Skating’s not-so-secret Shame
For three years I had a secret and it ruled every aspect of my life. Unfortunately, my secret wasn’t very unique. Many in the skating world have and are struggling with this epidemic that controlled my mind and my body for so many years.
I had an eating disorder.
An eating disorder is a vicious enemy, which seeps in completely unexpected, and before anyone knows it, the disorder has taken over every facet of a person’s life. It dictates who they hang out with, how they feel about and see themselves, what they are able to do, and, of course, what they are and are not able to eat.
If I were to say that skating was solely to blame for my development of the disorder, it would be a lie. Eating disorders aren’t caused by just one thing. However, being in the skating world fostered the disease and made the completely horrible things I was doing to my body every day seem “normal.”
Growing up in the sport, I heard of skaters vomiting after meals and going to extreme lengths to keep their weight down. My best friend of many years kept a food journal of what he ate prior to nationals. He would keep track of every sip of water, piece of gum chewed and Saltine cracker (his “safe” food) ingested before the competition.
When I skated on the Cape, every so often one of my coaches would weigh his students in the rink lobby. I remember us lining up like soldiers, stepping on the scale in front of him while another coach wrote down our weight in a small red notebook. Of course at the time I was 14, weighed 75 lbs, and because I thought the whole weighing-in process was a joke, I would usually step on the scale with my skates still on. Other skaters, many of whom were my close friends at the time, didn’t see the weekly weigh-ins in such a humorous light, and a few of them developed eating disorders; perhaps as a result of these public weigh-ins and my coach’s sometimes insensitive comments.
My eating disorder didn’t develop until a few years later. The catalyst was when I placed 5th at the 2003 U.S. national championships. I was discouraged by my performance in the long program, and, in particular, by the nagging pain in my hip, which wouldn’t give me any relief.
When I came home from nationals, I dedicated myself to improving my strength off the ice in order to put less strain on my hip while I skated. I started working with a trainer and a physical therapist a couple of times per week. And for whatever reason, along with the extended workout sessions, I started to weigh myself daily and began to control what I ate.
At the time there was no reason for me to worry about what I was putting into my body or the number on the scale. I had always been quite petite with a healthy appetite. Looking back on it now, I am able to understand that a lack of control over various aspects of my life manifested itself in what I ate. At the time, the pain in my hip and the struggles I was having on my jumps, coupled with the anxiety of living alone for the first time and the pressure I was putting on myself to never “mess up” both on and off the ice, was too much for me to handle. I felt that by controlling the number on the scale, I would be in control of all the things in my life that I felt were completely out of my control: the judges, whether or not I would skate well on a particular day, my mom not being around, pleasing my coach, etc. However by doing this, I was entering into some very deep waters, which would take many years to learn to swim away from.
If I had known at the time where this initial–what I believed to be harmless–obsession would lead me, I would have gotten myself help immediately. What’s scary when I look back on it now, is that part of me, the entire time I struggled with the disorder, knew that what I was doing was wrong. But I couldn’t stop. Although I tried to ask for help in passive ways–hinting about what I was doing to my body to my friends and family–I soon realized that many of my friends in the sport were facing the exact same struggles themselves.
As time went on and the disorder grew, I began to take note of what the skaters around me were eating and doing to their bodies. This came to a head when I started touring with Champions On Ice, which meant living and spending nearly every waking moment with a group of the most acclaimed skaters in the sport. Suddenly any thoughts about the uniqueness of my behavior around food were erased, as I witnessed so many of my peers with the same obsession taking drastic measures to keep their weight down.
I saw a skater eat the cheese off of a Cheeto and then throw the leftover chip on the floor of the tour bus in order not to ingest any carbohydrates. I found leftover vomit in the toilet. A skater once told me that they had almost missed the finale because they were busy throwing up their dessert in the bathroom, and another told me that their coach was more weight-obsessed than they were and told the waiters at restaurants that she was allergic to butter and oil in order to make sure no fat would touch her lips. The chatter of non-fat, low-carb, splenda vs. real sugar never ceased. The more I was living in this weight-obsessed sport, the more I sunk deeper and deeper into my own web of eating disorder hell. I couldn’t believe that so many skaters struggled with the same thing as me, and yet so many of them appeared completely content with ruining their bodies in order to achieve a certain image. I wondered why none of my coaches or the people around me had tried to stop me from my self-destruction? Why none of these skaters got help? Perhaps it was because this was the “norm” and being thin and a particular weight was more important than a skater’s health? I still am searching for the answers to these questions.
My decision to quit skating was largely due to my desire to crush my eating disorder and regain a healthy, positive attitude towards food and my body. I had developed some serious health problems; my hair was falling out, I was dealing with depression, severe esophagitis, amenorrhea, and I had developed multiple cavities in my teeth. I knew that it was up to me, and only me, to find the help I needed. This meant taking many years away from skating and the skating world, working with a therapist, and spending countless hours each day challenging those beliefs that I, and so many in the sport, held about what was “normal.”
Now that I’m on the other side of this disease, I worry when I see skaters who I know are struggling with what I worked so hard to get rid of. It makes me angry that there is no one speaking out against what is so common in figure skating. Some coaches promote what these skaters are doing to their bodies, and others don’t try to stop them.
I don’t know what the answer to this problem in our sport is, but I hope those who may be struggling with any type of an eating disorder will realize that surviving on caffeine, pushing your body beyond its limit, and being preoccupied with your weight is no way to live. I was lucky enough to get myself help and saw where skating and my body fit in the grand scheme of life, and I hope my story will help to shed some light on what is going on behind closed doors for so many of these incredibly talented skaters. Ruining your health, even if it means achieving Olympic gold, is just not worth it.