Review: Pretty Girls in Little Boxes

Pretty Girls in Little Boxes by Joan Ryan

Everything I know about sports (and figure skating in particular) I learned from Johnny Weir. Let’s face it; I was a bookish and spiteful child, of course I hated sports with a passion as a kid. So my first forays into actually appreciating sport (beyond my own appreciation for physical fitness, which is much different) was discovering who Johnny Weir was and investigating men’s figure skating in late high school and early college. But that really has nothing to do with today’s title; an editor at Autostraddle mentioned reading it on a plane ride and enjoying it, so I added it to the list. (I feel like I’ve been bringing the boring recommendation stories lately. Let’s hope this changes soon.)

Pretty Girls in Little Boxes looks at the world of elite gymnasts and figure skaters and comes away absolutely horrified. After extensive interviews of those involved in the field, San Francisco Chronicle writer Joan Ryan presents stories of emotional abuse, eating disorders, and stunted growth, encouraged by coaches and parents to take part in a costly system whose chances of success—winning an Olympic medal—are slim at best. As the broken bones and, yes, bodies pile up, Ryan asks—what are we doing to our girls?

First things first—Pretty Girls in Little Boxes is sensationalistic. Ryan paints a picture of a grim machine that takes in bright-eyed, hopeful little girls and, quite literally, breaks them until they either leave or die. This might be cynical, but I was honestly surprised that she covered sexual abuse discreetly in two pages, given the amount of rubbernecking that’s going on here. And, to be brutally honest, that’s why I picked up the book; I wanted to be horrified. Ryan understands her audience completely, devoting barely a page and a half to advocating specific regulations and changes. This is not a nuanced portrait of figure skating in the 1990s; success stories are brought up under duress or glossed over, such as Brian Boitano and his extremely kind coach. But then again, Boitano is male, and Ryan argues that being a female skater or gymnast in this (well, that, it’s a sixteen year old book that hasn’t aged too well) environment is deadly.

This is not a feminist critique of the sport, which I would have loved—while Ryan looks at the situation through that lens a few times, most of the book is spent depicting the life stories of girls, women, and families who have suffered in this system. But it’s this angle I’m absolutely fascinated by. Female gymnasts, more so than figure skaters, are asked to maintain the body of a child during adolescence; Ryan is particularly fond of the example of Kathy Johnson, who famously didn’t start menstruating until age twenty-five and, less famously but no less horrifying, grew an inch at age twenty-eight. It’s this infantalization that makes them attractive to an audience. If you’re a little girl (or look like one), then you can’t be physically powerful, let alone intellectually powerful. On top of that, you can’t have a sexual orientation, so there’s no threat that you have an aggressive sexuality or are—gasp—queer. There’s no greater symbol of this by coaches—often big men who train little girls because it’s lucrative rather than a specific understanding of them—pressuring their gymnasts to starve themselves to delay menarche and, therefore, the development of their adult (and therefore potentially powerful) bodies. Figure skating comes with its own attendant host of issues, of course; I was particularly taken by the rather vivid illustration of the madonna/whore complex when Ryan described one of Nancy Kerrigan’s costumes as “a white lace costume that suggested both First Communion and Victoria’s Secret” (132). But Ryan focuses on the gymnasts and so will the reader.

Pretty Girls in Little Boxes is quite readable; while I read it over the course of a few days, I can easily see someone whipping through it in a few hours. Each chapter is devoted to one problematic aspect of the sport—injuries or coaches. But there is a bit of a narrative thrust in the book, and that comes from Bela Karolyi, whom Ryan loathes and makes the reader loathe as well. A Romanian ex-pat and gymnastics coach, Karolyi (as presented here) is ruthless, forcing girls to perform on broken limbs, taking medication to mask pain, and emotionally abusing them everyday. His highly visible status as the man who brought East Bloc teaching methods to the US earns him Ryan’s ire, but there’s also a bevy of other coaches and, especially, parents who are equally culpable, looking the other way when coaches get out of hand and pressuring their daughters to justify the immense sacrifices, both personal and financial, raising a child in this environment incurs. As I mentioned above, I don’t think it’s aged well—for starters, I’m led to believe that it’s out-of-print, and gymnastic and figure skating fervor no longer grips the United States. (That I am aware of.) But, when taking it with a grain of salt, it’s a interesting look into a seriously messed up system, as well as the mid-nineties.

