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Jul. 5 2009 - 1:29 pm | 1,976 views | 4 recommendations | 23 comments

Skating’s not-so-secret Shame

scaleFor 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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Having suffered from the disease, I have to ask what role positive reinforcement by your peers and coaches played.

    When the first five (unnecessary pounds) come off and everyone tells you that you really look great, it only leads to wanting to lose even more weight.

    What role did your coaches play (without naming names)? One of your coaches is noted for being obsessed with weight and commentator Susie Wynne spoke about developing a serious eating disorder while skating under him.

    Also, what effect did your ED have on your jumps, skating, stamina, etc? Do you feel you would’ve been more successful at a normal weight?

    While Michelle Kwan worked to keep her weight down, she and Irina Slutskaya were the top skaters and the sport and both were notably ‘larger’ than their competitors.

    Great entry,

    • collapse expand

      When I first started to lose weight, there were a few comments that I looked good, but I think the thing that stuck out more was the silence that began once I started to not look so good. It was hard to hear that some skaters had told my coaches what was going on with me, but they didn’t really do anything. And I realize now, had they done something, it may have not even made a difference because it was ultimately up to me to fix the problem. I think that’s the trouble with this disorder: it really comes down to those who are suffering have to help themselves. You can’t force someone to get better; they have to possess the desire to live without the disease. However, the desire to get better usually only comes after a person’s life has become so difficult that they can’t even imagine living another day with the eating disorder. This point is hard to get to in the skating world, where people may feel like there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing to their bodies because many of their peers are showcasing similar behaviors around food.

      When I look back on it now, I can’t believe what I was able to do one the ice while trying to survive on so few calories. I think had I been healthy, I would have been much stronger and had more energy to train. It’s truly mind-blowing when I think about what I was able to do physically while I was killing my body. It’s a shame that there are so many skaters living today how I was back then. It makes me really sad.

      Thanks for your comment!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Bravo Jennifer, for the courage to speak out on this important topic. Skaters, Coaches and officials, heed her revelations! It’s time this behind the scenes behavior be publically addressed through a U.S. Figure Skating sponsored public training and awareness campaign!

  3. collapse expand

    Have you read ‘Chalked Up’ by Jennifer Sey? It is about gymnastics, but I’m sure you’ve shared a number of common experiences.

  4. collapse expand

    Jennifer,
    Here’s what we hear from AllyKatzz girls – tween/young teen girls ages 9-15: They aren’t professional athletes (although many wish they were), but they have the same stresses and “out of control” feelings… they want to please mom, dad, teachers and coaches. Their bodies are changing, they can’t figure out what is going on and their self-esteem is so low. A pimple can ruin their day… a “You look fat in that skirt.” comment from their crush can ruin their lives. Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and TV show (except for MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and that leads to a totally different rant)… they see skinny, pretty girls. Girls are counting calories when they’re 10, dieting when they’re 12 and by the time they’re 14, Hello eating disorders. On October 10, AllyKatzz.com is launching the First Ever National Tween Girl Summit – giving girls a platform to speak up and be heard and feel good about who they really are. We have a session on “Making Peace With Your Body.” Want to join us?
    Denise

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    Dear Jenny,

    I am so glad you wrote this entry. It simply needed to be written, especially from someone as famous, talented and beautiful as you. (Not trying to compliment you – you just are.) It’s been 2 years since I managed to break free of my eating disorder (I’m 18 now), and I relate(d) to so much of what you talk about. I wasn’t a skater then, but I went to a competitive boarding high school and faced pressure to do exceptionally well that year to get good grades and go to an Ivy League. It started out deceptively innocently, just like yours, and then it got worse and I couldn’t stop. My hair fell out like crazy, toilet seats got too big for me, etc. And no one acted as if they noticed anything was wrong. But my grades were never better; I felt like controlling my weight helped me control my grades, in a supremely warped sort of way.
    One day I just couldn’t take it any more and started eating again. Then that got out of control; I gained so much weight, continuously for months.

