Climbers, cyclists, runners, and all kinds of other athletes—both men and women—are starting to speak out about disordered eating in their communities
Looking back on her early days in her sport, professional climber Angie Payne, 32, is struck by how twisted her definition of health once was. She started climbing at age 11 and quickly became, in her words, “obsessed”: she loved the feeling that when she got on the wall, her body became graceful and intuitive in a way she’d never experienced before—that some part of her naturally understood what to do. She had talent. She was also a skinny kid, which helps in a sport that puts the strength of your muscles in direct ratio to the body mass they have to haul toward the sky.
Payne stayed naturally thin when she hit puberty, even though her diet growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, consisted mostly of “sugar, butter, and some veggies here and there.” In her mid-teens, she started thinking about eating healthier—not so much because she wanted to lose weight, but because it made her feel like she was getting serious about climbing, pushing her Midwestern adolescent life in the direction of her lofty athletic dreams. “I remember the first thing I did was that I started eating a lot more salad,” says Payne. “Salad in my family was iceberg lettuce with sugar dressing and a lot of croutons.” Before long, she says, “I’d come home from the gym, and all I’d eat after climbing the whole night was a salad” with “no protein, nothing.” In her mind, salad equated to healthy, but looking back, she says, “Really, that was the beginning.”
After graduating from high school, Payne moved to Boulder, Colorado, enrolled in college to appease her parents, and devoted herself to competitive climbing. On her own for the first time, she was lonely and depressed—feelings she channeled into not only her training but also an increasingly rigid diet. The list of foods she deemed “healthy” shrank and shrank. Breakfast became a handful of granola, lunch a chicken breast, dinner a salad. She avoided scales—the moment she started quantifying her weight loss, some part of her felt she’d have to admit she had a problem. But she could feel the changes in the body: Her skin dried out, and her hair felt like straw. She stopped getting her period. But on the climbing wall, her newfound lightness was “addicting,” she says. She started winning one national competition after another. She remembers one day when she tried a difficult move on crimps—small holds that the climber can grasp only with her fingertips—and felt like she was “just flowing over the boulder,” weightless.
Payne wanted to lose weight to win, but once her eating disorder took hold, winning ceased to make her happy. Instead, it became the only thing standing between her and the emotional tailspin that came with a loss. She felt stuck: If she acknowledged she had a problem, she would have to put on weight, and if she gained any weight, she was convinced she’d lose her edge in competitions. The thought of losing filled her with despair.
One night at her parents’ house, in the spring of 2004, Payne stepped on a scale for the first time in months and learned that she weighed less than 100 pounds, down from about 120 at the beginning of the school year. “I remember looking in the mirror,” she says. She took in the dramatic changes to her body. She’d never imagined that she’d lost so much weight. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is really, really unhealthy.’”
Payne would eventually be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, but only after she hid her eating disorder for the better part of a year, even, to some extent, from herself. In the world of professional climbing—and, more generally, across endurance sports—Payne’s obsession with eating “perfectly” didn’t look as abnormal as it should. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimates that about 30 million Americans, or about 10 percent of the population, suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and many more exhibit signs of disordered eating. The incidence is believed to be slowly rising.
Efforts to measure the prevalence of eating disorders among athletes have returned varying results, but it’s generally accepted that the rate is higher than in the general population. One study of elite athletes in Norway found that 13.5 percent had eating disorders, including 9 percent of male endurance athletes and 24 percent of female athletes. Athletes are under the same pressures as everyone else to conform to a societal standard of thinness and beauty, but they also contend with their own set of risks, according to Ron Thompson, a specialist who has consulted on the topic of eating disorders with the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission (IOCMC). Those triggers turn out to be the same traits we admire in athletes, the mental assets that allow the human body to perform seemingly superhuman feats. For example, “How many people can run several miles after not having eaten for several days?” Thompson asks. For clinicians like Thompson, the battle begins with making coaches see these behaviors as dangerous, rather than as the essence of an athlete’s competitive edge.
A true love for sports