The premise seems all wrong.
A figure skater who is performing better after gaining weight?
It just sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? After all we’ve been told about the dark side of figure skating for females and the prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating, the notion of a champion focused on nutrition, not calories or weight, and succeeding is refreshing and healthy and practically a cause for celebration.
So get comfy on the couch to watch the ice dancing competition at the Olympics tonight and watch closely the American team of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. The duo won the silver medal at the 2006 Olympics. Since that performance, Belbin has gained 10 pounds.
The details are in a New York Times article by Juliet Macur. The story depicts Belbin as not suffering from an eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia, but rather from disordered eating — irregular eating habits and severe calorie restrictions which often result from a distorted body image.
In figure skating — whether it be singles, pairs or ice dancing — thinness is a virtue and the image is of a willowy, wispy young woman gracefully floating around the ice. But willowy, wispy young women lack the muscle strength and endurance to train and to perform.
Weight concern for female athletes isn’t just an exercise in vanity. In sports like figure skating and gymnastics, where aesthetics count for part of your score, the look of the body matters. But even in other sports, like running, the mantra is that the lighter you are the faster you will go. (For a great read on eating disorders and running, see this 2005 article from Running Times.) It’s part of the culture of women’s sports — one that isn’t talked about often or in meaningful ways. So while there may be plenty of excellent information about how to be a healthy athlete — whether elite or recreational — the immediate messages from those around you can be powerful, especially if they come as an athlete is developing her athletic identity.
Which is why stories like Belbin’s seem so important. Because it’s not just about success and winning — it’s about taking back your health and your strength. Sometimes, success comes best when you ignore the conventional thoughts of the culture around you and develop your own authentic wisdom. It’s a difficult course to take, but one with the right mix of guidance, confidence and bravery, can make all the difference.