On World Eating Disorders Action Day, two-time English Schools 3000m gold medallist Sophia Parvizi-Wayne writes about how the pressures of the athletics world can take their toll when it comes to body image
Today (June 2) is the first official World Eating Disorders Action Day and in response to this worldwide recognition of need for awareness, I thought I would combine yesterday’s Global Running Day with today’s event and discuss eating disorders in athletes.
I have read numerous blogs about body image – some of them very relatable, some of them not as much. Every human now puts up with the strains of the social construct of body image; thigh gaps, thigh brows, well-tweezed eyebrows and lack of body hair. But the pressures on athletes are far less documented and very often, far more direct.
I am an endurance athlete myself, a two-time English Schools gold medallist who has run for England. Most people looking in would assume that I have always been the epitome of health because athletes are supposedly the healthiest people around or so we are told. Indeed, I am healthy both in mind and body now but the pressures of the athletics world did severely affect me four years ago.
Aged 14-15, our bodies change. Whether we like it or not, we gain weight in certain areas and start to develop hips and curves. Men hit puberty too but much later on but they too experience similar changes and the natural gain of “puppy fat”. As a consequence of this natural process, many runners experience a sudden stagnation or decline in their running because they are no longer the twiggy, hollow-legged tween they once were.
I was one of these teens but I saw it as a hindrance to my running and began to obsessively try and lose weight in order to fit the stereotype projected on to me. Being an athlete, I was naturally inclined to being slightly obsessive and took weight loss a step too far in order to become the “ideal” body shape.
Initially, I believed I was in control, however as the weight began to fall off, I began to lose sight of my goals, my dreams and myself. I no longer cared about my grades or even where I placed in races, because I was hooked on becoming something unattainable. With a good support network, I recovered very quickly, began a well-known campaign to get mental health on the national curriculum and won my first of many English Schools medals. But the issue didn’t lie in how I felt, but why I felt it?
Even at my lowest weight when I had been medically banned from running, an older coach at the local athletics track informed me that I was “silly not to be running”.
“There are girls much thinner than you here, Sophia, and they are still running,” he told me, as I stood shivering with a BMI of 14. Now, I don’t blame him but the issue lies in lack of education. Firstly, he should have known what would trigger a girl with an eating disorder and, secondly, he should have understood that the “lighter the faster” only works up until a point.
My turning point came only a week after I had run the fastest time in 2012 in the UK for an under-17 in the steeplechase. It was the London Youth Games and despite knowing I should have won, I ended up third. However it wasn’t the place that mattered, it was how I felt. I was cold, I was tired and worst of all, I was depressed. That was my last race of the year.
Of course, weight plays a significant part in being an athlete and I am by no means advocating that anyone has to be a certain weight. I am naturally slight but I also carry a lot of muscle. My muscularity has always been my strong point when it has come to my running. It helps me plough through wind, sprint up Parliament Hill during Nationals and is a part of who I am.
However this year, I have been told that I am “bulky” and “larger than your average distance runner” by a fellow training partner. My close friend in Australia – an international junior too – was recently told that the cellulite on the back of her legs was “embarrassing” and another athlete was told by her coach that she had to lose six kilos when she was already underweight.
Another athlete in the UK, who has recently been gaining weight to combat numerous stress fractures due to low body mass, was told by a man on her team that she “shouldn’t worry as the weight should come back off when she starts training again”. Many runner suffer from amenorrhea (a lack of periods) but it is rarely mentioned because it has become normalised. All these examples aren’t malicious but ignorant. We all have different bodies, we all race at different weights and we should never have to conform to any stereotype.
Of course we are athletes and our bodies are machines but we are also people and these comments naturally will affect us. However, it isn’t just the emphasis on appearance or weight requirements that makes athletes more prone to eating disorders or the fact that there is an over-valued belief that lower body weight will improve performance.
Running is also difficult because the sport focuses on us as individuals more than the entire team and many coaches focus primarily on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a whole person. That’s a lot of pressure on one person.
This is often enhanced by the fact we have been training in our sport since childhood and anything worse than a PB is seen as a lifelong failure. Injuries often leave us depressed and needing consolation and the constant comparison in races is not the best thing for our self-esteem.
So what can we do?
To start, it’s time to surround ourselves with positive and healthy role models and learn to stop comparing ourselves with others. Our bodies are as individual to us as our personalities and each of us train, race and perform better when we are at our own optimum weight.
Coaches should, as many do, treat athletes as people with feelings and emphasise factors such as motivation and perseverance as contributors to performance and not just size. Young boys and girls should be educated by members of the athletics community about the changes that they will experience as they mature and every club should have a policy of care if they see athletes both physically or emotionally distressed.
As athletes we need to monitor our health – physically and mentally. Negative thoughts about our bodies, the reluctance to stop training when injured, the desire to deviate from our coach’s programme to add extra mileage and under-fuelling are all signs that we need to be aware from. But most of all we need to enjoy our sport without feeling any pressure about the way we look. Running is a beautiful sport and one I intend on participating in for as long as I live but in order to fulfil this goal, I know I need to look after both my body and my mind.