Climbers, keep talking about your eating disorders

Climbers, keep talking about your eating disorders

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“That shit is old news,” I heard someone complaining as I rushed through the Rifle Mountain Park Arsenal. “All the other chicks these days seem to have the same story. They’re not special.

I slowed down my pace a bit. My partner was waiting, watching me eagerly across the rock as he finished his knot, but it was worth the wait. It didn’t take long to put the story together: the “girl” in question had just announced her decision to enter an eating disorder treatment centre.

I didn’t recognize this guy as a regular. Lucky for him, I thought. If he was, I would have torn him a new one.

But, in a way, he was right. I also noticed that the theme comes up more and more often. But none of these eating disorder stories are any less valid for echoing those that came before them. If anything, every other I hear makes them all hit even harder.

The climbing community shares a sort of traumatic bond. Since the days of lycra leggings and living with cans of cat food at Camp 4, climbers have clung to a faulty logic: the lighter you are, the harder you climb. I don’t blame anyone for believing it. Countless well-meaning climbers, including my past, fall into this trap without a second thought because…it works.

For a while, that is. Eventually the high wears off, your body runs out of resources and your muscles atrophy until all that’s left is an ashen face confused as to why even warming up suddenly seems impossible. And that’s just the least of the negative side effects.

The glamorous side of climbing weight loss has been loudly celebrated for decades. Consequences, on the other hand, have been the sport’s dirty little secret for just as long. It’s only recently that the dialogue has started to veer away from the supposed benefits of shrinking your body at all costs to the harsh reality of living with an eating disorder.

[Related: Coming Up For Air: When Climbing Isn’t The Only Battle]

In the past year alone, I have noticed a marked change in the way climbers around me talk about food. Talk of lettuce cups and pride in feeling hungry regularly echoed off the steep walls, instilling in me an uncomfortable mix of frustration and envy. A difficult experience allowed me to know better, but the attraction remained. I was wary whenever I encountered unfamiliar faces because I didn’t trust the natural flow of conversation between climbers. It always seemed to lead back to the same themes: body fat percentages, eating habits, and what gluttonous indulgence topped the naughty list that week. In hindsight, that makes sense. Hungry minds can’t focus on anything else.

But this summer, in my local cliff, something changed. I heard less about how to cut back and more about how to refuel. The food chatter was more focused on how many snacks a climber could cram into his pack rather than the few he brought, and how many better they felt after slamming a sandwich instead of how many hours they had subsisted on nothing but half an apple. The climbers around me were no longer poetic about restriction; instead, they seemed angry at their former desire to have a smaller body. It was a hopeful sign of a larger changing narrative.

New research from the Journal of Eating Disorders confirms this. A qualitative study of climbing discussion forums shows a difference in how contemporary climbers talk about eating disorders, body image issues and sustainable athletics compared to the early 2000s. Where people used to seek notoriously bad advice on how to eat less and send more, they are now working to fight those temptations while advocating for more size diversity in sports.

Neely Quinn, a certified integrative clinical nutrition therapist specializing in nutrition for climbers, noticed a similar trend. “There has definitely been an increase in the level of awareness among my clients over the last year or so about disordered eating behaviors and their health consequences,” she says. “It’s exciting to have clients talking so openly about all of this and to see so many of them come to a place where they’re ready to start recovering. I also see a greater acceptance of the body among all of my clients, whereas even a few years ago most of the people I worked with had an urgent desire to lose weight. Now they come to me having clearly thought about their bodies, fluent in their thoughts and feelings about weight, body dysmorphia, and the health consequences of calorie restriction. They want help to start eating in a more sustainable and nutritious way, and that’s just amazing to me.

Climbing coach Alex Stiger experienced his own nutritional transformation thanks to a single enlightening conversation, one that might not have happened a few years ago when such topics were more taboo. “My friend who told me about my habits really made me feel loved,” she says. “A little crazy too, at the time, but above all conscious. Through this awareness, I was able to gain knowledge about what I was eating and how much, and I realized that I was regularly in deficit during my performance days. From there, I was able to make the changes I needed to feel so much better.

The point of all this is not to say that the problem is solved. Some would think so, like that insensitive stranger I overheard at Arsenal. On the contrary, the conversations work, slowly but surely.

So many of us saying the same thing is the only reason more of us no longer suffer in silence. These repetitive conversations don’t beat a dead horse; it’s a sign that the climbing community is finally acknowledging the damage. Their prevalence means we now have the chance to dig up this dirty little secret in its entirety, once and for all.

So I want to hear more of the same. I want to hear all the gory details about how skipping breakfast got you so dizzy you couldn’t even follow the approach, let alone your plan. I want to know how cutting out carbs made you skip your workout and nap all day instead. I want to hear about the series of injuries that kept you from touching a rock for months. I want to hear all the pain, disappointment and bitterness that the pursuit of smallness at all costs has brought you. There has been so much glorification of these things for so long that the only way to fight back is to attack the opposite. We must make our suffering so abundantly clear that no young climber ever wants to take the same route again – for the sake of their climbing or their general well-being.

For the moment, the truth has not yet reached everyone’s ears. “I’ve worked with an alarming number of teenage girls whose primary goal is to climb harder by any means necessary,” Quinn explains, “including starving themselves until they’re hospitalized. I’ve heard clients of all ages say something like, “I don’t look like the girls on the World Cup podiums and I think that’s holding me back.”

What if that wasn’t their default belief? What if they’d heard so many horror stories about climbers’ lives being stuck at best and completely halted at worst that the idea of ​​manipulating their weight didn’t even cross their minds as a fast track to improvement ?

So far there is not too much information in this area. Climbers, keep talking about your eating disorders. The more we know of the horrible truth, the better.

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