Trigger warning: eating disorders.
In a tiny comment piece, Sam Leith discusses Hollie Avil, the British triathlete who decided to quit the sport because of the huge stresses it was putting on her – including the development of an eating disorder. Her disorder was triggered in 2006, says Avil, after a coach (not hers), told her that, “You’ll need to start thinking about your weight if you want to run quick, Hollie.”
“Is it not likely, though, that in sports where microscopic control over your diet and body shape is a part of the job, being obsessed with diet and body shape is an occupational hazard?”
Perhaps. But being “obsessed with diet and body shape” does not necessarily mean developing an eating disorder.
Chatting to a model once, I was horrified when she told me she had been asked to lose weight for a particular shoot. She was amazed at my reaction - “it’s my job” she told me. While there are huge problems with eating disorders in modelling, she’s not alone in having a pragmatic view of changing her weight to fit her job. There are plenty of actors who put on and lose weight for roles, and I’ve known runners and weightlifters who are close to being obsessed with their weight. There are many people who, for different reasons, need or want to gain or lose weight and become very strict about what they consume in order to do so.
But an eating disorder is something else. It’s not a choice to make yourself look or behave a certain way, for a certain time, for a role or to boost your performance at a sport. It’s all-consuming, irrational, and non-optional.
Of course eating disorders can affect anyone. The BBC point out that one of the few other athletes to admit to the problem was rugby star David Pocock.
There’s a striking difference in the way that Avil’s and Pocock’s stories have been reported and discussed. In Pocock’s case, he thinks that the stress and fear he encountered living in and then fleeing to Zimbabwe caused him to turn to food as a source of control. In Avil’s, the focus is on the remark made to her by a coach (in response to her saying she wanted to swim more to get faster, context which Leith ignores). There is no discussion of the wider stresses she was under – she talks about disliking a new squad structure, and feeling lonely, isolated and depressed. One remark may have been a tipping point, but there were clearly other factors contributing to how she felt.
When female bodies are discussed in the media, it’s generally through a tired lens – who’s put on weight? Who’s lost it? Whose bingo wings are threatening economic stability by getting a bit flabby?
The media – or possibly our society – doesn’t seem to be capable of having subtle conversations about women’s weight. So commentators like Leith are comfortable dismissing Avil as over-sensitive, missing the nuance that, while athletes do have to control their weight, a discussion about that from an authority figure such as a coach would be better phrased as part of a training plan looking at weight, nutrition and training plans. Not just an offhand remark that losing weight is desirable as an end, by itself. Avil describes it like this: “That comment planted a seed in my head that didn’t need to be planted.”
And while our discussion of women’s bodies remains fixed on hysterical commentary over how they look, not how they perform, with a parade of those getting it ‘wrong’ in every magazine, is it surprising the seed found a fertile place to grow?