Singapore athletes open up on long struggle with body image issues, call for early intervention

Singapore athletes open up on long struggle with body image issues, call for early intervention

SINGAPORE – For a long time, gymnastics was a game of numbers for Kathryn Chia.

On the competition floor, scores were an indication of her ability. Off it, the figures on the weighing scale determined the former rhythmic gymnast’s self-worth.

Pressured by the aesthetic standards in a sport that often focuses too much on appearance, calories were also carefully counted.

At 14, Kathryn’s daily diet comprised six grapes for breakfast, 20 baby spinach leaves and three mushrooms for lunch, and half a cup of milk for dinner.

Meals with family and friends became a dreaded affair for her because she was afraid that they would ask her to eat more than she wanted to.

Her insecurities about her body were further compounded by coaches who constantly remarked on her body.

One was a former coach in the national rhythmic gymnastics set-up who continually stressed the need to be slim.

Kathryn, now 16, said: “I was feeling particularly self-conscious and we were being pressured to lose weight.

“Not only did it hurt me mentally because I was always comparing myself to others and thinking about what I would eat and coming to training feeling a bit self-conscious, it really took away my passion for the sport.”

Wanting to start conversations about this topic in the gymnastics community, Kathryn, who moved to England to study two months ago, published a post about how she and 15 other local gymnasts struggled with body image issues on her website, ApotheKathryn.

Another Singapore gymnast, who declined to be named, resorted to eating a fruit a day out of fear that she would be punished by her coach in school for not losing weight.

Such punishments included being forced to issue an apology, to exercising till the point that she felt faint.

Rising up against culture of abuse in sport

In recent months, gymnasts worldwide have broken their silence against the culture of a sport that has tolerated the abuse of its athletes.

The release of the Netflix documentary Athlete A and the #GymnastAlliance movement this year have played a huge role in emboldening athletes globally to come forward about the abuse they had endured during their sporting careers.

Athlete A details how former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar abused the girls and young women in his care and how the association hid his misdeeds. Meanwhile, many have spoken up about the abuse they faced using the #GymnastAlliance hashtag on their social media posts.

But it is not just sexual abuse that gymnasts suffer at the hands of their handlers. In August, horror and outrage followed the naming of a coach to the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, with former trainees decrying the sport’s “toxic culture”.

One former Stanford gymnast, Hailee Hoffman, told The New York Times about how the coach, Mary Wright, had publicly ridiculed her, calling her stupid, lazy and fat, and pressured her to train while injured.

NYT added that Wright is now one of many coaches in New Zealand under investigation by an independent commission for emotional abuse, physical abuse and bullying.

Here in Singapore, former national women’s artistic gymnastics head coach Gerrit Beltman admitted to a Dutch newspaper in July to having previously “mistreated and humiliated young gymnasts to win medals” prior to his appointment at Singapore Gymnastics in August last year.

The Dutchman resigned from his post that same month to return to the Netherlands to be with his family but told The Straits Times that he wants to be accountable and renounce the person and coach he once was and that he hoped to contribute to the process of change.

Following the spate of abuse scandals, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) held a conference last month aimed at changing the practices in the sport and improving athlete safety.

The reports inspired those outside gymnastics too, with former national figure skater Yu Shuran, a 2017 SEA Games gold medallist, coming forward to reveal the horrific practices that were part of her training regimen while she was training in China.

The abuse she suffered included getting hit repeatedly by a plastic blade guard till her skin was raw and kicked by the toe-pick of her coach’s blade.

Athletes in sports that focus heavily on how one looks are at a higher risk of developing body image issues, said sports psychologist Edgar Tham from SportPsych Consulting.

He said: “It is quite clearly seen around the world because of expectations of their appearance and also the culture of the sport, which puts a lot of external pressure on them.

“Unfortunately, that’s what the culture of the sport propagates – if you fit in, you’ll be able to stay. If you don’t, you either find a way to fit or drop out.”

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How to approach weight-related issues

National synchronised swimmer Debbie Soh, who spoke to ST about her struggles with body image because of the aesthetic nature of her sport a few months ago, understands what it is like to deal with the pressures that Kathryn faced.

“When we join the sport, we don’t expect that this is what comes with it,” said Soh, a five-times SEA Games gold medallist. “Puberty changes your body a lot and a lot of girls don’t know how to deal with it. Sometimes coaches don’t realise that young girls are very insecure about their bodies, especially when it’s changing.”

The 22-year-old feels that educating young athletes about different body types and the changes that their bodies will go through is crucial, adding: “Get them before they go through it, not let them go through it and start to wonder what they should have done instead.”

