From the outside, it's hard to see a problem. All rowers look tired after practice if they've worked hard. That's the way it should be, right? However, lying behind the tired faces of some lightweight women rowers is a problem of immeasurable depth. And if you look close enough, you can see the difference in their fatigue. The truth is in their eyes. The fact is, far too many women who currently row in the lightweight division at the college level are participating in weight-loss tactics that may very well have long lasting damaging effects.

In the sport of rowing, both weight and height are advantageous. Height inevitably gives the rower a longer, more powerful stroke. Moreover, taller women weigh more. Weight plays an important part in rowing by allowing the rower more "hang" on the oar handle to finish the stroke and, in turn, pull with more power through the water or on the ergometer (rowing machine).
While it is true that there are exceptions to these basic "rules", they hold true for the most part. In order to make competition more aggressive, separate divisions--weight classes--have been created that separate heavier from lighter rowers. This serves as an opportunity for rowers who weigh less to compete at more advanced levels than they probably could if the groups were mixed. The cutoff weight for lightweight women at the college level is 135 in the fall season (with a boat average of 130), and 130 in the spring, which is usually the more intense racing season.

However, the problem arises with the "borderline" women (ranging from 134-138 in season). All too often these women attempt to "make weight" in hopes that they will be stronger in the lower weight class. Aside from the countless physical traumas they are put their bodies through, so too do they tax themselves mentally. I have witnessed some of the things these women do to make weight.

I'm sure that some people can't even fathom what it feels like. Some of these women work out two or more times a day and yet exist on less than 500 calories. Some will not eat (or drink!) up to 48 hours before they are supposed to weigh in-all the while continuing to practice and go about their daily activities.

Even inexperienced "borderliners" soon learn the various ways they can sweat off more weight if need be (many times from their coach). Imagine yourself in any of the following situations and imagine further that you are already significantly dehydrated: Sitting in hot, sauna-like baths for up to 30 minutes at a time. Sweat running, sweat biking, or even sweat rowing in five or more layers of clothing (this tactic works even better on hot sunny days). Sucking on skittles to attempt to get the saliva flowing in your already cotton-like mouth and spitting into cups. Layering up and sitting in cars with the heat blasting even though it's in the 90's outside.

Imagine feeling hunger pangs so great that you can only reason that your stomach is eating itself. Imagine pain so intense that you can't keep your mind on anything else. Then, imagine being so thirsty and wanting a drink so badly that you don't even care about that hunger pain anymore.

These women who are trying to make weight have a deeper, more intense look of exhaustion about them. You can see it in their eyes. It is more than the physical pain; they are miserable.

Ironically, the subculture of lightweights is created around food. It easily becomes the main focus of every conversation, replaced only with discussions about weight. "If I could, I'd eat that," or "I can't believe I ate that."

Like most other things that are desired and out of reach, food becomes an obsession. It is the enemy. The most difficult time is when the lightweight is alone. No teammates are around to talk about food with and no outsiders to see the lightweight "cheating". Not that they would even understand. No one possibly could until they experience it.

The most upsetting aspect of this whole lightweight "institution" is the fact that most of the time (or at least it was the case with the team in my study) the borderline women are being pressured to take these extreme weight loss measures. Most of the women know it is unhealthy. And yet they continue to starve themselves and sweat off weight. They even begin to carry around record levels of guilt paired with an increasingly unhealthy body-image. Keep in mind these women are working out two or three times a day. With intense levels of physical activity at such a competitive level, these women should be eating to perform, not worrying about how much they weigh or all that they can't eat.

It needs to be mentioned that not all lightweight rowers have to obsess about weight. Some don't even have to watch what they eat; they could weigh in eating donuts and still have pounds to spare. The point is that even one woman struggling with weight in such extreme ways is one too many.

There is already too much pressure for women to conform to the present societal standard of being either waif-like or completely muscular (or the increasingly popular fusion of both). Women should not feel the need or the pressure to "suck weight" in any aspect of their lives. It is especially depressing when it occurs while they are participating in sport which, by nature, is supposed to make women feel stronger, not weak or "fat" or out of control.

So where are the coaches? Where are the officials? Where are the nutritionists and doctors? Why hasn't anyone stepped in? The fact is, not only did many of the coaches in my study see what was going on, but they were also condoning these actions. For example, one of the rowers (who clearly should not have been rowing lightweight since she was significantly over 130 late in the season), wrote this in her journal: "I try to lose weight. I run all the time, I'm always exhausted, but I can't control my eating. I'll be really good for a while, but I can't hold out and I binge. But no more-[the head coach] said I have to weigh in or we don't race. So, of course they're condoning the fact that I have 9 pounds to lose. Hey, it's my fault, right?"

Only partially. The above rower is not to blame. Pressure to perform for the good of the team, to impress the coaches, to avoid looking weak in front of teammates. All of these pressures are far too real for women (as well as men) on a daily basis in institutional sports programs throughout the world. There is another example in this case study in which the rower felt that she could no longer handle the unending battle to lose weight. She states, "I told [the coach] what I've been going through in a plea for her to tell me not to row lightweight. But of course she said it's my decision. How can she expect me to say I won't do it? I have too many pressures. I'm not that strong.....[She] came up, said even though she knows it's the wrong decision, she needs me to row lightweight. Right."

Think about how difficult it must be to convince oneself otherwise after a confrontation such as the one above. It can be argued that a certain amount of pressure applied to team members by a coach is the only way to push the team to succeed. However, there has to be a line drawn between instilling a healthy, competitive "itch" into team members, and creating an environment so intensely unhealthy that the vision only includes one aspect: winning.

Far too many times, this has been shown to be the case at many institutions. Where's the proof? Well, it seems to me that for each and every woman who steps on a scale after sweating to the point of dehydration, or depriving themselves of excessive amounts of food and water, there has to be at least one coach behind them. And not only are these coaches fully aware of what is going on, but they also support the practice. The only people I encountered that were taking any stands toward alleviating this problem were fellow lightweight rowers. And I'm happy to say that I finally did witness them make a difference.

Halfway through my research there were surprise weigh-ins (the suggestion of one of the "natural" lightweights on the team that was the focus of my research) and the woman who was struggling was told she would no longer row lightweight. She had mixed emotions, since she had been rowing lightweight for seven years and it was what she lived and breathed during that time, but in the end she was relieved.

And who wouldn't be?