On Eating Disorders And Being An Athlete In The Midst…

I appreciated receiving this article, written by Karen Crouse, which speaks to a very real problem in sports. It is also – I should point out – scarcely relegated to figure skating (the topic of the article) and related performing or aesthetic sports such as dancing, bodybuilding, and the like.  Rather, it has a much broader (and frankly insidious) grip on athletes around the globe. 

Eating disorders were something I grew up knowing plenty about – I was classically trained in ballet for over ten years, competitively figure skated for about sixteen years, and danced competitively in International Latin and American Smooth ballroom for seven years. In those arenas, thin is ALWAYS in.

Yikes.

Can weight make a difference in performance? Yes, absolutely. When it comes to one’s joints, or one’s ability to do the particularly acrobatic and athletic jumps and spins, it’s important we are at a weight healthy for our frame. Figure skating, for one, is a high impact sport and that takes a toll even on a healthy body. When we are unhealthy, those negative side effects can be multiplied many fold. However, a lot of it – a sometimes far heftier percentage – is about the “look.” And, when it becomes about our appearance, things can go downhill very quickly…

It isn’t only that I, like many athletes, was “young and impressionable” at the time – top athletes generally ARE on the younger side (remember that part about impact on the body?) Athletes begin training early, so there is certainly danger in implanting these injurious notions early on.

What is also a real issue, however, is that a focus on a person’s “weight” can suddenly have bearing on whether or not you are even “considered” for a winning position – that will change your tune pretty quick if you have goals of any kind. (Deny politics play a role in results? You’re kidding yourself!)

In ballroom, for example, if you aren’t groomed properly, you simply aren’t taken seriously. Period. It’s as easy as that. I’m not putting it down, I was in it…and LOVED it. But it was a horrible hassle, and I knew I didn’t really have a choice. Before a competition I needed to be:

  • Spray tanned…TWICE (because my pale skin wasn’t in)
  • Have my nails done (as in, they needed to be long and noticeable)
  • Have my hair professionally done every time I competed (multiple days, means days of hair-doing)
  • Professional makeup (fortunately I did this myself, but then half my suitcase was makeup I had to lug)
  • Make sure I was as fit as could be (wearing next to nothing / very revealing costumes…yes, people would notice if you gained a little extra. And they wouldn’t be shy about mentioning it)

Those things were prerequisites.  Then you added to that judge preferences like wearing tan fishnets or stockings (okay, no big deal, that helped “pull me in” a little so I stayed slim in that tiny costume…) But it was rough because if you didn’t take those “suggestions” you often were out of the running…before you even took the floor. No, I’m not kidding. Figure skating was a little less harsh on that front, but the pressure to “lose a little” was definitely an undercurrent.

I remember going to skating camp at Simsbury’s International Skating Center of Connecticut. I was in my mid to later teens (definitely the mesomorph of the group!) and I recall – very clearly – the younger skaters being worried about gaining weight. They wouldn’t eat ice cream, they would ask for coffee (at that age?!) with skim milk… They wouldn’t have chips…. Even back at our dorms, some would skip breakfast because they didn’t want to have too much (more Lucky Charms and Golden Grahams for me?)

Let me be clear, I am ALL about healthy, clean eating – it’s not about how I look so much as how it makes my body feel. My body is a “finely-tuned machine,” according to my doc, and it tells me what it needs. But when you are FIGURE SKATING…for HOURS A DAY…you burn more than a Clydesdale! I mean, it was craziness!!! These kids were WAY too young to worry about weight, not a single one had any inkling of a problem (which could impact joints, as athletic as skating can be), and they couldn’t enjoy themselves as a result – it was heartbreaking!

Now a days, the pressures are – apparently – still there. It was eye-opening to read that Brian Boitano (an idol I watched win his gold when I was ten years-old) was very much subjected to this, and wasn’t actually at peak performance (very likely) at that time. Hard to believe if you saw those jumps! It’s also saddening to hear that Adam Rippon has struggled with this as well. I love that they are open about it because eating disorders carry a lot of shame with them – speaking up and making it known that we are not alone can be enough to save someone afflicted from a life of suffering.

