This Saturday afternoon, a moment before the college football game you're watching goes to commercial, the camera will settle on a line of cheerleaders. They will be beautiful, smiling and, in their midriff-baring outfits, thin—so very thin. A new study hints at why. Culling data from the anonymous responses of 136 college cheerleaders polled in 2009, the paper, "Prevalence of Eating Disorder Risk and Body Image in NCAA Collegiate Cheerleaders," details how a stunning 33% were at risk for some sort of nutrition-related illness. The cheerleaders most likely to have body-image issues, and the attendant disorders, were those whose outfits exposed their stomachs. No matter how wasp-waisted they already were, "they wanted to be smaller still," says Toni Torres-McGehee, an assistant professor of athletic training at South Carolina and the author of the study, which was presented this summer at the American College of Sports Medicine's annual meeting.
Who might be shaming these women into ever-tinier sizes? "The [cheerleading] coaches [have] a strong influence on a cheerleader's body image," Torres-McGehee says. Now she plans to petition the NCAA to address the problem in a systemic manner. An NCAA spokeswoman, however, says that because cheerleading is not a varsity sport, the NCAA has no oversight. South Carolina already is proactive. Torres-McGehee has put in place a rigorous set of mental screenings—looking for the risk behaviors (depression, unhappiness with body, laxative use) that accompany eating disorders—that all Gamecocks athletes must pass. When she's asked if these new standards grew out of her research, she says, "Absolutely."