Little Girls in Pretty Boxes
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, published by Doubleday Books. 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 for the sake of Olympic glory and was ultimately critical of training practices. She argues that the image of these athletes' beauty, glamour, class and sophistication conceals a troubled reality, with physical problems of eating disorders, weakened bones, stunted growth, debilitating and fatal injuries, psychological issues such as depression and low self-esteem, and life sacrifices of dropping out of school, losing the chance to "be a child", and becoming isolated from their peers and families. While decrying these practices, Ryan advocates for systemic change in figure skating and gymnastics, calling for raising minimum-age requirements, mandatory licensing of coaches and careful scrutiny by national governing bodies, and requiring athletes to remain in regular schools at least until they are 16.
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.
A made for television movie based on the book and starring Swoosie Kurtz and Courtney Peldon aired in 1997 on Lifetime Television. It portrayed a fictionalized account of a teenage girl whose family relocates to Los Angeles to pursue Olympic Gold with a difficult coach and rigorous schedule, drawing on many of the stories Ryan recounts in the book. It depicts young female gymnasts dealing with prescription painkiller abuse, skipping meals, enduring intimidation, and generally pushing their bodies to the breaking point in order to achieve perfection.
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