Four years ago, I shared my struggles with anorexia and disordered eating by writing a book, Unsinkable. Journalists in the following weeks expressed disappointment that another athlete had an eating disorder. They had held me up as a strong woman who went after her dreams, and suddenly I was sharing one of my weaknesses.
One reporter said: "It's frustrating so many women struggle with body image issues, even one we assume is totally comfortable with her strength, turns out to have an eating disorder." I can understand her frustrations. I have a daughter myself, and know that finding role models for girls can be difficult; that is, girls and women who are confident in their bodies and with themselves.
Sports can be a great area to look for strong muscular women who seem at peace with their bodies. I look at the current women's rowing team and think, "Wow, what fast, strong and beautiful women!" With their height and their strong legs and backs, they won't be fitting into a model's size 4 anytime soon, but they are more beautiful to me in their strength and gutsiness.
I want my daughter to have many different images of what is beautiful, and her involvement in sport is hopefully drowning out the lithe, high cheekbones, super skinny girls/women covering the internet and our beauty magazines.
Eating disorders are about much more than wanting to fit a societal image of beautiful. They are part of more complex issues, and are often a response to abuse and trauma.
In my case, as with many girls and women, my eating disorder had its roots in anxiety and control. I was looking for ways to have control in a family life that was often out of control. The illusion I could control my body, specifically my weight, was messed up. Trying to keep my body in its prepubescent form was an exercise in futility.
I am a born mesomorph, a person who has only to look at a weight to gain muscle. In my teenage years the thought of gaining a pound was terrifying. Every pound seemed a confirmation of my lack of control. I was convinced my body was a slippery slope, and that if I gained two pounds I was liable to gain forty.
I also knew that gaining weight would be just another confirmation I was failing. I was undisciplined and therefore unlovable.
My thinking was self-destructive, and sadly, I spent most of my teen years and early twenties in this destructive self-dialogue and physical deprivation. When I look back on it, I am amazed at how much training I could tolerate with so little food. I also feel sadness, sadness for all the hundreds of hours my mind was consumed on what not to eat, rather than enjoying the fun and freedom of my university years.
I know this disorder has many causes, but the agony of starving oneself, the self loathing that comes with it, I wouldn't wish on anyone. Eating disorders are also difficult for families, who may feel powerless to stop it. Like any form of mental illness, intervention is key, getting professional help early and not playing down the severity of the behaviour.
Since speaking publicly about my eating disorder, many families have come forward, asking me to speak to their child, or to help them in different ways. I have learned about long waiting lists for intensive treatment, lack of knowledge from school counselors, and a shortage of trained counselors in many communities.
I have also heard stories of people who, most often through intensive therapy and devoted family support, got healthy again. For me, sport ultimately delivered me from my destructive habits. I reached a point where my goal to become a world champion got way more important than my need to control my body.
I had to let go of my controlling behaviours or not realize my dreams, so in my early twenties, my eating disorder faded into the background. I became more focused on rowing fast, more focused on strengthening my legs and less focused on calories. My eating disorder did not go away, however; it lay dormant waiting for times of extreme stress to reveal itself again.
Many years later I began to understand that to fully heal, I need to deal with the underlying issues behind the disordered eating. I needed to heal old wounds, understand how my past had warped parts of my personality, and to go about the business of developing real self-love. This was an epic emotional and spiritual journey, and through it, I began to understand my eating disorder was actually a pretty natural response to my childhood environment.
A mom with a personality disorder, conflict between parents, were issues that overwhelmed my young mind and spirit. There were many coping mechanisms that could have manifested, to create an illusion of control. Mine was an eating disorder. However, in my healing journey, I took my power back, and with that power came responsibility to move beyond the many behaviors that had stuck with me into adulthood.
I no longer experience an eating disorder or disordered eating. It has been a thirty-year journey to full and vibrant health.
The family and friends of someone with an eating disorder can find the situation a difficult one to broach. If you suspect an eating disorder in someone you love or you suspect one in yourself, please explore this site.
If you suspect an eating disorder in yourself you also can take this free, anonymous self-assessment to gauge your risk of an eating disorder here.