Bottom line: Joan Ryan’s sensationalistic Pretty Girls in Little Boxes is an interesting and horrifying look into a serious messed up system, as well as the mid-nineties. But take it with a grain of salt.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Ryan, Joan. Pretty Girls in Little Boxes. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

10 thoughts on “Review: Pretty Girls in Little Boxes

  1. This book interests me as I was a gymnast and took lessons and even taught a gymnastics class for disabled children at Centenary College under Vannie Edwards. I also attended and later taught at Vannie’s camp in Mississippi.

    I never felt extraordinary pressure, but decided not to accept a scholarship to Centenary because I wanted to leave home for college. Nor was I ever Olympic material, even though this was before the Nadia Comaneci and the Romanian Revolution of gymnastics. Things were much looser and more fun before Nadia’s stunning performance.

    Later, after I had children, I took them to lessons when Vannie moved his training to Belcher, LA. Kathy Johnson was working with Vannie at the time and taught some of the classes.

    When I worked with him, he was a wonderful mentor, sometimes demanding, but never overbearing. We all loved him and his Mississippi camp was a joy, with gymnastics only a small part of the activities. This was all fairly early in his career, although he had already been an Olympic coach.

    Observing gymnastics for years after my involvement was finished was sometimes distasteful as I watched sports news about young Olympic hopefuls.

    • And I lived with Vannie from ’81 to the very end of his career, he had mellowed out quite a bit by then, it was very hard work for a 12 yr old, but the main adjustment really came from having my own checkbook (which was always wrong & the bank always overlooked), buying my own groceries, washing my own clothes, all while training, studying, teaching gymnastics at Centenary, and traveling often all weekend to meets and exhibitions. I found the coaching to be extremely strict, & rarely abusive. I know that Bela’s coaching does cross the line into abusive, I have close friends who have trained under him, I know that he makes gymnasts starve, hits on occasion, and is very verbally abusive, calling girls “cows” and “pigs” when they are quite thin. It depends on the coach and the coaching style and it’s history, after all, the Eastern Block countries that dominated the sport until the ’90’s had so much more at stake than Americans.

      • I should probably add that a girl did die from anorexia at 12, but it was not due to pressure from the coaches. These things do happen in the sport, there are injuries and surgeries galore, although I didn’t personally experience any abuse, these things do happen in the sport, especially in the Eastern Block Countries, girls are forced to train and compete with injuries more often than in any other sport I have ever witnessed. If you do not literally have a bone sticking out of your body through your skin, you are going to work out or compete unless you physically cannot do it, a coach will never ever bench you for being hurt, even if you have a bone broken in several places, or fractured and splintering, as 2 of my teammates did. I personally got off easy with a broken finger.

  2. Little girls in pretty boxes or pretty girls in little boxes? Title confused. Although they both do sound intriguing, I think I’d rather read the one about the little girls in pretty boxes; if I wanted the other, I’d watch tv. Thanks for the heads-up to a good read!

  3. I’d always understood that the “little girl” physique of female gymnasts was due to their greater flexibility, and that if their growth is stunted, then their bodies are lighter and thus easier to fling around in unnatural positions, rather than because audiences like watching girlish bodies as such. After all, male gymnasts often look similarly boyish rather than manly.

    Tim Kennemore once wrote a novel (for children or YA, I think) about a near-future where gymnastics has become a more popular spectator sport than football (at least in the UK), which I think covers a good deal of the abuses which Ryan mentions.

    • I think the argument is that the high-scoring gymnastic feats are easier to accomplish with girlish bodies, instead of the federation awarding higher scores to gymnastic feats only grown women can pull off.

      I’ll have to look that up!

  4. Pingback: Booking Through Thursday: Sporting | The Literary Omnivore

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