    Ironically, I think getting skating lessons is part of what balanced my habits eventually. I’d been a rabid “lay” figure skating fan for years, followed every competition, did off-ice jumps and spins, but was always too afraid of going on the ice. (And you were/are one my favorite skaters. I can’t tell you how many competitions I think you were robbed at; for one, you should have won Skate America 2003.) It took a long time for me to stop obsessing about food, but I finally got there.

    But enough about me. I am so proud of you for having conquered this dark force in your life. (And – different feeling from “pride” – but, it is truly inhuman that you skated the way you did while your body was so unhealthy.)

    Here’s to hoping that more people with ED will help themselves, and that people stop promoting or turning a blind eye to this sad behavior.

    Always a fan,
    Claire

  6. collapse expand

    I’m sure a lot of people are grateful to you for speaking out on this important issue. Most people are aware of the problem, but not of its pervasiveness.

    I have a question for you, Jenny: Do you think the obsession with weight is simply a natural and (tragically) predictable result of female skaters being in the spotlight in a sport/art where you’re judged on looks? Or do you think the ever-growing demands of the sport that emphasizes difficult jumps at the expense of everything else is aggravating the situation?

    Take someone like Katarina Witt, who won two Olympics and was considered the standard of female beauty in the 1980s. Today she could not win at an elite level. Her body, good enough for Playboy but not skinny as a rail, would surely not rotate fast enough to compete with the Asadas and Kims of today. Do you think eating disorders are becoming increasingly more prevalent today because of these extra pressures?

    • collapse expand

      To answer your first question, I think it’s a combination of the two. Obviously skating on national television in a little skating dress lends itself for one to be aware of their body. I also think there are some coaches who urge skaters to lose a “few pounds” in order to enhance their jumping ability, which comes into play in terms of the demands of the sport. A problem comes, however, when coaches say seemingly “innocent” comments, like, “your triple lutz will be easier if you were five pounds lighter,” and a skater hears, “you triple lutz sucks at the weight you’re at now. losing five pounds will make it okay, but losing ten will make it better.” Skaters, and athletes in general, are so competitive and strive for perfection, that it’s easy to see how we can sometimes take comments too far.

      To answer your second question: I think the prevalence of the disorders today are not only because of the pressures within the sport, but also the pressures we all face in society to be a certain weight and achieve a certain image. It’s impossible to escape these messages of being “thin” is “good,” and I think those messages are played out within the skating world as well.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Jennifer,
    I have to say that I agree with your statement that you must take control and get yourself out of the eating disorder. But, the statements you and others have said illustrates a problem that must be stopped. That is the obsession by the coaches and others regarding weight. These people obviously have no knowledge of healthy eating. Rather than forcing the skaters to jump on the scale and record their weight they should be training the skaters in healthy eating. Folks, like dietitians should be training the athletes just what foods they should be eating for proper muscle tone and strength. Skating, as you well know, is a strength sport. You must have the strength and endurance to perform the jumps and spins and footwork and to successfully complete your program. The only way to do that is to eat the proper foods to build strength and muscle. The coaches are not trained for this and it is the responsibility of US Figure Skating to correct this problem.

    Bill Stewart

  8. collapse expand

    Jen – what, if anything, can people in the “viewing area” do??? I hate seeing skaters in trouble, and I can see when they are many times, but feel so helpless.

  9. collapse expand

    Thank you so much for your openess. I am a competitive skater who also suffered from an eating disorder. I took time off from skating in order to focus on treatment, but have since returned to the sport. I was starting to struggle again recently, but your words have really hit home. I genuinely believe that your willingness to be open about your eating disorder will help other skaters realize that the obsession simply isn’t worth the permanent damage to your body.

    I skate at Valley Ice Center and used to see you every now and then. If you ever come back, would you mind if I talked to you for a little bit about recovery?

    Anyways, thank you again for discussing this. I’m so sorry you suffered as much as you did, but am glad you’ve been able to take care of yourself.

  10. collapse expand

    Jenny thank you for being courageous enough to share your story about this frightening disorder that is all too prevalent in the figure skating world. It is also a serious problem among ballet dancers. I especially appreciate your comments about the coaches and other adults who turn a blind eye to students’ obvious thinness and do nothing to stop the madness of it. I have spent years in skating rinks as a long time skating mom and am fully aware of the truth of all that you say. I am happy to hear that you have gotten help and are healing, may you continue to stand strong and vocal on this topic.

