Review of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters
by Joan Ryan

by Lorrie Kim
Originally posted to skatefans-l@UDel.Edu on July 18, 1996

I read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes last winter. To me it is valid for Joan Ryan to focus on sports for girls/young women, and to single out gymnastics and figure skating rather than other pursuits with a high incidence of eating disorders. I believe her main argument was that 1) these sports are seen as the ideal of American young femininity, taken to an extreme -- much more than other girls' competitive pursuits, and 2) therefore, you will find the same disorders that are rampant among teenage girls, only normalized to the extent that people accept them as a necessary part of training.

I don't think she needed to include how male athletes also sustain horrific injuries or obsess about body image. She was arguing that coaches who control their female students with goads like "You're so fat, you look pregnant" are relying on the culture's prevalent disordered attitude to help them break down these girls' already vulnerable defenses.

I don't think it was sexist for Ryan to focus on young women. What's sexist is this culture which is so cruel to young women that people think disordered relationships to food are normal. Ryan was just pointing that out, and trying to shake people up into wondering if there isn't some way to coach champions without destroying their self-esteem and judgment, at an age when they should just be beginning to build those things.

I do have structural problems with her book. She started out with the thesis that what holds true for gymnastics holds true for skating. It seems like during the writing, she discovered that skating as a discipline is mentally healthier, even though it embodies the feminine ideal more closely -- disproving her original thesis that the two are directly correlated -- but she didn't do the overhaul that this discovery required. She also seems to have discovered that gymnastics interested her much more than skating. If I were her editor, I'd have told her to cut down the discussion of skating to maybe one chapter, and focus on gymnastics. Instead, she continued to pretend equal interest in both, and ended up with a book that says, "Look at these bad things about gymnastics. Oh, and everything I say is true about skating too, only less so, and I'm not sure because I didn't really research skating."

The perspective problem I have with this book is that she went into these sports with a point to prove, and then fit the evidence around it. I think her point is basically correct, but there is an unmistakable sense that she doesn't bother to understand and appreciate the sports on their own merits, on their own terms. It's like when you criticize your family for treating you badly, but then an outsider comes and criticizes your family for the same thing, and instead of feeling defended, you feel humiliated and resentful.

Well, I think this book has made a dent in gymnastics, and her plea for coaches to respect the girls' young teenage egos may be heard at least a little. I doubt this book has made much impact in skating, and I don't think it should.

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