*TRIGGER WARNING: EATING DISORDERS*
I grew up in a world of ice and sequins, my mother was a figure skater until her teens when she started coaching and my godmother was the head coach of the local skating club. My mother skated while she was pregnant with me and had me on the ice before I could even walk; I knew nothing else. Skating was a part of my life as soon as I was born. By the time I was eight years old I was coaching can skate and competing in competitions across the island. Competing and testing (you move up levels in the three categories of skating by taking test) changed the sport for me; it no longer was an enjoyable pastime but a job which I wasn’t getting paid for. Skating was becoming another place in my life where I would compare myself to others and others standards.
I still remember my first competition, not quite eight years old and I am in a red skating dress, hair perfectly pulled back in braids, curls so rigid they don’t move and a face full of makeup. Standing on the ice with my whole club and stands full of people watching me, not to mention a panel of 8 judges in the forefront with their pens ready and armed to tell me where I stand amongst the other 15 skaters in my group. I didn’t think much of it then, I hade done my solo a thousand times and I was just excited to be in the city with my friends. Over the years that changed, I was never the typical or “ideal” skater. Being taller then most girls, thick-bodied and not what judges’ saw as the flawless skater they were searching for. When puberty hit and my body changed it was as if I was learning to skate all over again and that was disheartening and extremely frustrating. At thirteen I developed an eating disorder, bulimia. After years of being bullied over my weight, the added pressure of skating against “ideal skaters”, as well as most my friends, the added extreme self-loathing I had developed was a recipe for disaster. Does figure skating play a part? Can competing at such a young age have an affect on a child’s mental health?
Skating has been around since the 13th century pioneered by the Dutch who skated canals to maintain communication between villages, eventually skating made its way to England then clubs and artificial rinks began. In 1850 Americans revolutionized the sport, Edward Bushnell introduced steel-bladed skates, which allowed more complex maneuvers and turns. Then ballet master, Jackson Haines added elements of dance in 1860 to give grace to the sport. Figure Skating is the oldest Olympic Winter Sport, being in the program since 1908 London Games. Skate Canada is the association responsible for amateur skaters In Canada; it’s the largest association of its kind in the world. Skate Canada began in 1914 with 2 clubs then grew to 1172 clubs in 2012-2013. Offering programs from CanSkate (learn to skate program), syncroskating and testive and competitive skating. The sport its self has a long history, one that is continually changing and evolving.
I developed bulimia around the age of 13 and I didn’t establish this disorder solely based on skating. It was years of harsh bullying from peers, my obsession with fitting in, and societies harsh, small boxes of what is beautiful and skating played a part in this development. Skating and namely competing, brought out insecurities I already had and magnified them. My life revolved around skate practice, soccer practice, school, purging, binging and trying to have a social life. It was stressful and the disorder was strangely comforting, it was the one thing I felt I had control of but really it controlled me. I always compare it to the shadow in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peters shadow gets away and he desperately chases it down and Wendy stitches it to his feet. Well my eating disorder was a shadow I stitched to myself, not knowing the consequences at the time. A shadow that lurks over you and is a constant companion, it can be quite suffocating. It influences every decision and choice you make and at times can feel to be a comfort you can escape into. It’s hard to describe and painful to experience, its not just about food or eating its much deeper and can be tied to so many different emotions and feelings. Just as Peter cried when he couldn’t get his shadow to stay, losing this companion or going into recovery can feel as if you’re losing part of yourself and be quite scary.
Since looking deeper into the correlation between skating as a competitive spot and eating disorders I was surprised at how many articles and interviews with professional athletes namely skaters who warn of themselves or others suffering with an eating disorder. Having an eating disorder, as with any disorder or mental illness, you feel alone and spend the majority of your time thinking about it and how to hide it. You feel ashamed of how you look, constantly afraid of worried of what others think of you and now your standing in a glitzy tight, short dress with metal strapped to a boot. You’re completely exposed physically, creatively, and mentally, all you want to do is prove your worth to an arena full of people you don’t know and a panel of “experts”. As a child how could that not affect their development, to achieve success you must reach a physical level, look a certain way and perform standards set by others that many will never reach.
