‘Little Girls in Pretty Boxes’ sadly remains relevant
By Lou Fancher
For every elite gymnast or figure skater profiled in sports journalist Joan Ryan’s book “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” there are hundreds of “what if’s.”
Published in 1995 and reissued in an updated 2018 paperback edition, Ryan’s scathing chronicle of the brutal, exploitive environment of young female athletes aiming for Olympic gold comes with a new introduction by Bay Area-based Ryan and a forward written by 2000 Olympic Games gymnast Jamie Dantzscher; both appear this weekend at Book Passage in Corte Madera.
Behind the anecdotes, articles, photos, official reports and medical records that prove connection between the sports’ training and competition practices and injuries, paralysis and even death, are the what ifs.
What if athletes, parents, coaches, advertisers, USA Gymnastics and U.S. Figure Skating officials and the public resisted admiration for undernourished, often-injured, waif-like girls? What if the costumes of young female athletes in attire Ryan suggests is simultaneously “First Communion and Victoria’s Secret” were seen as repulsive, not sparkly and virginal? What if national, world and Olympic competition standards for girls barely into their teen years didn’t increasingly demand daredevil, even life threatening, tricks to reach a perfect score?
The answer, obviously, is that countless girls would not binge, starve, vomit, perform on broken limbs and torn ligaments or practice more hours than a person under age 18 is allowed to lift fast food burgers. There would be fewer slow-motion, suicidal routines by teen girls desperate to be thin and less emotional or child sexual abuse by adults hiding behind the athletes’ astonishing acts performed on balance beams, floor mats or ice.
Certainly, there would not be more than 140 women, Dantzscher among them, on the stage at the 2018 ESPY Awards to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. “All we needed was one adult to stand between us and Larry Nassar,” said Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman.
Nassar is the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and Michigan State University physician sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, after pleading guilty to sexual assault. “Only in an environment in which abuse of all kinds is normalized could sexual abuse on this scale happen,” writes Dantzscher about Nassar in the book’s forward.
Dantzscher was the first gymnast to file a civil suit against USA Gymnastics and Nassar and the first Olympian to speak out publicly. Eventually, 265 women came forward to speak about the heinous crimes committed against them.
The women honored at the ESPYs received a long, standing ovation. What they deserved was safety from a world Ryan warned 23 years ago should be eradicated.
Arguably more shocking than stories and photos of girls who lost all sense of self-worth and frequently their physical health, or parents and coaches who lost their minds to ambition, is that it didn’t have to happen. Ryan tells of working in 2000 on an earlier update to “Little Girls.”
Nancy Thies Marshall, a former gymnast, had been hired to direct the USAG’s wellness program, an effort aimed at correcting problems outlined in Ryan’s book. A more than 100-page manual with 30 recommendations, a referral network, mentoring programs and other features had been created by Marshall.
Ryan phoned her, learning the program budget had been slashed by 50 percent in the late 1990s. Rendered ineffective by firewalls thrown up by powerful coaches and other forces, Marshall resigned in 2001. The manual lay dormant; the program, for all its early promise, a failure. Ironically, a forward to the manual written by Nassar praises it, and health care providers, for keeping the federation’s young athletes safe in future years.
Therefore, the supreme what if is this: What if it the culture that covered, condoned and codified the abuse after 1995 returns, goes underground and continues another cycle? Hopefully, responsibility for the answer will not lie in the hands of people like Nassar.