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Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Club: Little Girls in Pretty Boxes (and related thoughts)

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

Description: From starvation diets and debilitating injuries to the brutal tactics of tyrannical gymnastics guru Bela Karolyi, "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" portrays the horrors endured by girls at the hands of their coaches and sometimes their own families. An acclaimed expose that has already helped reform Olympic sports -- now updated to reflect the latest developments in women's gymnastics and figure skating -- it continues to plead for sanity, safety, and an end to our national obsession: winning at any cost.

My thoughts: I read this book some time ago based on the recommendation of a skating friend with a competitive background (she'd done synchro at a fairly high level for several years). The label "skating books" is a bit misleading, because Little Girls in Pretty Boxes focuses primarily on gymnasts rather than skaters - though author Joan Ryan does try to draw some parallels between the two. This is probably my chief complaint about LGiPB: it tries to cover quite a lot, but the narrative and arguments suffer from trying to write a combined take on two different sports with different problems (personally, I see skating as more similar to rhythmic than artistic gymnastics), and extending conclusions based on things going on in artistic gymnastics to skating seemed a bit forced in places.

Perhaps because of my own background involving academic research, I was uncomfortable with the way Ryan presented her material at times. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether she was writing based on anecdotes or based on recurring themes from her interviews, and sources weren't always cited in a meaningful way (e.g. "a recent study showed that..." - without noting whose study it was, where it was published, etc.). I wish these things had been clearer, because Ryan clearly had a wealth of material to draw upon. In this respect, I feel that Joy Goodwin did a better job with The Second Mark.

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes first came out in the mid-1990s, about a decade post-Mary Lou Retton and during the early years of the skating boom, although a newer edition was published in 2000. The version I read was the older one, however, and in retrospect I wish I'd been able to track down the 2000 edition, because I felt that what I read had not always aged well. A glaring example of this is the reference to Michelle Kwan as part of the "youngsters are taking over the sport" trend, which in hindsight turned out to be quite the opposite: Kwan did win her first World title at a young age, but her illustrious career spanned more than a decade.

In the years since, age limits have gone up, and the IJS makes it easier for older skaters to compete due to the greater emphasis on correct technique, skating skills, and non-jump elements compared to 6.0. Because of this, we have seen a fair number of older ladies at the top of the sport: current world champion Yuna Kim turns 23 next month, 2012 champion Carolina Kostner was 25, 2011 champion Miki Ando was 23 when she won, and Kwan's longtime rival Irina Slutskaya competed successfully into her late twenties. Pairs skaters and ice dancers are sometimes even older. So yay IJS for making it easier for mature skaters to succeed in the sport. To the best of my knowledge, gymnasts now have higher minimum ages limits, too, and I'm very happy about that. I was never much of a fan of seeing tiny teenagers perform acrobatic feats, even if they are amazing, hardworking athletes.

 25-year old Carolina Kostner on her way to the 2012 world title

This review is fairly critical of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, but I have to say that I definitely see a lot of merit in it as well. Ryan brought up some issues that needed to be addressed and I believe that while there's still a lot to do - as is clear from reading Jenny Kirk's post on eating disorders, as well as the recent interview with Mary Beth Marley touching on that subject - there have since been changes for the better. So in the end, I am torn: this was an interesting book that shined a light on important issues - but it could have been better.

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