The spring after competing in my first Olympic Games in 2014, I should have been full of self-confidence, fired up about training hard, and setting big goals. And I was! But one particular event really shook my faith in myself and my confidence in rocking the muscles I had spent hundreds of hours sweating to build. We had an end-of-season bonfire party at my house and invited a bunch of friends over. One of our many awesome volunteer coaches for my high school team came over to wish me well and, after a few minutes, casually said: “Wow, you look a lot bigger than you did in high school! Have you gained weight?”
The casual comment about my size and shape of my body was what I would call an unintentional cruelty. In fact, they may have even intended the remark as a compliment! Nevertheless, that evening I slid back into my eating disordered habits for the first time in more than a year, vomiting everything I ate for three days before getting help and again committing to taking care of myself. I didn’t reach out to or talk to that person again for three years, and their comment is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of them, which is sad. They didn’t have any idea that they caused me harm, but their words caused me such physical distress that I was one unlucky day away from a serious trip to the hospital.
The notion that an off-hand comment from someone who wasn’t even extremely close to me could have such a destructive impact on my mental and physical wellbeing seemed crazy, but there I was, relapsing into my eating disorder because I no longer felt fast, powerful, or confident. I only felt “too big.”
If one sentence can spiral an Olympic athlete back into an eating disorder, imagine what a parent or coach could cause by telling a young athlete under their mentorship something like, “You’d be much faster if you lost weight” or “You could jump higher if only you dropped 10 pounds.” Words matter. What we say to the people who look up to us, especially as coaches and parents, can have a huge impact. You can’t directly cause an eating disorder with your words—eating disorders are complicated, and multiple factors contribute to their development—but what we say to others can be a significant contributor to a person’s eating disorder. I know because it happened to me.
As a coach, teacher or parent, you have the incredible opportunity to mindfully acknowledge the role that food and body image play in each of our lives, and model self-care for the people who look up to you. This is where the “What To Say” initiative from the WithAll Foundation comes in! WithAll is a nonprofit that focuses on advancing eating disorder prevention and support. “What To Say” is an initiative to empower adults to help the kids in their lives develop healthy relationships with food and body.
Decades of research show that what influential adults in a child’s life say about food, body, diet and exercise has tremendous power in shaping the child’s body image, self-esteem and likelihood of developing an eating disorder. WithAll started this program to give adults simple and direct resources to raise their own awareness about their relationship with food and body image, and to be able to take proactive action with the children in their life.
“What to Say” is starting with 5 phrases adults can use with kids, as well as age-specific phrases for youth sports coaches. Their premise is that while inspiring a child’s health and sense of self is a big responsibility, it doesn’t have to be complex. Knowing what to say and feeling empowered in the small moments of each day can have a big influence. You can learn more at whattosaynow.org.
They’re starting with coaches, because eating disorder risk and prevalence is higher among athletes. Having a coach be aware of how they talk about their athlete’s bodies and food, or even how they talk about their own bodies in front of their athletes, can have a huge impact. No child is born counting calories, declaring carbs to be off-limits or saying that they are “being bad” when eating French fries. These behaviors are learned from mimicking the adults in their lives.
I am so grateful that my Mom never said, “Do these pants make me look fat?” in front of me as a kid. Pants were, well, pants. Nothing more. Clothes didn’t make me feel shameful if they failed to make me look skinny. They were what you wore to avoid running around naked! Similarly, my Dad never talked about food being “good” or “bad”…it was just delicious, and a good way to have energy for mowing the lawn or going canoeing If you were hungry, you ate. It was simple. The coaches I worked with referred to food as powerful fuel that we needed in order to do what we loved. Food could also bring about happy social events, like the big team pasta feeds the night before a race.
WithAll created a Coaches Challenge, to have coaches spend a little bit of time each week thinking about how the phrases they use to describe their athletes’ bodies could potentially impact the kids they coach. For example, the first week’s phrase was “Healthy athletes come in all shapes and sizes” to share the message that you don’t have to look a certain way to be a great athlete. The program consists of a short weekly email with suggested action steps for one phrase and poses a question or two for your own self-reflection. If you’re a coach of any sport, at any age level, you can sign up here: https://whattosaynow.org/coaches/
For those of you currently struggling through an eating disorder (statistically, that’s 6% of you), I’m sending out a huge hug of loving support. Be brave and do the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life: reach out for help. Talk to a trusted family member, friend or coach and share that you need help. In the U.S., you can call the Emily Program at 1-888-EMILY- 77 and someone will be there to talk to you and do a short quiz over the phone to determine what sort of eating disorder you might have with a few simple questions. Your concerns are quickly heard and you will be able to start recovery as soon as possible!
People often put off going to treatment because their eating disorder tricks them into thinking they don’t deserve help, that they’re not worth it, or that they are selfish for wanting to fix themselves. But if you aren’t healthy, you can’t be there for the people in your life the way you can if you’re taking good care of yourself.
The Emily Program’s new podcast, called Peace Meal, is a great learning resource. Their first episode, Eating Disorders 101, will shed light on what eating disorders are, how to get help, and how to support a loved one going through treatment. They also dispel a lot of myths about eating disorders. Remember, the quicker you get treatment, the sooner you’ll be back to living your full, whole and happy life again!