Editor’s note: This is the third and final story in a series discussing the issue of eating disorders among female athletes.
As disconcerting as it is, Addie Fullen’s eating disorder is far from rare among female athletes.
The former Fairmont State and Hurricane High softball star is entering her second year of active recovery work to overcome her disorder, which was first diagnosed in July 2017, and eventually led to a six-and-a-half-week inpatient stay at a recovery facility in North Carolina.
Since her return from treatment in December 2017, Fullen rejoined the Hurricane softball program as its outfield instructor and first-base coach, helping the Redskins win their fifth Class AAA state championship in six years. She also plans to return to school this fall to complete her degree in sports and exercise science.
The increased prevalence of eating disorders among female athletes over the population of male athletes — as well as over the general population of females — suggests that Fullen is far from alone in what she has experienced. In fact, the NCAA issued a missive in 2015 indicating that while genetic factors play a role in the development of eating disorders, so, too, do sociocultural factors and sports-related factors.
“The emphasis on reducing body weight/fat to enhance sport performance can result in weight pressures on the student-athlete from coaches (or even teammates) that increase the risk of restrictive dieting, as well as the use of pathogenic weight loss methods and disordered eating,” the statement, authored by Ron Thompson, reads.
Among these factors are the use of what the study terms, “revealing uniforms,” particularly among swimmers and volleyball players. The report states that a study used by the NCAA found that 45 percent of swimmers reported a revealing swimsuit as a stressor, and that revealing uniforms in volleyball “contributed to decreased body esteem but also distracted players and negatively affected sport performance.”
A study done by Vikki Krane of Bowling Green State University entitled, “Living the Paradox: Female Athletes Negotiate Femininity and Muscularity” surveyed 21 female student-athletes at an unnamed NCAA Division I university from the Midwest, and looked into numerous particularities regarding female sports, including uniforms. Its results are unsettling yet, to athletes such as Fullen, unsurprising.
The athletes in Krane’s study who participated in gymnastics, swimming and volleyball responded that they either looked too big in their uniforms or had concerns that they were being sexualized in those uniforms.
Fullen’s sport isn’t among those cited for uniform issues, but she neither is she in the dark about such concerns.
“I can understand why the eating disorder rate is so high (in those sports). As far as why they don’t change it is a case of ‘that’s how it’s always been,’” she said. “It’s very disturbing that this happens with high school and college females.”
Like the NCAA study, Krane’s work suggests a clear link between self-image and eating disorders among female athletes, and the issue goes well beyond a team or sport’s choice of uniform. The need to balance the demands of competitive sport with living up to the American ideal of female beauty is a considerable challenge for many female athletes, and it often results in self-destructive behavior.
Susan Cahn of the University at Buffalo, the editor of “Women and Sports in the United States: A Documentary Reader” and the author of “Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sports,” agrees that societal pressures placed upon females make for a potentially treacherous life for an athlete.
“There is far more pressure on girls, as girls in our culture, and then with sports because an athletic body is often a muscular body that gets bigger and needs calories to sustain it, which creates tensions,” Cahn wrote in an email in response to questions posed for this story.
Fullen said these issues were key in her case.
“Softball players are mostly known for their muscular, athletic bodies. Not all of them look like that, but most females who play softball are more muscular and athletic,” she said. “I’d always been on that side, but I wanted to be more feminine.
“I remember putting on tops and my arms don’t fit in them because my biceps are too big. That would be discouraging because I’d have to go up to a large or, like, clothing sizes were different and I was just bigger in general and more muscular.”
A survey modeled upon Krane’s was distributed to 20 former prep and college female athletes from West Virginia in June in attempt to corroborate Krane’s findings. While there was too much foreknowledge of the survey’s participants and the sample itself too small to yield what could be considered satisfactory scientific results, the survey’s open-ended questions produced several enlightening answers. Most of these suggested a desire for improved communication with coaches and the increased presence of females who can relate to their views of self-worth and body image.
“Many sports have male head coaches. Men tend to have a more ‘use your frustrations and ignore’ mentality,” one respondent — also a softball player — wrote.
“While that can work, (disordered eating and mental health) needs to be discussed. The discussions need to be encouraged and instigated by coaching staffs,” she wrote. “Player performance is an outcome of both physical and mental capabilities.
“Ask your players how they really feel. Dig deep, get into those conversations,” she continued. “At first it will be uncomfortable for some, but that barrier needs to be broken for that in-depth emotional support to be available. Coaches do care, that’s not the issue. It’s the lack of talking about the heavy stuff.”
For the record, 60 percent of respondents said they had been on a team with a teammate who had sought such treatment during their athletic careers. Beyond the immediate issue of eating disorders, there are two important issues that arise from her response that affect women’s sports, and those who participate in them.
In the Mountain East Conference, there currently are 98 women’s teams participating in a variety of sports, although Shepherd’s impending departure from the league at the start of the 2019-20 academic year will reduce the total number of teams to 93. Of those teams, 44 are coached by women, 44.9 percent of the total, and there are 47 female assistant coaches in the league.
