It is no small secret that eating disorders plague the athletic world: the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), states that over one-third of female athletes exhibit disordered behaviors that put them "at-risk" for anorexia nervosa. Though most athletes with eating disorders are female, male athletes are also at risk—especially those competing in sports that often over-emphasize athlete’s diet, appearance, size, and weight, such as wrestling, bodybuilding, dancing, skating, crew, and running.
Periodically, an athlete will "come out" about their eating disorder. I did, months after I first entered treatment, and telling other people about my own personal darkness was incredibly frightening. People applauded my "courage" and many shared their own battles with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Recently, professional runner Amelia Boone wrote about her long, exhausting struggle with disordered eating (read it here). The athletic community is applauding her for the awareness she is helping to spread, and Amelia deserves every bit of this praise. More importantly, she deserves the space, time, and resources to fully recover. Anyone who struggles with any mental disorder deserves quality care and compassionate help. However, the obvious correlation between sport and eating disorders continues to be poorly addressed.
Coaches, teammates, spectators, and the media continue to normalize toxic, disordered behaviors. Until or unless the normalization and perpetuation of ultra-thin athletes is squandered, nothing will change.
The cycle of an athlete with an eating disorder looks something like this: an athlete sees/hears/learns/and internalizes that smaller=better. In order to be better (i.e. smaller), they begin restricting or purging. They experience a small bump in performance after losing a bit of weight, and the correlation seems too obvious to ignore. Restriction or purging become worse and worse until their life becomes a dark web of starvation and competition and training and isolation, until their bodies or brains break. This can take months, years, or decades.
Hopefully, they admit to themselves or to someone else that they have a problem. Hopefully, they seek treatment. Hopefully, they share their story. Hopefully, their story is poignant and impactful and shared enough to reach young athletes who are at the beginning of the cycle, who are first hearing/seeing/learning/internalizing that smaller=faster=better. Hopefully, the young athletes learn from these stories and avoid their own version of disordered eating.
But hope is not enough to safeguard young women and men against the life-threatening effects of an eating disorder. The stories of athletes who have come through eating disorders matter. But the only way stories matter is if they 're told, over and over again; repeated and colloquialized until the lesson the story teaches becomes nearly cliche. The story I would like to colloquilize is this:
-Your body is not your enemy.
-You are not a better athlete for starving yourself.
-There is no such thing as a "runner's body" or "dancer's body" or "skater's body."
-Those who comment on your body don't matter, so don't let them.
-Sport is about so much more than our bodies: teamwork, learning to fail, dedication, triumph in the face of adversity, integrity, hard work. Learn that nothing is ever as binary as it seems.
-Nothing about your own body gives you any sort of social capital over anyone else.
-Life will be a million times brighter, richer, more fulfilling, more soulful, if the size and shape of your body doesn't determine anything about how you live.
-Food is fuel. It is important, but don't give it more significance than it deserves.
-Respect everyone else.
-It is good to ask for help, if you need it, when you need it. Ask for clarity. Ask for guidance.
-Learn who to ask for help, clarity, or guidance. Choose people, activities, and places that lift you up and make your life more vibrant. Avoid those that don't.
-Train hard and smart. Eat good food and rest well. When it is time, you will be ready to fly, and the body that is flying will be yours. Be proud of that.
-Be grateful that you have a body that can run, skate, row, or dance, and keep dancing as long and as well as you possibly can.
P.S. Find more information from NEDA about athletes and eating disorders HERE, Check out Rachael Steil's Book/Blog Running in Silence for further resources, and read Roxanne Gay's riveting memoir Hunger.