One-Minute Book Reviews

January 31, 2007

Joan Ryan’s Exposé of Abuses in Gymnastics and Figure Skating

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reporting,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:24 am

Aiming for the Olympics in a glamour sport can mean living with eating disorders, crippling injuries, and tyrannical coaches

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters: Revised Edition. By Joan Ryan. Warner, 243 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

You think the steroids scandals in baseball are bad? Try reading this chilling exposé of the exploitation of America’s best young gymnasts and figure skaters, which grew out of an award-winning series that Joan Ryan wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of the abuses described in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes are worse than any in baseball because they affect athletes who are much younger and more vulnerable.

Many people have written about the dangers of Olympic-level gymnastics and figure skating, such as the high risk of eating disorders. But Little Girls in Pretty Boxes unique for its powerful documentation of the abuses, typically through heartbreaking stories of well-known athletes and the physical and emotional damage they suffered at the hands of parents, coaches, and federations that ignored the obvious dangers in their sports. Ryan spoke with former stars like skater Elaine Zayak and the Bela Karolyi–coached gymnast Kristie Phillips about the lasting pain of their exploitation in their peak competitive years. She also interviewed the mother of Julissa Gomez, who died after breaking her neck on a practice vault at a meet in Tokyo.

First published a decade ago as a book for adults, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes has become a modern sports classic. It has also found a strong following among adolescent girls. It’s heartening to know that if adults don’t recognize all the dangers in glamour sports, this book may help young athletes spot them on their own.

Best line: “In staving off puberty to maintain the ‘ideal’ body shape, girls risk their health in ways their male counterparts never do. They starve themselves, for one, often in response to their coaches belittling insults about their bodies. Starving the body shuts down the menstrual cycle – the starving body knows it cannot support a fetus — and thus blocks the onset of puberty. It’s a dangerous strategy to save a career [in gymnastics or figure skating]. If a girl isn’t menstruating, she isn’t producing estrogen. Without estrogen, her bones weaken. She risks stunting her growth. She risks premature osteoporosis. She risks fractures in all bones, including her vertebrae, and she risks curvature of the spine. In several studies over the last decade, young female athletes who didn’t menstruate were found to have the bone densities of postmenopausal women in their 50s, 60 and 70s.”

Worst line: This book appeared in a revised second edition in 2000, so the text doesn’t reflect rules changes that have occurred since then.

Recommended … to parents and coaches of young gymnasts, figure skaters, dancers, cheerleaders and others involved in sports that favor the young, thin, and pretty. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes may also appeal to many teenage girls and adults who like books such as Alex Kuczynski’s recent Beauty Junkies. It is easily one of the best books — maybe the best — on women’s sports of the past ten years.

Published: 1996 (first edition), 2000 (revised second edition).

Furthermore: This book was made into a 1997 movie. If the direct link at the end of this line doesn’t work, search for Little Girls in Pretty Boxes at

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

1 Comment »

  1. I just wanted to say Joan Ryan got her facts on Tonya Harding wrong in the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. In the book she states Tonya Harding only landed the triple axel twice in her career-at the 1991 Nationals and at Skate America 1991. While .

    both of these are correct the author failed to note Tonya landed her triple axel on two other occasions-in the long program at the 1991 Worlds and at Skate America she landed the triple axel in both the short and long programs. It was noted at Skate America that it was the first time a female skater ever landed a triple axel in a short program. You can find the footage of these on YouTube very easily.

    Also while it is true Tonya battled weight issues throughout her career the reason Tonya failed to land the triple axel the following season was due to an injured ankle which was clearly evident at the 1992 Nationals in which Tonya skated in very evident pain.

    And FYI I am not a Tonya Harding fan I am just someone who followed figure skating very closely throughout the 90s (not so much since 1998) and remembers these events clearly. I had these competitions on VHS back then but lost them due to several moves but thanks to YouTube and a good memory remembers the facts very well and just wished to correct Ms. Ryan on her information regarding Tonya Harding.


    Comment by singlegirlpa66 — February 28, 2010 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

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