Book Review: Little Girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan
By Karen Tang
There is more than meets the eye when it comes to women’s gymnastics and figure skating.
From the outside, they are America’s sweethearts. Every four years, the world is captivated by these young girls and are awestruck at their skills that look impossible to do.
Not only do they look pristine and petite in their sparkly leotards and costumes, but they also strive to meet the perfect standards of coaches, teammates, parents and judges that live to criticize their every move.
In “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skating,” Joan Ryan pulls the curtain back on the dangers in both sports: severe injuries, emotional abuse, pressures from society, overbearing parents, strict coaches and eating disorders.
Through Ryan’s extensive research, she details the upbringings and fallouts of athletes that have sacrificed their lives for that slim chance of an Olympic dream, and questions whether or not broken dreams and bodies are worth the risk.
The book switches back and forth between the narratives of the athletes and the world of gymnastics and figure skating during the 1900s. Ryan navigates beautifully between chapters by breaking down the dramas that can appear in a gymnast’s or figure skater’s life.
Each section shows the physical and emotional hardships these young athletes go through: “In the meantime, their childhoods are gone. But they trade more than their childhoods for a shot at glory.”
From the outside we see these athletes as beautiful white swans. However, Ryan strips away the facade to expose the demanding and sometimes suicidal training regimes of these athletes. Ryan leaves a chilling effect when she describes the death of gymnast Christy Henrich and Julissa Gomez.
Gymnasts are expected not to show the physical and mental sufferings that their sport has on them, because showing pain or emotion is a sign of weakness. There is a flicker of unease in the reader here – questioning why would anyone be willing to put their life of the line. One coach said, “Gymnasts don’t so much retire as expire.”
Throughout the book, Ryan brings up how these athletes are worked to their breaking point on a daily basis. The road toward Olympic dreams is full of pain and suffering. Girls are taught at a very young age that image is everything.
Ryan emphasizes this notion by comparing a gymnast’s body to a ticking time clock. “The gymnasts’ race against time to transform themselves into perfect little machines before their bodies turn against them, swelling and rounding into a woman’s or simply giving out.”
Gymnasts and figure skaters feel required to maintain the body of an adolescent; otherwise, they are seen as undesirable. “The perfect skater in a combination of Twiggy and Barbie.” For many, it seems like a sin if one’s body hits puberty.
The ideal of a perfect physique manifested itself in the process of looking young and staying thin. For many gymnasts and figure skaters, food became the enemy. They would do anything to weigh as less as they possibly could. The result: anorexia, bulimia and the use of laxatives. “Like stress fractures and torn muscles, vomiting was simply another unavoidable insult her body would have to tolerate if she was going to survive in elite gymnastics.”
Taunts from parents and coaches were taken to heart. World-renowned gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, embodied the idea that the only way to win was to be thin. “You’re so fat! You just come in a pig out after workouts,” Karolyi said. “All you think about is food.”
Extreme dieting was likely to lead to weak bodies and injuries. Yet, no matter how big or small the injury was complaining was not tolerated. Karolyi’s philosophy was “if isn’t bleeding, then don’t worry about it.” Taking days off in such a time sensitive sport was not an option; instead, to ease the pain, gymnast would pop pills and take shots of cortisone.
“So what that I had a fractured back,” gymnast Betty Okino said. “I figured as long as I’m capable of moving my body and I’m not paralyzed and I could deal with the pain, I could keep trying.” According to Ryan’s research, many others had the mentality like Okino. The will to win was more important than their health and safety.
The parents too were often engulfed into their children’s Olympic fantasies. While many in the book have said they regret pressuring their children, they couldn’t help the addiction to the fame and fortune that could come out of an Olympian. They invested too much time and money in their daughter’s career for them to quit. “With so many of the parents treating their children like commodities, it begins to seem normal; and no matter how harsh a parent might be, he or she can always rationalize by finding a parent who’s worse.”
In retrospect, no parent wants to see their child hurt, but every parent wants to see their child win. However, as Ryan tells us – a gymnast’s chance of making it to the Olympics is virtually the same as winning the lottery. While someone does win, many end up disappointed.
Ultimately, the book is meant to give readers a more indepth look of these girls’ lives and the sacrifices they make. “We all get so caught up in the whole thing that we don’t ever stop to think, ‘This is a human being,’” gymnast Christy Henrich’s mother, Sandy Henrich said. The book begs any gymnast or figure skater to reflect on their experiences and ask “would you do it over again if you knew the consequence?”
Ryan’s book highlights the darkness and complexity of gymnastics and figure skating, and makes the reader question if they’d be willing to take a leap into that twisted world, as well.
Karen Tang is a Master’s Student at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism and a former gymnast for Maryland athletics.