  11. collapse expand

    Dear Jennifer,
    Thank you for writing about your eating disorder. It is a very very great thing that you overcame your disorder and regained your health. It seems like a big problem not only among figure skaters but even among girls who do not competitive sports.
    I have some questions and comments about the article that you wrote.
    First of all, wouldn’t many of eating disorders be preventable if people simply maintained a good balanced diet? For example, you write about skaters vomiting their deserts just before the competition, but why eat those deserts in the first place? (especially if you know you’re going to vomit them afterwords).
    It is no wonder skaters want to loose weight, considering all the cakes and other very unhealthy goodies they are served at events, just look at the cake at the champs camp on the photos on ice-network, I mean, let’s face it, this is very unhealthy stuff, full of empty calories, trans-fats, etc, the kind of stuff that makes you fat without giving anything good in return. If that is what a skater eats regularly, that is not good from any point of view. And then there is Kimmie Meissner advertising in a Subway commercial (I hope she doesn’t eat there), and other famous skaters advertising all sorts of unhealthy food. I just wonder, wouldn’t the fear of being overweight and as a consequence eating disorders be preventable by simply not eating bad stuff, and eating a well balanced organic diet?
    That thing you wrote about coaches restricting oils and butter, and fats from a skater – this comes from ignorance of the coaches about basics of nutrition, and lack of recognition that good fat (saturated and unsaturated, no trans-fat), which includes oil and butter, is a necessity in any diet, not an overindulgence, and any nutritionist will confirm that.
    In general I think that athletes who competes at fairly demanding levels (or any athletes) should ideally all work with a nutritionist. Really general public is not well educated about nutrition, we eat what we are used to, and what is advertised to us, which is not always the best. A nutritionist can figure out for them a balanced diet, with the right amount of calories, nutrients, nutritional supplements if necessary, and also educate them about nutrition, so that important decisions concerning health not be left to the coaches to decide. Perhaps a nutritionist should be as much a part of the skater’s team, as are her coach, off-ice trainer, doctor, ballet instructor, etc.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for your comment.

      Someone who is bulimic generally knows what good nutrition is. A person with an eating disorder knows what they are doing is wrong, they know that eating dessert will probably end up with them vomiting later in the bathroom, but they can’t help it. It is a compulsion and an addiction.

      Unfortunately there is a large misconception that just sending someone who is struggling with an eating disorder to a nutritionist, where they will learn a more healthy way to eat, will help to fix this disease. It doesn’t work. Eating disorders are generally not about food, but rather how someone handles their emotions and the stress in their life. Sorting through emotional issues, working through past traumas, and understanding what role the disease serves in a person’s life is much more helpful than telling them what is good for them to eat.

      In terms of skaters advertising for various food companies and eating cakes, I think there’s nothing wrong with that. I feel like everything should be eaten in moderation. Cakes, Subway, and cookies, while probably not the most nutritious foods, don’t make people fat. Eating too much makes people fat. It’s when restrictions are put on a person’s diet, or certain foods become off-limits, that unhealthy habits can become more prevalent. Telling someone what they can and can not eat usually leads to an increase in desire for the foods that they have been told are “bad.” This can lead to binging.

      I agree with you that it’s important for younger skaters to meet with a nutritionist at an early age. Learning what encompasses a healthy diet is important for anyone–a skater or non-skater.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  12. collapse expand

    Thank you so much for writing this honest article. It’s sad how fake things become and how distorted reality becomes when everything remotely negative is hidden “behind the scenes” and swept under the rug…

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    About Me

    I’m originally from Boston, living in LA, with a passion for the world of figure skating. During my career on the ice, I was a world junior champion, a five-time U.S. national medalist, and a three-time world team member. Since retiring from the sport, I have dedicated myself to attaining my college degree with a major in broadcast journalism. I’m looking forward to sharing my views on the ins and outs of the skating world, along with my opinions and thoughts on various issues coming from the ice. I welcome you to my blog!

    To contact me: Jeki815@gmail.com

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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Los Angeles, CA