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health + wellness, india, sports

The dangerous games we play

Self-reflexivity is crucial to my research here in India. I play women’s rugby. I’m studying women’s rugby. I’m always comparing and contrasting my experiences and realities with those of the women I work with — they are innumerable.

As a participant-observer-researcher, I sometimes think that we couldn’t be more different; other times, our sameness is striking…and proves to be a wake up call.


My recent research focus has been looking into issues plaguing women’s sports on a global scale. I’ve hit three big ones: the incidence of sexual abuse; the understanding and presentation of sexuality in sports; and the rates of disordered eating & the female athlete triad, two issues that have proliferated in recent years due to globalization. All three topics have been noted by WomenSport International as some of the foremost problems seen in female athletics.

I recently sat down with an India women’s rugger friend who, in a former time, was a nationally competitive judo athlete. The world of weight-class sports is a notorious breeding ground for disordered eating (I refer here not only specifically to anorexia nervosa and bulima nervosa, but to a gradated spectrum of unhealthy dietary habits) and I wanted to know more about her experience.

I asked about her training methods.

She told me about the popularity of pre-match crash diets, the binging on bananas to instantly move up a weight class, her own skipping of meals and sun-up to sun-down training regimen and encouragement by her coaches to only eat sweet limes and lose weight at any cost. “The coaches don’t care,” she said “and the athletes will do anything to win.” After that description, I asked her about the specifics of eating disorders and what she knew. “Like anorexia? Or what’s the other one — bulimia? Yeah I don’t know… I think you only see that stuff happen in like, models.”

What? But you just said… There was an evident disconnect in her train of thought.

But why?

For my friend, was the “correct” training synonymous with disordered eating habits, thus making them passable and unnameable? Or was her lack of labeling symptomatic of a lack of health education?

It has been theorized that an individual’s need for control over their body is essential in the development of disordered eating. Bodily control — and pushing the boundaries of ones body — is a fundamental part of being an athlete. These two dangerously go hand-in-hand.

I started scouring articles and journals and conference presentations on the topic. I knew about eating disorders but the triad was something I had only heard of in passing. What was it all about? The term first coined in 1992, the triad is a three-pronged condition that, according to some sources, may affect as many as 66% of collegiate female athletes in the United States. The American College of Sports Medicine refers specifically to the different levels of three inter-related health problems found in women athletes: a) low energy availability (eating disorders), b) menstrual irregularities (amenorrhea) and c) bone loss (osteoporosis).

What I read were bullet-point lists, clinical rhetoric describing red flag warning signs and symptoms. Pages.

upon pages

and pages


Oh, my God.

then it hit me.

My cognitive film reel flashed back and I saw, in one fell swoop, the pieces of my own past simultaneously fell together:

the breaks, the stress fractures, the fatigue the slow healing time the cysts the groin pain the missing calories the weight loss the nine mile post-practice runs the distrust of my body and the obsession of why I couldn’t make my body perform how I wanted it to andIFitwasn’tgoingtothenIwasgoingtoMAKEit and


I choked up —

Half, because of my demons finally had a name, and half out of the sheer realization that:

Fuck. I’m not the only one.

Like my friend, why could I not see this in myself? Where was this same disconnect?


Over the years I’ve seen friends and teammates and roommates suffer from disordered eating. I saw them starve themselves and heard them put their fingers down their throats in the name of sex appeal and sundresses. But me? I love my meaty haunches and am proud that yes, I inherited my mother’s impressive linebacker-sized wingspan. My calves are thick but they’re agile and man, pedicurists may reel in horror when they see my feet, but those tiny fast twitch muscles have served me well over the years. I’m an athlete playing a bulky sport: I wasn’t chasing aesthetics, but achievement. But that vein of perfectionism — maybe it’s reaching a superficial goal for one person, or a peak performance for another — runs deep and dangerous. In this singular battle, our cruelest opponents can prove to be ourselves.

Unfortunately, both of these stories don’t represent the minority of female athletes in the States. And, with the rapidly globalizing world — and rapidly industrializing India — I can only surmise that these numbers may take a turn for the worse.

For years researchers believed that these health problems were specific only to the Western world where, in recent times, thin has been in. It’s a beautiful thing that body politics and ideals are colorfully varied the world over; however, Western influence is quickly creeping into the larger cities of India. Just look outside: women are buying skin bleaching cream and dressing in duds from the runways of Milan. It’s here, in these cosmopolitan, often middle-upper class settings where women are most at risk. Disordered eating is most commonly found in the more comfortable socioeconomic classes living in industrialized countries. And, it’s this burgeoning social circle of women in India who are now finding the extra time, money and agency to partake in athletics.

Here, the lack of knowledge among the athletic circuit about health problems in general (forget health problems specifically related to women athletes) in this quickly industrializing nation has some scary potential. One wonders if India’s unstable sporting world — one that has no infrastructural health education or support for athletes or coaches — is about to get even more rocked.

But what can be done?

