This pressure, said Kroshus, can often lead to serious consequences. The National Eating Disorder Association characterizes an eating disorder as a mental illness, one that “include[s] extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.” While the common perception may be that those with eating disorders necessarily also have anxiety over their body images, the two are not mutually inclusive, experts say. As The American Psychiatric Association has stated, individuals can meet the criteria for an eating disorder if they exhibit “persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain,” whether or not this is directly related to self-image.
Those suffering from eating disorders are likely to have impaired physical, emotive, and cognitive functions. In fact, work done by University of North Carolina professor Patrick Sullivan indicates that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
While eating disorders are certainly present throughout the athletics, “disordered eating” is both more common on individual teams and more pervasive across teams. According to clinical psychologist Carrie Gottlieb, the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating is a matter of gradation. An athlete suffering from the latter is “engaged in some of the same behavior as those with eating disorders, but at a lesser frequency or lower level of severity.” Due to the similarity between the conditions, those with disordered eating may “be at risk for developing” the more acute eating disorder.
Since witnessing such disordered eating firsthand at Princeton, Kroshus has investigated the impact of teams in promoting healthy behaviors.
In a qualitative study of two analogous cross country programs, Kroshus found that runners were significantly more likely to respond to and report a team member’s potentially problematic eating habits when nutrition had been an open topic of discussion amongst the group throughout the season, rather than when dietary habits were largely kept to one’s self. Kroshus attributes much of this effect to the former situation’s positive eating culture created through emphases on constant communication from both coaches and captains.
“People may be internalizing [supposed team norms], or there may be explicit pressure from teammates,” said Bryn Austin, the director of Harvard’s Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders. “[Coaches] need to take a lot more responsibility for these types of things, [as] their expectations, whether they’re implied or explicit, can lead players to take desperate measures to try to control their weight.”
“IT’S A SHARED BURDEN”
For sports such as lightweight crew in which weight dictates whether or not one can compete in a given race, this pressure to control one’s eating habits becomes an obligation.
Consequently, for the men and women lightweight rowers, Friday afternoons mean one thing: weigh-in.
At 3 p.m., the women lightweight rowers take their turns climbing onto the scale at the boathouse, flitting their eyes across the screen to make sure their weight is less than 130 pounds. Just hours later, their male counterparts go through the same motions, hoping to make the 160-pound cut-off.
According to members of both teams, many rowers’ natural body weights are higher than the team-specific maxima, creating a situation in which the athletes must be continually aware of their caloric intake from the first day of the season—a cognizance that is amplified in the week before a race.
“I think a successful weigh-in is when you don’t need to starve yourself the day of,” said junior lightweight rower Tiffany M. Fonseca.
For senior lightweight rower Cameron J. Heron, “regimentation” would be the word to describe the seven days leading up to a weigh-in. Heron explained that on the Monday before a race, desserts, juices, and unnecessary calories will be eliminated from his diet, his focus on consuming proteins and vegetables. By Thursday, he restricts his diet to light foods, and on Friday, he says that rowers tend to “just eat what sustains [them] throughout the day,” as “whatever weight you put into your body [at that point] is going to be with you on weigh-ins.”
By the time of the Friday weigh-in, Heron said that he will have generally cut six to seven pounds off of his early-week weight.
The immediate necessity to weigh in at the right number largely results from the sense obligation rowers feel to their teammates.