Eating Disorders and the Olympics: Does How We Think About Athletes Pose a Risk?
The Olympics. From the opening ceremonies to the tally of medals, the Olympics is an event we love to watch. The Olympics represents the culmination or continuation of a dream for each athlete attending. A dream that often consumes their lives. And, at times, a dream that causes harm.
As Gracie Gold took a break from ice skating in January, she identified that she needed to pursue treatment for her mental health, broadly, and an eating disorder, more specifically. While we can applaud the courage it took for her to take a break and focus on her wellness, we can also question the environment in which she participated that brought her to that point.
Health, Exercise, and Culture
As a country, we idolize exercise. In fact, attitudes and trends have shifted from women being as focused on “thinspo” to being focused on “fitspo.” Research also shows that males are being pressured to have “fit” bodies, as well- with an emphasis on bulk and definition. As a result, it is not uncommon for me to see several clients in the same day mentioning they simply want to be “fit” and the role of “healthy” eating and “healthy” exercise to accomplish those goals.
Of course, I am not saying that there is no such thing as healthy eating or healthy exercise. But, as is often the case in our culture, we live in a world of extremes. If one piece of broccoli is good, a whole shake of broccoli (plus all the other so-called super foods) must be better. If running one mile is good, running a marathon must be better. Again, I mean no aspersions towards broccoli or running.
However, there is not an exponential benefit to any one particular food (or food group) or to exercise.
As we watch these athletes who have dedicated their lives to their sport, it is important to recognize what it takes to do so. A balanced and varied diet (purportedly, Michael Phelps eats upwards of 10,000 kcals per day to maintain his stamina). Constant and rigorous physical training (sometimes beyond the point of injury as when Keri Strung completed her second vault after injuring her left leg and had to land on one foot). And, a single-minded focus that when applied elsewhere would be seen as obsessive or compulsive.
Listening to Our Bodies
When we push people to ignore the cues and signals their bodies send them, we set them up for all sorts of problems later on. And, when our criteria of their “wellness” is how well they are performing at their sport, we seriously minimize the reality of the risky world in which these athletes exist.
I can’t tell you how many times I have had someone tell me they cannot recover from their eating disorder because, in their mind, the eating disorder is what makes them excel at their sport. Often, these clients who are living with internal turmoil are getting compliments and positive feedback from others based on their performance.
When our eyes turn towards the Olympics in South Korea, let us do so with greater awareness. And, let us focus on the athlete as a complete, complex, and multi-dimensional person. A person who has worth outside of their sport. A person who deserves to be able to treat their body well. A person who deserves to be celebrated for all that they are.
If you are an athlete struggling with eating or exercise behaviors, please don’t hesitate to reach out for additional support. We have a dietitian and several therapists who both specialize in working with athletes as well as being athletes, themselves. Contact our admissions office at (910) 790-9500 for additional information and to get scheduled.
Rachel Hendricks, LCSW specializes in working with clients who have had their eating disorder for ten or more years, clients with co-occurring substance use behaviors, as well as working with couples and families. She facilitates two groups: Motivation to Change and Declutter Class, and she is currently accepting referrals for both. She is excited to be making the transition to Wilmington from the Center for Eating Disorders in Baltimore, Maryland. Rachel looks forward to continuing her reputation for providing excellent clinical care in the field of behavioral health.