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LIGHT, A Film Revealing The Hidden World Of Eating Disorders in Professional Climbing

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A new film by Caroline Treadway, LIGHT, reveals the hidden world of eating disorders in professional rock climbing. Through interviews with Angie Payne, Emily Harrington, Andrea Szekely and Kai Lightner, along with a discussion of her own past, Treadway dives deep into the insidious, and prevalent disordered eating habits persisting in our community.

“I hope this film will spark fresh dialogue, remove some stigma and offer hope to those who need it,” she wrote.

Gym Climber caught up with Treadway to hear more about her inspiration for making the film and the process of putting it together. 

When did you start working on LIGHT?

This is a story I wanted to tell for a long time, but I didn’t have the perspective that I have now… The perspective of more than 20 years of watching this cycle repeat in generations of climbers. Watching my friends go through it. Feeling the isolation of it. The normalization of it. That limbo. 

I came up with the idea for the project in July 2019, and I hired Colette McInerney to shoot the first interview with Angie at the end of September 2019. We shot most of the other interviews in September and October of 2019. And the timing was lucky, because then COVID hit. Then I pretty much just worked on it solidly from April of 2020 through December of 2020.

What surprised you about the process of making LIGHT?

There were so many people who wanted to tell their stories that I couldn’t include in the film. Which was a bummer. I just realized how prevalent this problem is in our community. I realized how many people struggle. And not everybody might have severe anorexia, or severe bulimia, or severe overeating, or whatever. But there’s a lot of people who are hovering in-between. I think this film is really important for those people. There’s going to be people who say that sometimes you have to drop weight to do your project, and that’s cool. Some people can totally do that. And that’s great for those people. Not everybody can do that. This film is for those people. 

The men’s side of the story was also eye-opening. Maybe that’s just because I’m a woman, and I was already familiar with the female side, but the pressure on men is different. And I think the societal expectations about openness are different. Generally speaking, women have talked more openly about this stuff. It was really interesting to see and feel the reluctance from the male side of the community on this topic. 

Why was it important to include the stories that you did?

I think it’s really refreshing for people to hear from people like Kai and Emily and Angie—that there is another way. To hear from people who have credibility in the sport, have competed at the top level, sent impressive climbs, and are dedicated to the sport long-term. Also, I wanted to create an intimate vibe, so I wanted people who I thought were genuinely badass, but also humble and open. Sometimes the softer voices get overlooked. And I wanted to show how these ideas get passed down through the generations, so interviewing climbers of different ages seemed important. 

What were some of the challenges that you faced while making this film?

This was something I just paid for out of my own pocket. So I had a lot of financial restrictions, which ultimately ended up being for the best, because I learned to do a lot of the work myself. 

When I started this project, I thought that I needed to show that everybody was recovered. And I really struggled with that. I thought it needed to have a happy ending. But I realized you don’t have to be fully recovered from something to talk about it, and that actually that’s when you really need to talk about it. But it’s scary. I kind of classify eating disorders as an addiction, but whatever you want to call them, eating disorders are isolating, you push people away, people push you away, you miss out on the human connection that happens over meals. It’s a vicious cycle that we can stop by extending a caring hand to somebody or extending an ear, like Kai said. 

What emotions came up as you worked through the project?

All of them. [Laughs]

Mostly, I was worried whether I could pull it off. I wasn’t sure if I was a good enough storyteller or if I could make a film. I mean, I never made a film before! There were so many things that I didn’t know how to do. There was a lot of doubt and I had to face my own lack of self-confidence. But the more I got into it, the more I just fell in love with the project and the process. It was really empowering. 

I had to really face myself in this project. I had to take responsibility for all of the things that I saw in others, and find them in myself. That’s kind of how I approached it. I wanted to take the pressure off others. 

I wanted people to resonate with it and to be inspired to share their stories. To just start talking about eating disorders in climbing was really the whole point. But I felt like I couldn’t ask people to do that unless I did that myself. Having an eating disorder is something I don’t really talk about with my friends. And I don’t really talk about it with my family. So it’s a relief to finally talk about it. Sure it’s scary, but it’s worth it. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that sense of relief.  

I wouldn’t trade the experience of working on this project for the world. It has been life-changing, life-affirming. 

How did you deal with the self-doubt?

I tried to shift the focus off myself and think about other people. This message needs to get out there. That is what got me out of bed every day at like three in the morning.

[Laughing] I also listened to Dolly Parton’s America podcast. That gave me some inspiration.

When I was a kid, my mom would tell me stories. My dad would tell me stories, and I always wanted to be a good storyteller. I feel like we all really need good stories. It’s just human and necessary. It’s the way we make sense of difficult things.

Who else worked with you on this film?

It was a female crew, with the exception of Ted Distel. And he’s great. He is our animator and post-production supervisor. 

It was written and directed by me, and edited by Chelsea Walsh. Chelsea and I worked really tightly together. I met her online. I had just moved to Lake Tahoe and was looking for somebody who lived in California to work on this film with me, and she was one of the first people I found, like on Instagram. I was excited to work with another woman, and we both have a similar work ethic. She’s a great friend now.

Sarah Nicholson did the illustrations. Working with Sarah was incredible, because she just brought these experiences to life, in the illustrations, in this emotional way. It was really amazing to see it. It was the perfect time to use animation. There was no footage or photos for that time in my life.

I was also very lucky to find Sorcha Cribben Merrill, a musician in Portland, Maine, who created and performed the original music in the film. 

This was actually one of the only things I’ve made in my career that hasn’t gone through a male editor. … And that is really exciting. I feel like I’m sneaking this under the fence a little bit, because this is a story with a female-driven narrative. You don’t get that very often. 

What has been the reaction?

There has been an outpouring of personal messages coming in from people, and that’s incredibly humbling. When people resonate with your work, that’s basically the highest compliment you can get as a writer. I’m blown away.

Do you have any tips for people who want to continue the conversation or reach out to those they’re concerned about?

I think it’s important to accept people where they’re at. Accept yourself where you’re at. Share stories in an open, curious way. Every story shared is progress.

Anything else?

It was just an absolute honor to have been able to make this film. I hope the conversation continues. 

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LIGHT was produced by:

Directed and Written by Caroline Treadway @carolinelovesphotos
Edited by Chelsea Walsh @chelsea.wastaken 
Artwork by @petitepress
Animation and Post Production by @digitalstokemedia 
Original Music by Sorcha Cribben-Merrill @sorchacm
Cinematography by Chelsea Walsh, Colette McInerney
Produced by Caroline Treadway, Chelsea Walsh, Ted Distel, Colette McInerney
@carolinelovesphotos @chelsea.wastaken @digitalstokemedia @etteloc