My disorders – Anorexia and Exercise Bulimia / Anorexia Athetica – were a result of something very different, but they nearly devoured me whole too. I thankfully managed to cruise through my sports both unscathed and unapologetically…but I was acutely aware of the oft-unspoken-about illnesses in the background. Having suffered through it later, knowing full well how damaging and dangerous such sickness can be, was testament to how powerful these diseases are… 

For many of athletes, body image is tightly wound around performance. . .which is tightly bound to our identities. Sometimes – to add fuel to the fire – that can be perpetuated by the people we look up to or rely on in the sport, as well as tied to our future success.

It’s a struggle to see the “good” sometimes – to see how strong we are, how well we are doing… It’s even harder to recognize…and then ADMIT…when we aren’t fueling ourselves the way we need to. I recently took back to the ice (on a VERY minor scale) but I’ll tell you…my legs are different. I can see it, I can feel it, and my body is asking for more carbohydrates and food. And…that’s what I give it if I need to. But like Adam Rippon, the mind will make a point to call out that we are doing something different – It’s like an internal guilt trip from the Ghost of Athletics Past!

Eating disorders are terrifying – like other addictive illnesses, they have the power to completely derail us, if not end our lives completely. While I refrain from “talking politics,” and don’t much care for celebrities shouting out their messages at the top of their lungs…there is some benefit in this particular arena. It is important to be honest and open because eating disorders are often highly isolating – we begin to decay on our own, and keep everyone at a distance while we whither away. The knowledge that we aren’t alone in our struggles it might help others find the strength and courage to seek treatment – one life saved is one life saved!

Truth be told, having had no one to look to during my own…? I would have LOVED to have this kind of hope to grab onto… 

 

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Things Are…And Aren’t…What They Appear To Be

I posted these photos on Instagram because, as an athlete, I’m often around other people exercising, aiming for fitness or sport goals, or in a sports class. Our goals, our aesthetics, our abilities, and our priorities are all different and I make a HUGE point to remind people that comparison is never a helpful tactic. But when I say that, I don’t just mean comparison to other people – what they have or don’t have, how they look or don’t look. . .  – I also mean that we need to be gentle with ourselves

Our own mirrors, cameras, eyeballs (!). . .can tell very different stories simply based on angle and lighting. Hell, time of DAY can make a difference too – did you just have a huge glass of water? Have you eaten three meals already? Are you a woman dealing with cyclical change?

Sometimes people say very kind things, but they say them in a way as if to put themselves down… That makes me crazy. We all have room for improvement, but we also all have a lot to be proud of. When we see images of people in “perfect” shape it’s easy to be hard on ourselves – because I’ve grown up in sports (which I consider a great thing!) I also have the side effect of always wanting to achieve. To – absolutely – my own detriment sometimes!

What we ourselves (a highly visual species) post on social media generally portrays the happy, the fun, the good, the ideal “stuff”…but not as much the rough patches, the blemishes, the mistakes. As with everything, we all have our own reasons for that…and tons OF them. For some of us, we look to one another for inspiration and motivation. We also like to share funny and personal tidbits along the way – we are connected to friends, after all. But it’s important not to forget the human element, and that there is more to what we see.

Lately, I’ve gone easier – I was down and out with a cold, I’ve been struggling with a back problem…it’s just been harder to push myself to the limit. BUT…I’m doing okay. I’m healthy and have a LOT to be thankful for (I’m serious, I could write a monster gratitude list off the cuff.)

Being off my game doesn’t mean I’m suddenly a horrible person or I’m not still doing a good job! I make little jabs at myself (NOT nice and NOT a good habit, ps – I work on that every day) but I’m never going back to depriving myself. Fortunately when I was doing that, I didn’t think I looked well at all, and it was not the result of wanting to change my figure. Still, that unhealthy propensity is there and it takes daily reminders sometimes that my own EYES can deceive me…just like yours and everyone else’s can. 

Social media definitely doesn’t help that case so I think showing that appearances are easy to alter is a positive thing. It’s okay to post the good and happy and pulled-together…but just don’t forget that everyone has imperfections. Lighting and angles also play a big part – both for good and for not-so-good. We aren’t getting professionally airbrushed like celebrities in Vogue (well, maybe some are!) but there’s still room for focal shifts!