What would you say to the world if your voice was broadcasted to a live audience?
For the past two weeks, I had an opportunity to be a commentator for a livestream in beach volleyball, to call the youth matches for Platform1440’s RISE National Championships (206 juniors teams) and for the Beach Volleyball Clubs of America National Championships (550 teams).
I realized that my voice was being broad-casted to a greater audience that I couldn’t see, and that young players, their parents, and coaches were listening to my voice if they chose to.
Around me, players, parents, and coaches watched the competition in close proximity. My voice was being heard, on the speaker and off, and I started to be really mindful of the messages I was sending.
And then I became frustrated.
I got frustrated because I had a series of triggering interactions with people surrounding the topic of food. One interaction after another, back to back, in an almost relentless fashion, in close proximity to younger, impressionable girls.
Here are just a few examples of commentary I heard from others:
“Wow, you look amazing! You lost weight since I saw you last! Did UCLA do that for you?”
“I changed my diet to be completely vegetarian and I feel SoooOoOoOO good! It’s no wonder so many people cut out meat from their diet.”
“You’re playing so well! What are you doing with your food to make sure you don’t get fat?”
“Salads make you jump higher, burgers make you run slower.”
"You're allowed to eat cookies because you're an athlete, but I really shouldn't."
In all of those comments, I heard a subtle, yet powerful message:
Weight loss is good, weight gain is bad. Some foods are good for you, and others are bad.
Given my history with my eating disorder, my immediate reaction to these conversations was frustration and anger. But the compliments were well-intentioned. The people behind these words are people I respect, and care about. In fact… almost all these interactions were with people I would consider to be influential in the beach volleyball community, influential in my life.
Were they mindful of the message they were sending?
I’ve definitely been open about my ED, and often hope (but never expect) that people might be aware of how commentary and conversations about dieting or physical appearance might affect someone who is in recovery from, or still affected by, an eating disorder. I'm not exactly thrilled to be hearing about the latest diet trends.
I wanted to SCREAM at the top of my lungs: “I just recently spent the last 5 years of my life trapped in a deadly eating disorder!!!”
I restricted major food groups from my diet.
I destroyed my body with excessive exercise just to maintain a lower weight.
I felt the need to “punish” myself for eating foods considered to be “bad”.
I wanted to “fit the mold” of the perfect beach volleyball athlete.
I was praised for weight loss, and shamed when my body was bigger.
… and it was messages from external sources that reinforced the damaging behaviors I kept doing. Because I felt seen, valued, appreciated, and loved... when my physical body became thinner.
Of course, getting unnecessarily frustrated at anyone about anything is never the best way to solve a problem, definitely not the most effective way to react. So I listened. I continued conversing. I tried changing subjects.
And then I realized it’s not the people behind the comments that I'm angry with.
I’m angry at diet culture: the culture of dieting and restriction that is so rife and present within athletic communities, especially in Los Angeles.
I’m angry at the lack of awareness and education about eating disorders, and the lack of educational resources for athletes and coaches.
I’m angry at the societal stigma that makes it difficult for us to approach vulnerable subjects such as mental illness and eating disorders.
I have no right to criticize anyone in particular. That’s not my goal. But I will criticize the serious flaws in our system of education about mental health and eating disorders, especially in athletic communities.
I’m grateful to be in a mental space where commentary and discussion of dieting no longer drive me back into disordered behaviors. I won’t change my behavior based on the way that people compliment or criticize my body. I won’t diet just because everyone else around me is doing it. I no longer strive to fit a mold… I want my body to be in its healthiest, most natural state where it’s genetically meant to be.
I’m lucky and blessed to have received treatment and mental training to protect myself from going back into disordered patterns of eating and exercise, to understand my triggers.
But I don’t know if I can say the same for the younger generations of beach volleyball athletes that I saw all around me at these tournaments while I was commentating on the live stream, even in the tournaments I currently compete in.
...Can you imagine the effect our comments and conversations have on young, impressionable athletes?
If we constantly compliment athletes on weight-loss, or being lean, will they strive for that body-type even though it’s not healthy for everyone?
If we label foods as “good” and “bad”, will athletes continue choosing to eat a salad post-tournament, even though their body needs a burger after burning thousands of calories?
If we shame bodies or people who have put on weight, will we instill fear about healthy weight gain, even in situations when weight gain is necessary to become stronger or healthier?
Body-focused compliments and criticism, diet culture, and body-shaming: ALL of these environmental factors contributed to my own eating disorder, and I imagine they might affect the young athletes in today’s athletic communities - athletes who are listening to the things we say, and watching the things we do.
The habits and thought patterns they develop now can make or break a healthy relationship with food and exercise… and potentially prevent a life-threatening eating disorder.
Being a commentator for Platform1440 has opened my eyes to just how powerful our voices can be.
Young athletes, their parents, coaches and fans have listened to my voice on a live stream.
I notice young athletes' excitement, awe, and anticipation as the college coaches come to watch them compete.
I work out in a gym that also trains younger athletes, and they’re thrilled to be lifting alongside a “professional”.
My actions and words affect others, and others’ actions and words affect me.
So this is my call-to-action: to my fellow stud high-level athletes, to all the coaches out there, to the athletic administrators who build athletic communities - be mindful of your message.
Compliment your athletes on the positive energy they’re radiating, the beautiful smile they give at practice, their hard work, grit and determination, the way they encourage their teammates… rather than the thinness or leanness of their body. Human beings are worth so much more than what their bodies look like, and we're all so different and unique.
I’m no dietician, and nutrition is far more complicated than I could have ever imagined, but I would encourage any athlete to have a balance of all macronutrients in their diet, and become educated on just how much energy their body needs on a daily basis, given its high energy expenditure. Labeling foods as “good” or “bad”, and restriction of any type of food is a gateway to disordered eating.
It’s my greatest hope that athletic communities start talking about EDs and body image issues among athletes, and educating athletes and coaches about treatment and prevention. Eating disorders are a societal and communal issue.
We stray away from the subjects of eating disorders and mental illness because they’re uncomfortable, they’re difficult to talk about, they are stigmatized.
I’m passionate about sharing my story, but it’s only one story of an athlete’s battle with an eating disorder.
I know there are more stories out there.
I’m not the only one diagnosed with mental illness.
And I’m here to support anyone struggling - to reiterate that you’re not alone, and I see you.
Mental illness is complicated - it’s genetic AND environmental, but the environmental and systemic factors are things we can control, or at least discuss, in our communities.
Let’s continue talking, but let’s be mindful of the messages that we portray to those around us - especially to those young athletes who are listening well.
I’m trying to be extra mindful of my own message - doing my darn best to make it a positive and meaningful one.
As always, much love to you all!