With the summer Olympics just wrapping up, all eyes were on more than 11,000 athletes. Their entire life is dedicated to, literally, being the best in the world. Can you imagine? Training every day to be judged at the finish line. Their daily schedule is mapped out to a T – customized to their sport, body type, strengths and weaknesses. As super Type-A personalities, more driven and competitive, they fit the mold of most people suffering with an eating disorder: Constantly comparing yourself since everyone else is competition. This comparison is the psychological driver of eating disorders in athletes, which is much more prevalent than you might think. Many might think that eating disorders in sports is a bit or an oxymoron, but it is a very real issue in society today that needs to be brought to the surface and examined.
In a world where there is so much pressure on beauty and body image in the media, we usually think of models, celebrities and selfie-consumed millennials to have a distorted self-image. Unfortunately, nobody is immune to an eating disorder. Fortunately, there are athletes speaking out with a brave voice to bring awareness to the awful secret so many people (both men and women) keep hidden. I have so much respect to these Olympians using their relevant platform to raise awareness for a secretive, life-threatening disease. The problems are no longer confined to eating disorders in college or high school, the greatest athletes in the world face the same challenges that we do.
Be prepared to be shocked, sad, and inspired from these true stories of athletes with eating disorders:
- Suzy Hamilton, long distance runner: After winning 9 NCAA titles, marrying her dream guy, landing a Pert’s Plus commercial, and many magazine covers, she had her ups and downs (literally falling down in her last Olympic race). She was ridiculed by her coaches for being more voluptuous which resulted in a breast reduction and bulimia. Fast forward a couple years, America’s sweetheart and straight-laced husband take an anniversary trip to Vegas ending in a sexual tryst with an escort. But “what stays in Vegas” doesn’t always happen: the lifestyle entices her and she quickly becomes successful in her new career as “Kelly” making $600/hour. In her recent ABC 20/20 interview, the wife, mother and former Olympian tells Elizabeth Vargas the second man she ever had sex with was her first client. Her competitive drive to win a gold medal was now focused at making the #1 spot of the Erotic Review. (Yes, there’s such a thing.) She found a ‘sport’ where her body was accepted, and became addicted to the wrong kind of attention. Finally, she sought help and was diagnosed bi-polar: 5% to 14% of individuals with bipolar disorder also have an eating disorder diagnoses. She talks about her tragic fall and recovery in her book Fast Girl: a Life Spent Running from Madness.
- Misty Hyman, swimmer: After suffering for almost a decade, Misty Hyman told USA Today (her first time publicly) about her struggle with bulimia. Even though those broad, strong shoulders help their performance in the water, it certainly doesn’t help them fit into proportionate clothing in the dressing room. Being in a swimsuit 40-plus hours a week doesn’t hide any physical insecurities either. Can you imagine trading in business casual for bikinis? Excruciating! But, surprisingly, her main struggle wasn’t body image:
“Binging and purging was my, I guess, outlet,” said Hyman, 37. “Part of it was my own insecurities; part of it was my own control, the sense of being in control or something I could control. It wasn’t strictly just a body image issue or strictly just, ‘I’m trying to perform better.’
- Mary Abbott, cyclist: Struggling with the lack of attention to female cyclists versus male cyclists, she “felt it would be easier to disappear than address the issues she was facing.” She took this to a literal translation and began to physically waste away from anorexia. Her performance started to drastically decline, but she was more determined to continue her downward spiral.
“The thinner I got, the weaker I got. I knew I didn’t mean to be thinner, but frankly my goal was not to race stronger, my goal was to race poorly so the ‘bike world’ would just leave me alone, and let me leave.” – Velour Magazine.
- Amanda Beard, swimmer: Struggling with bulimia for over 12 years, and after seven Olympic medals, Beard spoke publicly for the first time on a college campus. While going through puberty, between the age of 14-15, she was heavily scrutinized at a swim meet where peers joked she was “washed up” and said her career was over. AT 15 YEARS OLD. She began binging and purging up to 7 times a day, and constantly scouting for an unoccupied bathroom. Modeling for Playboy, Men’s Health, Maxim and FHM after college led to more criticism when pressured to lose 10 pounds within 2 weeks.
“I would be throwing up just blood because my throat was so wrecked. It should have scared the crap out of me, but it didn’t because being thin and pretty was my priority….the worst thing that you can tell people with body issues is, ‘you look great,’”
After years of therapy, marrying a supportive husband, and having a healthy baby boy, she has her eating disorder under control.
I had the privilege of hearing Amanda’s story at the Elisa Project Life Lesson Luncheon here in Dallas 2 years ago. This year, we are thrilled to have Nancy Kerrigan as the speaker since she just announced she would be involved in a documentary about eating disorders.
— Nancy Kerrigan (@NancyAKerrigan) May 3, 2016
- Over 1/3 of female athletes have symptoms of anorexia.
- Male athletes competing in sports with heavy emphasis on size, diet, weight and appearance are also at risk addressed in NEDA’s (National Eating Disorder Awareness) Coach and Athletic Training Toolkit. (Yes, even buff bodybuilders, wrestlers, and runners fall into this category.)
- Over HALF collegiate swimmers agreed “there are weight pressures in swimming” in a 2001 survey, and I can only imagine how much eating disorders among athletes have skyrocketed in the last decade of social media.
- Eating disorders in female athletes participating in judged sports have a whopping 13% rate of prevalence compared to 3% in the general population.
Eating Disorders affect approximately 30 million Americans and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
*I am not a professional, licensed therapist or doctor. I did not go to a treatment center to deal with my eating disorders that consumed my life into my late 20’s. By the grace of God, He guided me to recovery. Anytime I write or speak about this topic, it’s excruciating, exhausting and time consuming. Not so much about my experience, but the desire to hit the “right” points to make the most impact without being offensive, to help someone suffering, and desiring to deliver a “perfect” message which makes it hard to type an imperfect blog post. With all that said: these are my observations, perceptions and opinions about these brave souls sharing their stories about the significant connection between athletes and eating disorders. This is a topic that we will continue to address with more inspiring material on how to be confident with your body and take on positive body image activities as a natural way of life. After all, life is meant to be a beautiful adventure of joy and fulfillment.