Brooke Ailey strides through the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre to her locker, where a hanging poster reads, “Girls in sports are empowered for life.”
She grabs her equipment and heads to the wooded trails in Thunder Bay, Ont., that have groomed dozens of world-class cross-country ski athletes. Ailey, 17, is putting in hundreds of hours every year, trying to join that list.
Skiing and that competitive drive bring a lot of joy to Ailey, she told CBC News, but it’s also caused harm. In August 2019, after her mother recognized possible symptoms and brought her to a doctor, Ailey was diagnosed with disordered eating.
“For me, it became destructive when I started looking at my body in a negative way … just like this mentality that if I wanted to be better, I needed to be lighter or I needed to be leaner,” she told CBC News.
It’s a mentality experts say is shared by many athletes — especially young, female competitors — and is a major concern that must be understood and addressed in sports across the country.
Now, Ailey is sharing her story to raise awareness about eating disorders in athletics.
Thoughts of food were all-consuming
For the longest time, Ailey didn’t want to believe she had an eating disorder.
“How can I have an eating disorder if I’ve got the energy to go out and do a 10-kilometre race? Or how could I have an eating disorder if I’m still eating a ton when I finish my race?” Ailey remembers thinking.
While an eating disorder can manifest in different ways. Ailey said she began obsessing over what food she was eating and couldn’t eat, if it was good or bad food, and how many calories she was burning.
It took up her entire day.
Ailey was diagnosed with orthorexia, which is when someone becomes consumed by thoughts of healthy eating to the point it becomes detrimental to one’s own health.
While many people associate disordered eating with more well-known diagnoses like anorexia or bulimia, orthorexia is one of many lesser-known eating disorders that involve — sometimes dangerously — unhealthy obsessions with food, according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC).
One of the reasons Ailey wanted to share her story is to break the stereotypes of what an eating disorder looks like, she said, “because eating disorders can occur without weight loss and still be dangerous.
“We have all these harmful ideas of what an eating disorder is and what it looks like. And a lot of athletes don’t see themselves fitting into that, which is difficult because there is a lot of disordered eating that happens in athletics —especially cross-country skiing … like we’re skiing in these tiny little Lycra suits. Everybody can see our bodies. You can see everything.”
We want people to recognize that despite the stereotypes about who eating disorders affect, they really do not discriminate.– Aryel Maharaj, outreach and education
Aryel Maharaj, a spokesperson with NEDIC, added that anyone can be affected by disordered eating.
“We want people to recognize that despite the stereotypes about who eating disorders affect, they really do not discriminate,” he said in an email to CBC News.
With that said, Maharaj added there is research that indicates women and girls are disproportionately affected, people of colour are just as likely to be affected as white people but are less likely to reach out for help, and members of the LGBTQ community are five times more likely to have disordered eating than someone who is cisgender and heterosexual.
“Many think that athletes don’t struggle with disordered eating, but in fact, many do in silence because of how normalized it is in sport,” Maharaj said.
Disordered eating is underdiagnosed
A 2019 study from the University of Toronto anonymously surveyed 1,001 current and former Canadian athletes about maltreatment and mental health outcomes. Twenty per cent of the active athletes in the study thought about engaging in disordered eating behaviours and 16 per cent had engaged in disordered eating, according to the findings.
Just four per cent of those surveyed had actually been diagnosed or treated.
“There are lots of pressures on athletes, particularly girls and women, to be thin and have a certain body ideal,” Gretchen Kerr, lead author of the study, told CBC News.
Kerr, a professor and dean at the University of Toronto’s faculty of kinesiology and physical education, said other studies have shown that factors such as public weigh-ins, sporting attire, harmful media portrayals and public shaming of bodies can lead to or exacerbate eating disorders.
Sarah Gairdner, a lecturer with the University of Toronto and a mental performance consultant, added that athletes are often more prone to developing disordered eating because they can often seek validation through external sources like coaches, judges, friends and strangers on social media.
In a culture “obsessed with esthetic and thinness,” Gairdner said, the kind of social affirmation that people receive while struggling with disordered eating can make it really difficult to overcome.
WATCH | Brooke Ailey talks about the conversations that must change:
“I’ve had athletes who’ve been multiple Olympic medal winners, and they say ‘I’ve never felt like I looked like an athlete,'” Gairdner said.
“What the heck does an athlete look like if you’re not an athlete, because you have two Olympic gold medals and whatever your body is, is an athletic body,” Gairdner recalls telling her client.
What is needed, Gairdner and Kerr agree, is a shift in sport toward well-being and nutrition, and away from just results and appearance. It means more conversations and education to shatter harmful stereotypes and ideas — and not just with athletes themselves.
“For younger athletes, it’s about educating parents about the importance of nutrition, healthy eating and not focusing on body image or body weight,” Kerr said. “The same goes for sport leaders such as coaches, administrators and team managers.”
Relationship with food has improved
After her diagnosis, Ailey had to wait eight months before getting into treatment.
“It was really difficult, because I could see she was really struggling,” said Ailey’s mother, Marilyn.
I was so scared of people finding out. There’s still so many people that don’t know.– Brooke Ailey, 17, talking about the stigma surrounding disordered eating
In April 2020, Ailey started receiving specialized therapy through the eating disorders program at St. Joseph’s Care Group. She met with three different therapists who offered slightly different approaches, and ultimately decided to continue her treatment with a family therapist, with her parents by her side.
With the pandemic shuttering many businesses and services across the continent, Ailey’s treatment was virtual.
She acknowledged the pandemic has made eating disorders worse for many — something confirmed to CBC News by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre — but said she found the anonymity of online treatment helpful.
“I was so scared of people finding out. There’s still so many people that don’t know, and I was scared of people finding out and their perception of me changing,” she said.
It’s been more than a year since Ailey finished her treatment, and she says her relationship with food has completely changed.
Recovery from an eating disorder looks different for everyone, according to the NEDIC. Some people experience “full and lasting recovery,” where someone no longer experiences their symptoms, while others learn to live with disordered eating by applying strategies to cope with symptoms.
Ailey said she no longer experiences disordered eating symptoms and doesn’t need specialized treatment, but she continues to attend regular therapy sessions.
Now, the Grade 12 student said she wants to share her story so others don’t feel the same stigma and shame she carried.
“Nobody should ever feel like they don’t deserve to get treatment or feel ashamed to get help.”
Ailey is also part of the youth advisory council for the Canadian charity Fast and Female, which aims to keep young girls healthy and active in sport, spreading a message of hope.
“I want people to know that there’s help out there, that there’s other people who are going through the same thing as them, and that they are not alone.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, here’s where to get help:
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