The numbers at the high school level are even less encouraging for young women in need of guidance that goes beyond Xs and Os. There are 227 Class AAA teams, 40 percent of which are coached by women. In Class AA the number is 39.5 percent, and in Class A, 41.2 percent.
For men’s sports at both the MEC and prep levels, better than 99 percent of teams are coached by men. Yet it would be misguided to see this as a conspiracy against women coaching younger women. The fact of the matter is that fewer women enter the coaching ranks than do men. The question regarding this issue therefore asks why that is the case. Only when that answer comes to light and the conditions corrected, it would seem, would a substantial increase in the rate of women entering those ranks increase.
Hurricane softball coach Meg Stevens said she is proud of the way the Redskins program has fostered the growth of female coaching this decade.
“I think it’s really important to see a female in that leadership role,” said Stevens, who noted that she didn’t have any female coaches playing softball at Winfield High or Concord University.
“I give [former Hurricane coach] Josh Caldwell a lot of credit for that. He wants that positive relationship and knows that at times there’s going to be situations when they want a female to confide in,” Stevens said.
Fullen wasn’t the first former Redskin to join the Hurricane staff. Haley Byrd, a 2013 graduate, has served as an assistant in the past as well. Stevens said that former All-State second baseman and 2018 Mountain East Conference Player of the Year Madison Casto has the potential to be a great coach, should she follow that path after she gets her degree from West Virginia Wesleyan.
The concept of the “Female Athlete as ‘Other’” is also something that needs to change, Stevens said, adding that it is incumbent upon female athletes themselves to do their part in affecting such a change. She related a story about a highly recruited soccer player her team was looking at pictures of on social media, and how she was befuddled by the way in which her players were talking about that player.
“They were talking about what a perfect body she has,” Stevens said. “Now, if they were guys and it was a guy, they’d be talking about his stats and offers. With girls, they’re talking about her having a perfect body.”
That mindset is ingrained in players in no small part because it’s put forth from fans and observers, she said. Echoing Krane’s respondents who said that they felt they were appreciated for their looks rather than for their athletic achievement, Stevens offered a slice of real-life assessment of her 2018 state title team.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you have such a pretty team.’ Seriously. Now, can you imagine if someone said that about the Hurricane baseball team? It’s absurd.”
The survey also sought to address the amount of discussion and direction regarding eating disorders was taking place at various levels of competition. Being that basketball and softball players rely so heavily on out-of-season play in AAU and travel ball, coaches of those teams often have as much, if not more, access to prep players than do their high school coaches. Almost uniformly, respondents claimed that their out-of-season coaches completely neglected this element of player development.
“In high school, I would say that it’s not even talked about or even a thing,” Fullen said. “I don’t think they’re aware of it in high school and that’s where a big number of the population — depression, anxiety, eating disorders — they all start. That’s when they begin and that’s where you can start to see the signs.
“Travel ball? Not at all,” she said.
Fullen said the concept of increasing awareness regarding so many health and societal issues has possibly lost some of its meaning in recent years. Many people hear the terms “suicide”, “cancer”, “bullying,” and so forth much more often than they did in the past, but what is being done to improve any of these situations, she wonders.
“They say that there’s a lot of awareness (of mental health issues) brought to it but I don’t know where,” she said. “I think there needs to be more education. I’m a sports and exercise science major, and I’ve had a lot of sports psychology classes and psychology classes in general, and it’s not brought up enough.”
The coaching certification classes offered by the Secondary School Activities Commission that allowed Fullen to join the Hurricane program as an assistant barely touched on the issue, she said.
“We talk about [mental health], and it’s in the book, but is it brought up in the class? Not enough. Are eating disorders brought up in the class? No,” she said.
Secondary School Activities Commission Executive Director Bernie Dolan agreed to an interview for this series, but noted in his reply that “isn’t in my wheelhouse … not sure what I could contribute.” He did not respond to further requests, and an interview was not conducted.
Stevens added that social pressures against the expression of individuality, even in team sports, are more dangerous than they ever can be productive.
“I think it’s going to take educating all levels – parents, coaches and kids. We have this societal thing going on that all the kids are weak snowflakes, that they need yelled at,” she said. “If we still have that mentality out there, kids are afraid to speak up because they see it as weakness. That’s got to change.”
Asked what she would tell a young female athlete facing the world and struggling with her self-image, Fullen, after nearly 90 minutes of measured conversation, grew emphatic.
“I’ve been there, and I’ve gone through the pressure to look a certain way or be a certain way as an athlete,” she said, clutching her fists as they rested on the table.
“There’s that pressure, and there’s society’s pressure. No one [expletive] matters. No one matters but yourself: the way that you perceive yourself is so much stronger than what someone in high school says to you. That doesn’t mean anything.
“When someone tells you that you look terrible, or the clothes you’re wearing are ugly, or you’re fat, that means absolutely nothing. Only you know how you are and how strong you are, and what you think about yourself and how you think about yourself mean so much more than what anybody else thinks about you,” she said.