Consider the gossamer-thin dresses with tiny skirts, bright lights, judges, and dozens of cameras capturing every square inch of skin. It's no wonder figure skating can deliver a fierce blow to the body image.
Canadian stars Kaetlyn Osmond and Meagan Duhamel can understand how an eating disorder can force a skater to back away from the sport, like American star Gracie Gold. The Olympic bronze medallist confirmed recently she was being treated for an eating disorder, along with anxiety and depression, and is sitting out the Grand Prix season.
"I can't say it surprises me, but it saddens me," said Duhamel, a two-time world pairs champion with partner Eric Radford. "You don't want anybody to have to experience something like that."
According to Canada's National Eating Disorder Information Centre, female athletes in aesthetic sports — figure skating, dance, gymnastics — were found to be at the highest risk for eating disorders. Athletes competing in weight-class sports such as wrestling and endurance sports such as distance running were also at an elevated risk.
"Skating is really hard, especially women's skating where we're judged in little tiny dresses," said Osmond, who captured her second Skate Canada International title this past weekend. "Definitely the way you see yourself makes a big difference, and it's really hard if you are a little bit heavier, the jumps are harder because you're putting more weight up into the air."
Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya, who captured gold at the Sochi Olympics at just 15, wowing the crowd with her "Schindler's List" program, opened up lately about her battles with anorexia. She said the disease dogged her for several years, and checked into a clinic last January. In her final competition, a Grand Prix last fall, the big jumps proved too much and she stopped mid-program, tears welling up. The judges allowed her to eventually finish her program, but she finished last.
"Ultimately, for me, weight is something I have to deal with every year, but I do it with food, because I love food," Osmond said. "But it's a struggle, it's something that I think about."
Duhamel, who with Radford captured the Skate Canada pairs title over the weekend, is all strength and power in her four-foot-nine frame, but it took her some time to accept her muscular body.
"I don't have a feminine lean body with these long lines, and I tried so hard to be able to get rid of some of the muscle and develop these lines, but you can't change genetics, you can't change your body in a healthy way to a certain extent," said the 31-year-old.
"Sometimes I would go home from competitions feeling so insecure, thinking 'Oh those girls in the changing room, they're so tiny.' I'm tiny, I just have a different body type, I'm more stocky, with a muscular body-type that's not seen as much in pairs skating. As I just got older, I accepted myself for what I have, and I learned I wouldn't be able to do the things I can do on the ice if I didn't have the body I have."
Duhamel said once started studying holistic nutrition — she's currently doing a certification program in sports and fitness nutrition — and became a vegan several years ago, she gained a greater understanding that "you can be in really great shape and enjoy food."
"You need to fuel your body and your mind. you can't focus for an entire day of training if you haven't eaten properly, if you haven't fuelled yourself properly. It goes beyond your body image, it goes to your focus, to your energy, to your sleep. All these things that are so important in your life are fuelled from nutrition."
It's unclear whether Gold will compete at the U.S. national championships for a spot on the Pyeongchang Olympic team. She was fourth at the Sochi Games, and part of the U.S. squad that won bronze in the team competition.
Duhamel and Osmond praised Gold for putting her health first.
"We don't want the sport to negatively affect somebody, and the fact that maybe being involved in a sport that is about performance and wearing these little dresses on the ice, to think that might have affected their life in such a negative way, it's sad and it's disappointing," Duhamel said. "Everybody wishes well for anybody who's going through that situation, and wants them to be able to come out the other side with an even better perspective."
Added Osmond: "The people who are dealing with it now, I have the utmost respect for them because this sport is really hard, it's hard on the body."