As we've just come to the end of Eating Disorder Awareness Week and are coming up to International Women's Day, I wanted to take a minute to talk about these two topics. As a lot of people know, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 14. I am also a woman in professional endurance sport, which can be a complicated place to exist in. I think my experiences have given me a unique perspective on how the advancement of women, eating disorders and mental health, and sport performance are all related.
International Women's Day is usually a time to celebrate and appreciate the achievements of our "foremothers", while also highlighting the areas that still need to change. I feel so grateful to the generations that came before us for carving out a space for women to exist in the world of sport. Unlike my mother or my grandmother, I never had to fight for a place to play hockey, to be on the soccer team, or to ride a bike. Their dedication has made these pursuits not only available for girls and women, but (at least in my eyes) has made female participation in sport normal.
But women still face so much inequality in society. In the workplace, on the playing field, in politics, in Hollywood.... women are subjected to unfair treatment in so many different areas. However, the winds of change have picked up speed. It seems that, in the last six months, we have reached what will become a tipping point in history. There is a reason that Time's Person of the Year for 2017 was the "Silence Breakers" - women have spoken up and the flood gates have opened. We truly are on the precipice of change.
One of the issues that is commonly discussed in classrooms and on the internet is the unrealistic body standards that women are expected to adhere to. Body image is an important part of mental health, and society makes it hard for any woman to have a positive valuation of her body. We talk about self-love, self-care, and loving the soul inside the shell, but this... pressure still remains. I do believe that eliminating societal expectations about female bodies - not simply changing those expectations - is a necessary step for the advancement of women.
The prevalence of eating disorders in North America is often attributed to the unrealistic body expectations that society expects women to adhere to (or, at least, the body expectations that women feel pressured to adhere to). As I just talked about, this is a big factor and it is important. However, I've never met someone with an eating disorder whose sole underlying issue could be identified as body image. Rather, body image issues - just like the physical complications associated with eating disorders - are often a symptom of a deeper problem.
For me, anorexia was about far more than body image. In reality, it was about perfection. I had to be the best. My value as a person was tied to whether or not I was the smartest, fittest, and fastest. I felt that I had to truly stand out in order to be valued at the same level as my male peers; in order to be thought of as cool, or smart, or worthy of listenting to. Whether or not this was actually true is unknowable - but I can say that that is how I perceived my reality.
There are a lot of double standards for women today. The line between being a leader and being labelled as "bossy" is different for women than it is for men. So is the line between being "smart" and being a "know-it-all". For my entire adolescence, I felt obligated to hold myself to a higher standard of behaviour. In short, I felt this overwhelming need to be perfect... becuase that's where I perceived my value to society to be.
This need to be perfect... THAT's where my eating disorder came from. The body image issues were just another facet of that "perfect" mold I felt I had to fit into. When you combine these feelings with a lack of specific sport nutrition and training education, you end up with a precarious situation. For me... my situation descended into a cycle of chronic and severe undereating and overtraining, culminating in a hopsitalization and 8 years of learning how to UNlearn those habits.
So... why do I think eating disorders are an important topic to discuss on International Women's Day? Yes, I know that men experience these same pressures and mental illness. But not at the same, high rate as women. And I believe this is rooted in those unrealistic expectations of perfection we hold women to. In that stupid pedestal on which we have put the concept of the "ideal" woman.
Maybe these pressures don't really exist anymore. Maybe our society doesn't pressure woman to fulfill this unrealistic role. But I can tell you that as an adolescent female, it sure felt like it. And I suppose I just want to say, to ALL women today... that you don't have to be perfect, becuase perfection simply doesn't exist. There is no perfect body. There is no perfect mind. There is no perfect skillset or behaviour ideal. The only thing that you have to be is YOU!
Media plays a huge role in the public's perception of sport. For most young girls, their role models are restricted to who they see in the media. And what does the media feed them? Perfection.
I feel that it's still different for boys and men. If you're at the top of your sport, the way you look seems to play less of a role in media coverage and following. Women have it different. The media applies other filters than skill and personality when determining which women it will cover. And this leaves girls with a skewed representation and idea of what "success" looks like in sport.
It is hard to be a woman or girl in sport, because we have to really search to see representations of ourselves. And this contributes to that pressure to be perfect - that dangerous drive to perfection is the only way we can see to fit into what is still largely a "man's world".
But if we forget about media, and look at successful women in sport, we see a varied and colourful collage of different body types, personalities, and interests. There are so many powerful women in sport, and I think the media could do a much better job of promoting and valuing these women.
I think female participation in sport is a hugely important part of the advancement of women in society. But I think the standards of existence women face in sport are limiting women's potential. Until we get rid of this expectation of perfection, women will still face higher rates of mental health issues like eating disorders. And I think the media is in a position of power with regard to this issue.
I wrote this post to hopefully expand the conversation around eating disorders and the pressures that women face in sport. I can only speak to my own experience, but when I finally found the strength to exist within my OWN standards, rather than within the box that I felt expected to be in, sport and life became a lot more fulfilling. All I'm hoping to do with this post is get us talking and thinking. I know I've introduced a lot of ideas, but ultimately, what I hope you'll take away from this is a broader view of the causes of eating disorders and the pressures that our society places on women.