Now eating disorders are fascinating to me, most likely because I struggle with one and know so many who do. Commonly we know anorexia and bulimia but now they’ve also added over- eating as its own disorder. Anorexia is characterized by an individual has intense fear of gaining weight or being overweight, distorted body image, someone who refuses to eat and cannot or won’t maintain 85 percent or more of normal body weight for age and height. An individual with anorexia will also work out to the extreme to maintain or lose weight; they are preoccupied with food and diets and may even show signs of bulimia. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating large quantities of food to the point of out of control eating and then purging through ways such as vomiting, laxative or diuretic use. Over eating disorder will usually be seen in individuals with an above average weight. They will frequently of episodes of uncontrollable binge eating such as someone with bulimia. Unlike bulimia they will not try to “remedy” the binge with purging or other tactics. The problem with diagnoses and criteria is many individuals do not display all that is needed to “fit” the disorder and may have symptoms of varies eating conditions or just a few so they can go untreated and or unnoticed. In my case I would binge and purge, sometimes I wouldn’t binge I would just purge after small meals and even at times would skip meals. I never reached a low, low weight and would even stop for periods at a time but I never the less had an extremely unhealthy relationship with food, my body and a very distorted body image. My self-esteem was low like so many others with disorders and this caused me to use other dangerous and unhealthy ways of coping such as drugs and alcohol. I wasn’t server enough in the disorder to go to treatment but it was severe enough to be something that still affects me today.
In figure skating the ideal skater is someone who is extremely petite and extremely thin. Most professional skaters are between the ages of 15-27 and retire before they are 40, where they will tour with groups of other retired skater whose loyal fans of elder women and young hopeful skaters will follow them around the country. I can remember being 15 and have someone tell me that I probably didn’t place as high at the other girls in my group because I didn’t have that skater “look”, basically I was too big. Being eight years old and entering a world where they tell you they are looking for consistency, physical ability, grace, artistry and talent but really as I got older as the number by my name began to weigh on me as badly as the number on the scale, I saw a world where they were looking for certain beauty, distinct look, consistency and decent skating. Perhaps I am bias, but I once read an article about this amazing young skater who was told she was too fat and was continuously placed lower then her fellow equally talented thinner rivals and some were clearly not as talented as she was. I know for a fact you are even judged for your dress and hair; its part sport, part beauty competition. My drive began to decrease the older I got and even though I was clearly stronger then half the skaters on the ice, my jumps lacked consistency and I lacked the motivation to work on them. One competition I fell on a double loop jump, a jump I always landed without fail in practice and at this time my knees were on their third injury. I hit the ice and my knee gave and I couldn’t get up and my first thought was “Thank god, I’ll be disqualified and I don’t have to finish”. Competitions were no longer fun get away with my friends, they were a place to have it thrown in my face that I was not the “perfect” girl.
I quit competing by the time I was 16 but I continued skating. With no stress from competition I could focus on why I wanted to skate. To move around the ice at top speed is freeing, exhilarating, to challenge myself without being compared to others (I still did that myself) and I enjoyed our bi-annual skating show. Where I would perform for the people of our town, yet these people were amazed at the simplest of maneuvers. I wasn’t losing sleep at that jump I couldn’t land, I just showed what I knew I was capable of. The shadow, my eating disorder took a back seat; the shadow didn’t consume me but lingered in the background. The presence of less stress, less expectations from outsiders and being able to explore what made me happy made it easier to cope with how I was feeling.
I developed an eating disorder as a teenager, but the contributing factors, emotions, negative beliefs I have of myself, of what I need to be, the need to meet others standards began as a child and lead me to this development. If I didn’t skate would I still have suffered with bulimia, I can’t know that for sure but what I do know is it lead me their and many others who figure skate or participants in similar sports. As the years have gone on I have found immense joy in coaching skating, I love working with my girls and trying to foster them with keen understanding of self and the sport. I want to not only teach them the beauty that figure skating can have but make sure they do not lose themselves in the darker aspects. Recently I went to a competition with the girls I coach and I decided to go see the young skaters compete. My coach called me up and said they have changed how they compete for the first level. These girls were eight years of age, they were dolled up and in their tiny dresses as I had once been yet they weren’t alone on the ice, standing in fear and anticipation. They were all on the ice together about 10 of them, with their coaches. They would be called to do one maneuver and skill at a time in front of 4 judges. Then they were given a report card and each skill was marked out of bronze, silver and gold. Now until level 4, they merely mark a skaters skill and you’re not compared to anyone else, just told where you might need work. These skaters left the ice with smiles and received their report cards with joy and excitement. It was interesting to watch and didn’t give me anxiety for the girls as I usually get. Its nice to see the sport recognizes the issues with children and their self-esteem, it makes me hopefully to see the changes the sport is trying to make. Figure Skating can be about talent, consistency, grace and physically ability, yet we as a society have just lost sight of where substance should come from, not from something as fleeting as looks or as changing as a body.
When people ask me if I still suffer with bulimia or eating disorder I will usually say no. Truth be told I may not “practice” those behaviors anymore or not as often but I still suffer. I believe any one who has had an eating disorder will say they same it never truly goes away, you’re in recovery but you cannot be truly healed. It’s a shadow that you can never get rid of, following you around its always there. I’ve just learned to ignore it to not give the shadow any light.