over-eating it will start to freak you out and you wonder how much longer it will go on for. Skaters like Kimmie Meissner, Mao Asada, Yu Na Kim, Caroline Zhang, Mirai Nagasu all went from being very short and very thin to fairly tall, strong ladies.

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    Meanwhile in a parallel universe .... theresa's Avatar
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    I think that at a certain extent, athletes will generally change the way they eat during the seasons of which they are competing. For example, basketball players and soccer players may bulk up on eating foods with carbs to give them the energy that they need to compete. However, I do believe that there is another case concerning figure skating. I am not surprised by the 85% that Jenny has said of the skaters that have eating disorders or irregular eating habits. there are skaters who are very concerned with the image that they have while skating and how the "imperfections" in their body may obstruct from their skating. Quite noticably, we have noticed that Plushenko is not in the form from his 2006 season and we have noticed that Caroline Zhang has grown taller and put on some little weight. Zhang's height has affected her skating as we have seen throughout this season. And with Plushenko, he himself has admitted that jumps are harder for him since he isnt at his perfect weight and as an audience we have seen the slow spins and footwork in his programs (these all attribute to his form). The slightest weight gain or growth in height can really change a skater in terms of his or her skating. So in all, while I am dismayed by the eating disorders and irregular eating habits, I am really not surprised or shocked.

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    Quote Originally Posted by theresa View Post
    I think that at a certain extent, athletes will generally change the way they eat during the seasons of which they are competing. For example, basketball players and soccer players may bulk up on eating foods with carbs to give them the energy that they need to compete. However, I do believe that there is another case concerning figure skating. I am not surprised by the 85% that Jenny has said of the skaters that have eating disorders or irregular eating habits. there are skaters who are very concerned with the image that they have while skating and how the "imperfections" in their body may obstruct from their skating. Quite noticably, we have noticed that Plushenko is not in the form from his 2006 season and we have noticed that Caroline Zhang has grown taller and put on some little weight. Zhang's height has affected her skating as we have seen throughout this season. And with Plushenko, he himself has admitted that jumps are harder for him since he isnt at his perfect weight and as an audience we have seen the slow spins and footwork in his programs (these all attribute to his form). The slightest weight gain or growth in height can really change a skater in terms of his or her skating. So in all, while I am dismayed by the eating disorders and irregular eating habits, I am really not surprised or shocked.
    Mirai has grown 4 inches and 30 pounds since she won the US title in 2008, there was an article talking about that, does this mean she re-learned everything during this time? I'm surprised she didn't lose her jumps completely during that time if height and weight change is really as big of a variable as you say.

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    Meanwhile in a parallel universe .... theresa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by silverlake22 View Post
    Mirai has grown 4 inches and 30 pounds since she won the US title in 2008, there was an article talking about that, does this mean she re-learned everything during this time? I'm surprised she didn't lose her jumps completely during that time if height and weight change is really as big of a variable as you say.
    Well with Mirai, she might have had a slight problem with readjusting her skating with her new height and weight. Dont also forget that in 2009 and even part of this season, Mirai had some trouble with her weight and height and also some confidence issues as well.

    Height and weight change are significant variables, for example look at the junior girls right now. Take Kanako, Polina, and Elizaveta for example. Currently they are the top women in the Juniors field. While they are in the top now, the same may not be said in about a couple of years. Especially with Polina who does not have the best technique with her jumps and her very skinny and lanky body. If Polina grows and fills out more, I really believe she will lose her jumps due to the change in her body. That is why so many Russian ladies, in particular, are above the field when they are competing in juniors. Yet they falter as they grow and fill out and are almost irrelevant in the senior field.

    Another example can be seen with Kimmie Meissner and how her weight change affected her skating and constinency.

  11. #11
    Custom Title Kitt's Avatar
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    85% does seem high, but let's face it, the average skater, ballerina, gymnast pays more attention to their diet than the average person. And maybe the average person needs to pay more attention, with the epidemic of obesity. But there is a fine line between paying attention and being obsessed.

    Johnny W. just said on his program that jumping with extra weight is like jumping with a backpack on, so naturally skaters are concerned about being lean.

    That being said, as an amateur skater and dancer, I do get sick of being on a diet! But the alternative.....*shudders*

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    Miss Kirks numbers are based on her observations and discussions with other skaters and are not based in any sort of science. They are likely colored by her own battle with an eating disorder. A recent study "Sungot-Borgen, J. & Torstveit, M.K. (2004). Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Elite Athletes is Higher Than in the General Population. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(1), 25-32." put the number at around 42% compared to about 9% for the general population. Significantly lower than Miss Kirks numbers but still high enough to be concerning. I have heard stories of certain training facilities requiring their pairs and dance girls to "weigh in" weekly. This practice is not conducive to a healthy environment as it promotes a fear level in the skaters of being "over wieght" rather than simply promoting healthy eating habits.

  13. #13
    Go marry the quad if you love it so much DesertRoad's Avatar
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    It would be silly to take her 85% number as anything definitive. However, from what I've read of her on eating disorders, she seems to have a good, technical grasp of its symptoms and workings. I find it entirely credible that a good majority of skaters she knows have eating disorders.

    And I'd wager that eating disorders are more prevalent in elite skaters than many other kinds of elite athletes. Skating is a sport with a great deal of emphasis on aesthetics and balance, things tied intimately to weight. And in pairs and ice dancing, the woman's weight directly affects the lifts.

    I would love it if Jenny starts an organization to bring attention to and help figure skaters with eating disorders.

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    Rink Rat i love to skate's Avatar
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    Jenny really shouldn't have put a percentage on the number of skaters with disordered eating but I don't think anyone is arguing that it is very prevelant. Many of these skaters probably suffer from The Female Athlete Triad as well. There is a great organization here in Canada - Bodysense - that has loads of information, resources, and gives presentations to clubs related to this subject. One of the supporting partners is Skate Canada which is great. The website is bodysense.ca if anyone is interested

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kitt View Post
    Johnny W. just said on his program that jumping with extra weight is like jumping with a backpack on, so naturally skaters are concerned about being lean.
    I remember reading something a while ago talking about the Scotvolds' analysis of Nancy Kerrigan's weight and jumps and how strict they were about it. At 115 lbs, Kerrigan could do her jumps and complete her programs in good competitive form. From 115-117 lbs, Kerrigan could do her jumps and complete her programs, but she'd be laboring her way through them. Anything over 117 lbs, and she would lose her jumps. Looking at many female skaters after their competitive days, it seems pretty obvious that there's been some pretty heavy dieting holding back what would be normal adolescent development. Even looking at Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin less than two years after the Olympics, it looks like they've gone through puberty at warp speed since they've gone off their competitive diets. Kathy Johnson has been very forthright about the kind of extreme dieting she was using to hold back puberty so she could make the 1984 Olympic team at the ripe old age of 25.

    Honestly, I doubt there are that many elite skaters who aren't pretty fixated on weight and dieting in some fashion or another, whether or not it's actually an eating disorder or not. I used to dance a lot, and when I would take class at the Broadway dance center in New York, whenever class was over the main topic of conversation would almost always gravitate towards dieting. I would imagine that the culture of "weight loss is always good" is very similar. Even Brian Boitano talked about the crazy diets he was on in the lead-up to the 1988 Olympics when he was doing press for his Food Network show. And personally, I always found Ekaterina Gordeeva's descriptions of how she had stopped eating in the weeks leading up to Sergei Grinkov's death (because they thought the extra weight would strain his injured back), rather disturbing rather than romantic.

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