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A Gold Medal Stand Against Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are disturbingly pervasive among figure skaters, yet the skating community has long swept them under the rug. This month, at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea, American figure skater Adam Rippon broke the silence when he spoke publicly about his recovery from an eating disorder (“Adam Rippon on Quiet Starvation in Men’s Figure Skating,” The New York Times, February 13, 2018).

Rippon’s honesty struck a chord in the skating world, particularly among male athletes, for whom eating disorders are especially stigmatized and undertreated. It can be difficult for men to get help for an eating disorder because of gender norms that tie masculinity to perceived mental and physical strength. Rippon debunked these stereotypes by speaking publicly about his experience. He proved that eating disorders are not shameful nor uncommon, but instead are a serious mental health challenge that demands treatment regardless of gender.

Ex-competitive skater and commentator Jenny Kirk estimates that 85 percent of skaters have an eating disorder. This pervasiveness is due in large part to the sport’s ruthless and stressful culture; everything from costume to hair color to weight is picked apart by judges and the public.

As one of the few things skaters can control, food often becomes a locus for anxiety. A toxic and false belief that “thinner is better” – despite some of the best skaters having a bulkier build – also persists within the community. Pressure to lose weight can come from all sides, including judges, coaches and families. Rippon’s own coach told him to drop weight through an extreme diet that weakened him both physically and mentally.

As eating disorders take their toll on a skater’s strength and stamina, some decide to take a leave of absence or quit the sport entirely. U.S. favorite Gracie Gold, for example, withdrew from consideration for the Pyeongchang Games to get treatment for an eating disorder and other mental health concerns.

With the end of the Olympics coinciding with the kickoff of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, now is the perfect time to learn a bit more about this mental illness. There is no one prescriptive profile of someone with an eating disorder. In reality, they affect people of all shapes and sizes and of every gender and race. They also manifest in many ways, including but not limited to anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder and orthorexia (an obsession with health eating).

Here are a few ways you can help destigmatize eating disorders:

  1. Remember to be sensitive in conversations about food and weight.
  2. Refrain from labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It perpetuates moral judgements associated with different foods.
  3. Don’t use fat-shaming language. No one should be held to an unrealistic standard or be made to feel less valuable because of their body.
  4. Try not to place too much emphasis on physical appearance. Even positive feedback, especially if someone loses weight, can reinforce unhealthy beliefs and encourage disordered eating behaviors. Instead, compliment something else, maybe a fashion choice or a creative project.

Everyone deserves the resources and support to recover from an eating disorder. To learn more about eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorder Associations (NEDA) website or call their hotline. If you think someone you know might be living with an eating disorder and you’re unsure how to help, consider taking a Mental Health First Aid course. Eating disorders can be very sensitive topics, but with Mental Health First Aid training you can be more confident in starting a conversation about mental health and knowing how to show your support.