As a high school freshman, I was five-foot-six and weighed roughly 95 lbs. That’s about 15 lbs underweight, given my age and height. Even so, I was still regarded as too tall to be a competitive gymnast. Whether people admit it or realize it, the judging and perception around women’s artistic gymnastics places enormous stress on a gymnast’s height and weight — many times at the cost of her physical and mental health. It shouldn’t be that way.
Women’s gymnastics has to become more accepting of different body types. What’s interesting and unique about this sport is that the judging can be very subjective. Unlike sports such as track, where the runner who crosses the finish line first is objectively the winner, much of a gymnast’s score is left up to the judge’s personal preference.
This becomes an issue when judges tend to prefer a very small, light girl’s quick, compact tumbling over a taller or larger girl’s more powerful tumbling. Coaches notice when their smaller athletes are scoring higher in subjective areas than their bigger girls.
And, you know what? The girls notice it too. And it hurts.
Gymnastics is a dazzling sport. It requires the athlete to be powerful and tenacious while being delicate and graceful in the same moment. There are few things more breathtaking than a flawless routine- toes pointed, arms and legs moving together in one fluid motion, a perfectly stuck landing. It’s a shame that so many of these magnificent athletes succumb to disordered eating and guilt from the pressure put on by coaches and judges to be smaller and lighter.
As wonderful as the sport is, it needs to be more forgiving when it comes to the physical builds of its athletes.
In 1993, Trent Petrie, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, published a study in “The Human Kinetics Journal,” which interviewed 215 collegiate gymnasts. The results were: only 22 percent of the gymnasts reported normal eating habits, and over 60 percent met the criteria for intermediate disordered eating habits.
A 2007 study by Harriet Salbach of the Clinic of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry looked at the BMIs of 50 elite gymnasts, 56 regular high school girls, and 58 female anorexia nervosa patients. The patients with anorexia had the lowest BMIs overall, which is no surprise, but the gymnasts were closer on the spectrum to the anorexic patients than they were to the high school girls.
I was lucky to be part of a (rare) program that didn’t cater to the norm of pushing athletes to a point of eating disorders and destroyed self-esteem. My coaches never guilted me for being too tall or not light enough. I happened to be underweight for most of my childhood because I was a picky-eater, and I was a gymnast who trained hard most days of the week. Naturally I burned a lot of calories and didn’t carry much fat. I’m not saying I didn’t think about my weight or try to keep it low, but I also didn’t spiral out of control like many gymnasts unfortunately do. It’s too easy for girls to fall into this trap and that needs to change.
Similar to being on the heavier side, being a tall gymnast is considered a huge disadvantage. For example, the average height of the USA Olympic Women’s Artistic Gymnastics team is 5 feet. Most girls more than a couple inches over 5 feet wouldn’t step into a gym at all. It’s understandable that people think this way because most of the girls who are in collegiate and Olympic gymnastics are generally small. The perception, however, that only small, thin girls can be gymnasts is wrong and it can have noticeable negative impacts on the physical and mental health of gymnasts who don’t fit that stereotype.
It’s disheartening to recall all the times someone has said to me “Aren’t you too tall to be a gymnast?” or “I thought gymnasts had to be really short and skinny.” Even today, four years after finishing my gymnastics career, if I mention that I was a gymnast, I’m met with a response along the lines of, “Oh that’s funny, you don’t really have the build of a gymnast.”
No, I’m not too tall to be a gymnast. No, gymnasts don’t have to be short to be successful. And no, I don’t really have the build of your stereotypical gymnast. But that didn’t stop me from winning three bronze medals for vault, four gold medals for bars, and first place on beam at State Championships. I won a lot, and my figure had nothing to do with it.
Grace Ferguson is a freshman studying the liberal arts.