Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters is a 1995 nonfiction book by San Francisco Chronicle sports writer Joan Ryan detailing the difficult training regimens endured by young women in competitive sports such as gymnastics and ice skating …
Ryan’s material was largely derived from personal interviews with nearly 100 former gymnasts and figure skaters as well as trainers, sports psychologists, physiologists and other experts, focusing on the physical and emotional hardships young women endured …
While it was noted that Ryan presented a relatively one-sided, bleak view of the sport, ignoring successes like Mary Lou Retton, and also appeared to save particular vitriol for Bela Karolyi, Ryan’s general points have some support by medical experts, as in the New England Journal of Medicine’s 1996 report that described emotional and physical harm suffered by elite female gymnasts. …
I recall the media hyperbole well.
Friends called asking whether they should withdraw their daughters from Recreational Gymnastics.
That book and the 2003 CNN documentary about Parkettes — Achieving the Perfect 10 — stirred a lot of controversy and debate amongst gymnastics coaches.
Many, including me, felt both exaggerated some problems, ignoring the many benefits of elite sport training.
I found nothing inaccurate in Joan Ryan’s book, much as I tried. She’s a skilled and careful writer. Yet the message received by the general public was skewed.
“The essence of lying is in deception, not in words. A lie may be told by silence, by equivocation, by the accent on a syllable, by a glance of the eye attaching a peculiar significance to a sentence. All these kinds of lies are worse and baser by many degrees than a lie plainly worded. No form of blinded conscience is so far sunk as that which comforts itself for having deceived because the deception was by gesture or silence, instead of utterance.”
- John Ruskin
Fact is, gymnasts, even Elite gymnasts, are disproportionately healthy (overall) and successful in life.
Compare female gymnasts with their same age non-gymnast peers. At all ages.
Joan Ryan exaggerated the risk of eating disorders, in my opinion. To sell books.
Crotch shot on the cover. Surprise. Surprise. That’s a tell that that publisher is more interested in sales than accuracy.
She didn’t interview Rhythmic gymnasts about disordered eating. That book wouldn’t sell.
Ryan did not exaggerate, however, the risk of psychological abuse by elite coaches. In the era of Steve Nunno and Bela Karolyi, American coaches were too severe. Ryan’s book may have had some real impact in improving the gym culture.
Gymnastics Canada, for example, added an ethics module to all our coach education courses. Coaching ethics are far better now than they were in the early 1990s.
In 2013, I’ve got mixed feelings about Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.
Joan Ryan was interviewed in this week’s episode of GymCastic. I didn’t learn anything new from the author. But the podcast commentary was interesting.
GymCastic has a number of good links on that post including part of an Oprah episode: Kathy Johnson, Betty Okino, Kristie Phillips and parents of Julissa Gomez and Christy Henrich with Joan Ryan.
Click PLAY or watch it on YouTube.