Ten years ago, Tammy Jones (not her real name) was the number one ranked junior tennis player in her section of the country. She was fielding scholarship offers from several major universities and, in the back of her mind, was even dreaming about life on the professional circuit. Traveling the world first class, playing tennis, making millions----those were Tammy's dreams.
Today, Tammy, age 27, has different dreams. She spends most of her time at home, lying in front of the television, too weak to move about her parent's house, let alone lift and swing a tennis racket. Her dream is to regain her health. Tammy weighs 85 pounds, is losing her hair, and is in a battle against an opponent much more frightening than anything she ever faced on a tennis court. The opponent? Anorexia nervosa!
Unfortunately, Tammy's tale is not unique. Approximately 1 % of adolescent girls will develop anorexia, a disease that causes it's victims to starve themselves, while 2-3 % will develop bulimia, whose sufferers follow a pattern of what is known as "binge" eating followed by induced vomiting, laxative abuse and other forms of "purging." Both illnesses can cause serious medical problems ranging from dangerous weight loss, damage to internal organs, hair loss, osteoporosis and even cardiac arrest and suicide.
We've all heard the horror stories of eating disorders and the damage they cause. Many from the entertainment world have gone public about their private battles as has tennis legend Billie Jean King and several other women on the professional tennis tour.
Aside from the celebrities that we read about, there are literally millions of young girls like Tammy Jones who suffer in relative anonymity. "Anorexia and bulimia tend to strike young women between the ages of 14 and 19 though cases have been reported in girls as young as 9 and women who are post-menopausal," says Leslie Dickstein, author of the article "Hungry Hearts."
In Tammy's case, her first bout with anorexia began at age 12. She was already the top tennis player in her area, was put up on the pedestal, and the words "prodigy" and "potential" were being used to describe her game.
Extremely serious and driven on the court, Tammy's life revolved around her tennis. Private lessons before school, group lessons and practice matches after school, and tournaments on the weekends. In addition, Tammy also had the stereotypical "tennis parents," demanding, pushy and strict, supposedly all in "Tammy's best interest."
What caused Tammy's anorexia? Who knows? It would be easy to simply blame the "tennis parent" syndrome for Tammy's problems, but it usually goes much deeper than that and is often a combination of factors that come together to cause such illnesses. "Just about any life stress can set the wheels in motion," says Dickstein. "The onset of puberty, starting college, ending a relationship or even a seemingly off-handed, benign comment made by a parent about a child's body," and yes, the stress of tennis.
"What's more, continues Dickstein, "because eating disorders tend to strike girls who are high achievers and people pleasers, those who suffer often feel such shame and embarrassment that they allow the condition to linger for years untreated."
While eating disorders are certainly not confined to the world of tennis, there are an alarming number of sufferers within our sport. If a child might have the emotional potential for the disease, the pressures of the game could very well be the proverbial "straw that breaks the camel's back."
As tennis players, parents or simply human beings, it is helpful to know the warning signs that a person with an eating disorder might exhibit. These signs are taken from Dickstein's article as it appeared in the New York Daily News.
A person might be suffering from anorexia if they:
- Are thin and keep getting thinner, losing 15% or more of their ideal body weight
- Continue to diet or restrict foods, even though they are not overweight
- Have a distorted body image---she feels fat even though she isn't
- Deny they are hungry
- Exercise obsessively
- Weigh themselves frequently
- Lose their hair or their hair begins to thin
- Feel cold even though the temperature is normal or only slightly cool
- Stop menstruating.
Bulimics tend to:
- Engage in binge eating
- Use the bathroom frequently after meals
- React to emotional stress by overeating
- Experience frequent fluctuations in weight
- Be unable to voluntarily stop eating
- Be obsessively concerned about weight
- Feel guilty or ashamed about eating
- Have depressive moods
- Have menstrual irregularities.
These are just a few of the potential signs that a person with anorexia or bulimia might display. Eating disorders are very real, potentially life-threatening diseases that are afflicting millions of youngsters around the world. By the way, eating disorders are not just restricted to girls. "Estimates say that up to 7 %of all anorexics may be male; up to 4 % for bulimia," says Leslie Dickstein.
In no way am I posing as an expert on eating disorders. However, these diseases have found their way into the tennis world. I, and many of my colleagues, have personally witnessed the physical and emotional damages that such diseases inflict on not only their victims, but also those who love them.
Look around, learn the warning signs, and above all, be aware. If you suspect someone is suffering from an eating disorder, don't step back. There are clinics in virtually every part of the world which specialize in such illnesses. Get involved -- someone's life may depend on it.