National synchronised swimmer Debbie Soh has spoken about her struggles with body image because of the aesthetic nature of her sport. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Singapore Gymnastics did not respond when asked about Kathryn’s claims, but coaches that ST spoke to emphasised the need to approach weight-related issues carefully.

Victoria Karpenko, founder and head coach of private rhythmic gymnastics academy Karpenko Gymnastics Academy, said it was “hugely disappointing” that issues such as body-shaming still exist in the sport.

The two-time Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics national champion witnessed firsthand the treatment that gymnasts who were not naturally lean received while she was actively competing in Moscow.

The 33-year-old said: “I have seen it myself when competing and coaching over 30 years with the sport and not enough progress seems to have been made. Some girls are naturally leaner than others and it is heartbreaking to see those who are not so being targeted by coaches.”

Cherrie Kwek, Releve Rhythmic Gymnastics Academy head coach and founder, does not pressure any of the gymnasts she coaches to lose weight, but has seen several young gymnasts resort to drastic measures to lose weight.

Although the reason behind it may not always be linked to the sport, Kwek, a former national gymnast, believes it is crucial for coaches to intervene quickly in such situations.

Kwek, 29, said: “You can see when a girl starts dieting a lot, so it’s important to speak to the girl about (the reason behind it) and tell her it’s not good to lose all this muscle and weight excessively.”

Former national artistic gymnast Lim Heem Wei, who is now a coach at Singapore Gymnastics, noted the importance of being tactful when approaching weight-related issues as different athletes may perceive the same remark differently.

Although there may be a need to regulate an athlete’s weight to ensure that athletes do not put themselves at the risk of suffering injuries, Lim, the first gymnast from the Republic to qualify for the Olympics, stressed the need for a structured approach for these situations.

In such cases, she said that she would talk to the parent instead of raising the matter directly with the athlete. A dietitian or nutritionist and psychologist would also be involved in the process to make sure that the athlete’s well-being is taken care of.

With weight and body image issues just two of the many deep-seated problems that plague the sport worldwide, Lim believes a paradigm shift is required to change the culture.

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She gave an example of how Singapore Gymnastics has adopted a more process-driven approach to development rather than a goal-driven approach.

“They’re not going to tell you that you need to make this kid a national champion at eight because when you do that, then coaches will find ways for them to become champions at eight and then all these things start coming in,” said Lim, 31.

“It needs to be a culture across the entire national sports association (NSA) to make sure there is awareness and education. It’s not a one-off thing – it has to be constant, it has to be very structured so that it becomes the norm.”

If not dealt with properly, negative body image could lead to athletes developing eating disorders, said Tham, who has accompanied the Singapore contingent to major sports events like the Olympics and Asian Games.

“Sometimes it’s so subtle that they don’t even know,” he added.

There could also be adverse effects on the athlete’s mental health as they may experience social physique anxiety, which makes them extremely self-conscious around others.

Tham believes teaching athletes how to safeguard their mental health is key to changing the abusive practices that have been ingrained in a sport’s culture for years.

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He said: “There could be athletes who are suffering in silence without knowing that others are going through the same thing. There’s the need to raise awareness to watch out for signs, symptoms or certain mindsets that helps them to put a red flag to things if they see something.”

Raising awareness about abusive practices are also key pillars in Sport Singapore’s (SportSG) approach to safeguarding sport.

With issues relating to safe sport thrust into the spotlight in recent times, the national sports agency has ramped up its efforts to create a safe sporting environment for athletes. It is aiming to have at least one trained safeguarding officer in each NSA by the end of this year, and double this number by the end of next year.

The Safe Sport Commission was launched last year to clamp down on harassment and misconduct against athletes. Over 150 safeguarding officers have been trained and of the 64 NSAs, fewer than 10 have yet to appoint a safeguarding officer.

Head of CoachSG Azhar Yusof, who also oversees the Safe Sport Taskforce, said that more Safe Sport online modules for various stakeholders in the sports fraternity will be rolled out in the coming months. Coaches will also be taught about “acceptable practices” and how to identify signs and red flags.

Consequences for abusive coaches

Azhar acknowledged that coaches are instrumental in creating a safe environment for athletes, adding that “necessary action” will be taken against those who violate the Coach’s code of ethics.

Punishments vary according to the severity of each case and will be decided based on two factors: consequence and culpability.

If an allegation arises, CoachSG will conduct an initial investigation and a disciplinary panel may be convened to hear the case “if there are sufficient grounds” before the punishment is meted out, said Azhar, a former national rugby player.

This will run concurrently with police investigations if a police report has been made.

Following police investigations or a court’s final decision, the disciplinary panel may reconvene to decide if additional or more severe punishments such as termination or a life ban should be meted out.