Because we have the resources, let’s start at home in the States. Researchers suggest preemptive health testing and annual checkups and medical clearances. Unanimously, they urge education for athletes, for their coaches, for their administrators and anyone involved in sports to be aware of this growing issue and be sensitive and in-check with the state of their own well-being (in the case of the athlete) or that of the athlete they (in the case of the coaches, trainers, doctors, administrators, etc.) are looking out for. To educate ourselves and each other. But in nations — such as India — where less emphasis is put on the health and safety of the athletes (more often than not the funding, infrastructure and knowledge simply isn’t there) comes only second to winning…

what’s a girl to do?

I firmly believe in the stress I put on this topic. I stand as an example of a professed sportswoman, wannabe-sport sociologist and ramshackle fitness guru — things that should make me pretty aware and adept, right? — who just got slapped in the face with a moment of clarity. Even with education and resources available back  ever-athletic America, I still didn’t have a name for these struggles. Was it denial, or was it a blatant misunderstanding of a problem that’s plaguing thousands of female athletes across the globe?

Let’s start the discussion. It’s time to get the word out for our women, no?

For further reading on the body in society or the topic of globalization and eating disorders, please see:

  1. The Body in Society: and Introdution
  2. WomenSport International: Female Athlete Triad Task Force
  3. Eating Disorders and Cultures in Transition
  4. Eating and body image disturbances across cultures: a review



10 thoughts on “The dangerous games we play

  1. i believe that these obsessions with perfection, the idea that sports heroes never actually admit to pain because that’s admitting defeat so i’ll just ignore it until it goes away, and thoughts like “if i run just four more miles i can eat whatever i want”, are truer than most of us want to admit… because the problem is always someone else’s, and so much harder to admit as our own… i really enjoyed reading this so thank-you.

    Posted by Amanda Benton (@whtbout2ndbrkfs) | January 16, 2012, 4:04 pm
    • thanks much amanda, and i totally agree with you. i’m a firm believer in ‘no pain, no gain’: but — with that being said — at some point that thin line gets crossed and an athlete can risk heading into self-destructive territory.

      i go back and forth on this. if we’re not out there valorizing sweat blood tears bruises and broken bones (guilty as charrrrgeeed!) — something gets lost. being an athlete is about pushing beyond the normal limits (and, well, hopefully surviving)…if we are TOO conscious of “ouch, maybe I should stop.” — no one would get anywhere.

      but, like you said, in this instance we have such a tendency to otherize the problem and rationalize our own antics. i think -this- particular issue is not just about educating ourselves/each other in order to reign in these particular behavioral patterns… but also about taking that knowledge and developing the ability (as an athlete) to be able to look with clarity at our own actions (which is so, so hard), and able to turn our eyes critically toward the athletic system and find the gusto/self-knowledge to judge when ‘enough is enough.’

      Posted by Robin | January 17, 2012, 1:56 am
      • I just wanted to respond to what Robin says about the athletic system. As an athletic trainer the problem with our current system is that athletes and coaches view length/volume of workout as more valuable than technique and the efficiency of movement. Ultimately we need to train smarter not harder to truly gain the results we want on the field.

        Dara Torres is a perfect example of this. Remember her?–she was the 41 yr old swimmer who medaled in the last summer olympics! What were her tricks to beat her much younger fellow competitors? Train less but in those short sessions come fully focused and work on mastery of technique. She also trained for efficiency out of the pool in strength training workouts that included functional movements and valued her recovery days. Here is a really basic link if anyone is interested in finding out more about her: http://backtoformfitness.com/dara-torres/

        I think that the shift is coming but like anything will take time. At the college i work at the younger coaches are including functional lifts like the squat, deadlift, powerclean, and jerk. This is a step in the right direction of training smarter. (when i say functional i mean build strenght that will translate best in your respective sport versus lifting getting strong but only in the motion trained) Another positive change that I have seen is the switch from static stretching to a dynamic warm-up. Athletics seems to be moving in the right directions. We need more stories like Dara Torres to fuel the push.

        Posted by Laura Litwin | January 19, 2012, 8:27 am
  2. Very good Robs!

    Posted by Suzie | January 17, 2012, 7:22 am
  3. Robin, this is my favorite blog post of yours so far. It’s so TRUE and the deeper I go into the sports world and the more sports I participate in, the more I find this. I completely agree that people think that the female athlete triad and other issues are things that effect other people, other teams, other sports. Everyone wants to look at other teammates or teams instead of themselves. Coaches turn a blind eye because they want their team to perform well and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Same attitude for teammate…”well, if I think this person has an eating disorder but they are obviously healthy enough to compete and I don’t really want them to hate me so I’m not going to say anything”. This definitely inspired a blogpost for me. I’ll let you know when I finish =) Fantastic, as always.

    Posted by Tory | January 17, 2012, 9:35 am
  4. This is a wonderful post Robin! It’s amazing how sometimes we have to go halfway around the world to see things about ourselves… 🙂

    Posted by reenainindia | January 18, 2012, 2:31 pm
  5. Robin, I love this post. It really strikes a chord with me too. It is sometimes too easy for athletes to overlook disorders and the poor way they treat their bodies because it can be justified as the pursuit of what we see as a “noble” goal, versus image, which is seen as a “superficial” goal. But you’re right, we need to wake up, and realize that hurting our bodies is the same, regardless of the purpose, and we can;t justify it as means to an end, whatever the end may be. Thanks again for this post, really made me think.

    Posted by Carys | January 29, 2012, 11:16 am


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