TORONTO—Eugenie Bouchard’s admission that she battled an eating disorder during her precipitous fall in the women’s tennis rankings came as no surprise to one former Olympian who now works as a sports psychology consultant to some of Canada’s top athletes.
Former elite runner Penny Werthner says female athletes are held to a much different standard than their male counterparts.
“The women athletes are criticized for what they wear, what they look like, whether they’re fat or not,” said Werthner, also dean of the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary.
“When was the last time someone commented on what (Novak) Djokovic looked like? Or (pointed out that Rafael) Nadal is short?”
Bouchard revealed earlier this week that she suffered from an eating disorder brought on by “a lot of pressure” following her 2014 breakthrough, when she finished the year ranked seventh in the world.
The career-high came after her loss to Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon final and semifinal appearances at the French Open and Australian Open.
The success that season quickly launched her to tennis superstardom, drawing cameras, media and fans wherever she went.
But the streak didn’t last. Her first match after the Wimbledon final was the Rogers Cup in Montreal, where the hometown favourite disappointed with a 6-0, 2-6, 6-0 loss to 113th-ranked qualifier Shelby Rogers.
It didn’t get much better as the year wore on—her ranking plummeted to 48th at the end of 2015.
Bouchard now says last year also featured a private battle to keep food down and maintain her weight.
“Starting 2015, I definitely felt a lot of pressure and expectations from the outside world and myself,” Bouchard said.
“I just felt so nervous, it was hard to eat before matches and sometimes at other meals, just hard to keep it down. I didn’t try to lose weight, but it definitely happened. It was definitely a cause of the stress. I’ve learned a lot from it, and I know I just have to force food down my throat even if I feel sick because I am burning so many calories.”
Werthner says the push to succeed is especially hard in tennis because it’s a solitary sport and comes with the added pressures of courting sponsors and endorsement deals.
And in general, she said, it can be especially hard for women to rebound from a loss because they tend to take failures personally, while men will sometimes place the blame elsewhere.
“You lose a match and then you lose a little bit of confidence and then maybe an eating disorder comes out of that or maybe it comes out of something else in her life that’s not directly related to competitive sport,” said Werthner, who has worked as a sports psychology consultant for the Canadian Olympic team since 1985.
Bouchard, currently ranked 47th, was eliminated from the French Open on Thursday after a second-round loss to Timea Bacsinszky.
Marbella Carlos of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Toronto says eating disorders are a coping mechanism and usually point to greater issues behind the scenes.
And they can be especially common in “aesthetic sports” like dance and gymnastics. She said tennis players also battle social stigmas that have nothing to do with their abilities.
“Even though they’re elite athletes and do these incredible things with their bodies they’re still looked at through a sexualized gaze, that definitely could have contributed as well,” she said.
Carlos hopes that Bouchard’s comments can help other people struggling with food issues.
“There are a lot, a lot of Canadians who are suffering in silence because there’s still a lot of shame and stigma that’s associated with mental illness and especially with eating disorders,” she said. “Typically people think eating disorders only strike a certain type of person but eating disorders affect people from all backgrounds, all ages, all genders, and all sizes.”