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Figure Skating and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know
With the Winter Olympics being held earlier this year, top figure skating athletes like Gabrielle Daleman and Adam Rippon have shared their experiences with disordered eating and poor body image.
These stories have re-opened the dialogue about figure skating and eating disorders. In particular, it has drawn attention to the prevalence of eating disorders in this aesthetic-based sport and to factors that make the sport conducive to the development of an eating disorder. [7, 8]
Prevalence of Disordered Eating in Figure Skaters
So, just how prevalent are eating disorders in the sport of figure skating? It’s difficult to say, as research in this particular population is limited.
However, in studies that have been conducted on athletes in general, as well as more specific figure skating populations, this is what researchers have found:
- In general, most athletes with eating disorders are female. However, male athletes are also at risk, especially those competing in sports that tend to emphasize diet, appearance, size, and weight such as figure skating. 
- In weight-class sports (for example, wrestling, rowing, horse racing) and aesthetic sports (like figure skating, along with sports such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, swimming, and diving) about 33% of male athletes are affected by an eating disorder. 
- In female athletes in weight class and aesthetic sports, disordered eating occurs at estimates of up to 62%. 
- Among female high school athletes in aesthetic sports like figure skating, 41.5% reported disordered eating. Furthermore, they were eight times more likely to incur an injury than their non-disordered eating peers. 
- One study found that 35% of female and 10% of male college athletes were at risk for anorexia nervosa and 58% of female and 38% of male college athletes were at risk for bulimia nervosa. 
- The prevalence of eating disorders in college athletes is higher among dancers and the most elite college athletes, particularly those involved with sports that emphasize a lean physique or weight restriction (such as figure skating, wrestling, rowing). 
- One study found that 20.5% of competitive skaters reported having a history of an eating disorder and half of these reported still having an eating disorder. Furthermore, a majority of the skaters (62.5%) reported symptoms of anorexia. 
- In a study on the symptomology of eating disorders in Canadian competitive figure skaters, researchers found that 92.7% of the forty-one skaters surveyed reported pressure to lose weight. The skaters also indicated that in efforts to maintain the thin ideal encouraged by the sport, they engaged in various eating disorder behaviors in an attempt to control weight. 
- Female figure skaters are at risk of developing what is known as the Female Athlete Triad. This is a term used to describe the threefold condition of disordered eating, amenorrhea (or loss of menstrual cycle), and osteoporosis that commonly occurs in female athletes. Each of these conditions is a medical concern. Together they create serious health risks that may be life-threatening. There are many causes of the triad, but the pressure placed on young women to achieve or maintain a low body weight is often cited as an overarching force in development. [4, 6]
What Makes Figure Skaters More Susceptible to Eating Disorders?
Individuals who participate in aesthetic sports, such as figure skating, are at higher risk of developing disordered eating because they have the same risks as the general population, but also additional risks related to sports participation. In figure skating, this may include: [3, 6]
- Emphasis on leanness due to the thought that leanness promotes a competitive advantage either from a biomechanical standpoint (i.e., moving the body through space) or from a judging perspective based on appearance.
- Uniforms or attire worn in figure skating may increase weight and appearance concerns, facilitate competitive thinness, and unhealthy body comparisons.
- Judged sports, like figure skating, seem to have a higher incidence of dieting, a greater drive for thinness, and a higher incidence of disordered eating diagnoses when compared to refereed sports.
- Figure skating is a sport that often focuses on the individual rather than the entire team (such as basketball or soccer). This particular focus is a known risk factor for the development of an eating disorder in athletes.
- Feeling pressure associated with skating including the feeling that weight loss is required for the sport, needing to conform to aesthetic ideals of the sport, or to obtain better scores.
- Coaching that encourages body pre-occupation and the idea that leanness enhances performance and provides a competitive advantage.
- Similar personality traits, like perfectionism, which are found in eating disorder populations are also found in athletes like figure skaters. Perfectionism, while not always problematic, is a known risk factor for the development of eating disorders.
Like eating disorders in general, the etiology of eating disorders in figure skating is multifaceted. Similarly, recommended treatment is multifaceted and is ideally comprised of a multi-disciplinary team made up of mental health providers, medical providers, and dietitians. [3, 4]
Another factor to be considered in eating disorder prevention and treatment in figure skaters is the education of coaches, trainers, and other sports staff. These often trusted and respected individuals work closely with figure skaters.
With proper training and knowledge, they can help reduce skaters’ risk of developing an eating disorder or be able to help those who may be struggling to get the support that they need. [3, 4, 6]
Lastly, those figure skaters, like Gabrielle Daleman and Adam Rippon, who have discussed their experience with disordered eating and poor body image may be helping to reduce the stigma around eating disorders in figure skating and are likely contributing to an environment where more athletes are able to share their experience and seek support. [7, 8]
About the Author:
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework. She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.
References: National Eating Disorder Association. Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders on June 4, 2018.  Taylor, G. & Ste-Marie, D.M. (2001). Eating disorders symptoms in Canadian female pair and dance figure skaters. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 32, 21-28.  Thompson, R. A., & Sherman, R. T. (2010). Eating disorders in sport. New York: Routledge.  Bernstein, S.J. (2008). Starving to Win: An Exploration of Eating Disorders in Female Athletes. Columbia University Graduate Student Journal of Psychology, 10, 64-69.  Barkley, L.C. (2001). Prevalence of Eating Disorders Among Competitive Ice Skaters. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33, S96.  National Eating Disorder Association. Eating Disorders and Athletes. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/eating-disorders-athletes on June 4, 2018.  Stechyson, N. (February 12, 2018). Figure Skating’s Dark History Of Eating Disorders Worries Experts: Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman recently opened up about her own experiences. Huffington Post, Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/02/12/figure-skating-eating-disorders_a_23359385/  Crouse, K. (February 13, 2018). Adam Rippon on Quiet Starvation in Men’s Figure Skating. The New York Times, Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/sports/olympics/figure-skating-adam-rippon.html
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on June 26, 2018
Reviewed on June 26, 2018 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com