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This is the front side:
“’If I start eating again, it will all go away, all that hard work for nothing …. I just need to lose five more pounds, then I can stop.’ Then I woke up in the hospital.”
So says the longtime climber-photographer Caroline Treadway, in the opener to her deeply relevant and compelling film “Light,” about the world of eating disorders in professional climbers. Two years in the making, it premiered February 1, free on YouTube, and appears in full (also gratis) on gymclimber.com.
And here is the affirmation on the other side, after the moment—so powerful at many levels—in “Light” when we see Angie Payne climb Freaks of the Industry, a V13 in Rocky Mountain National Park. Angie, whose story is intertwined with that of her friend Emily Harrington, both onetime teen standouts who reached the top of the sport, both of whom show admirable candor in describing the torment of eating disorders: “Feeling light feels amazing. But what I realized once I started gaining weight again and getting healthier again was that you can get that feeling by being strong. And feeling really strong feels even better than feeling really light.”
The film plays out against the backdrop of Caroline’s own early struggles with an eating disorder.
As someone with a long view of our sport, I remember Emily and Angie as young bright lights, saw them compete many times, appreciated the arcs of their careers. Caroline was—probably still is—an excellent climber of her era as well, but her professionalism in the sport was as a photographer and writer, and her disordered eating preceded her climbing.
Kai Lightner with sincerity represents the often overlooked male side of the equation. While eating disorders are primarily associated with women, males are also subject to them. While numbers vary, according to www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, one in three people struggling with an eating disorder is male, and males are overall less likely to seek treatment.
This problem in climbing reaches way back. We at Climbing covered it (as have others nationally and internationally over the years) with a three-part presentation in 1996, and an earlier departmental (Medicine) article by Shelley Downing in 1994 (in which Timy Fairfield was interviewed speaking openly and constructively his period of bulimia). We ran another first-person essay, gleaned from our John Long Writing Symposium, as a feature in the January 2018 issue of Rock and Ice. By Liz Weber, “The Weight” talked about how in her case climbing rescued her from, rather than led to, anorexia and disordered eating. Marisa Michael for Gym Climber and Neil Gresham for Rock and Ice have explored the topic as, respectively, a nutritionist and a climbing coach. Last year a feature by Delaney Miller and Miryam Nissan appeared in the 2020 issue of our annual Ascent compendium
I wrote the below editorial after competing from 1988 to 1995, with a maternity break in there. The era was the genesis—let’s call it late genesis—of comp and sport climbing. Stephanie Forte was the first woman in this country I am aware of (further information always welcome) to explore the problem in depth from a personal point of view. Her first-person essay, in our Perspective section, was pained, forthright and downright brave.
I once had this friend. I was somewhere in my mid-20s, and teaching climbing during the day, doing my own climbing in the evenings, and marching around on trails all day. I was probably more active than I’d ever been. I’d asked this person if he thought I was getting fit. (OK, I was fishing for a compliment.)
“Well, you’re all right,” he said. “But you should try to look more like [X]. That girl’s down to bare bones.”
He also said this to me: “I think it would be cool if you lost your periods. It would be, like, the body is so efficient there’s nothing to spare.”
The most amazing comments fly at rock climbers, especially woman. And we of both genders certainly hear other climbers obsessing about their weight.
We all know it helps to be light—that old strength-to-weight ratio. But how thin is too thin? Climbers are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. Problems have been exacerbated since the advent of sport and competition climbing, and we could be on the verge of an increase.
I can only imagine the pressures on the world’s top climbers. I can, however, list a few choice morsels from personal experience. A coursesetter at a national competition (where I had placed second) told me, “If you really want to get serious about this sport climbing stuff, you need to lose 20 pounds.” Some creepy guy I once barely met at a crag wrote and told me that I needed to lose weight—and, worse, where. I walked out of an optional body-fat test at a World Cup event with another woman, both of us bemoaning, “I’m so fat!” (a common refrain). When we confessed our percentages to each other, she said, “You are fat!”
Sure, I could have been thinner, but my body fat had just been measured at 12 percent. OK, it was 13 that time, but 12 the other times. For reference, 12 is the same percentage as the leaner members of the National cycling team, one tester has told me. Healthy, athletic woman average 15 to 18 percent.
Some top women climbers are in the single digits in body fat percentages and still appear healthy, but others can seem spectral. At the Snowbird World Cup measurements in 1989, testers said that climbers, especially the women, were “off the charts”—the leanest group of athletes they’d ever seen.
I’ve known of climbers eating a whole card of Ex Lax at a time, puking after dinner, or living on Dr. Pepper. Or saying it felt good to climb the Diamond while only eating an apple all day. Many show milder forms of disordered eating, as simple as being obsessed about food, or preoccupied with the scale hidden in the van on a road trip.
Some climbers develop problems and get over them. Some, though, as Stephanie Forte with admirable honesty describes in this issue’s cautionary Perspective column, start dieting, thinking they can stop at any time, and then find they can’t.
Eating disorders can wreak havoc with your health. Some symptoms, such as increased injuries and illnesses, may be treatable; some may be irreparable. Bones may never again be sound, bowels never work properly. (See the Perspective sidebar by Susan Price, M.D.) One of my best climbing friends largely attributes a debilitating case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to overtraining and under eating. What if you’re a woman who eventually wants children? Is the chance of a short-term gain worth the risk of affecting fertility?
Eating disorders can also, of course be fatal. And they mess with your mind.
Stephanie is not someone you’d pick out as having a problem. She’s a live wire, vivid, ridiculously pretty; always has a laugh. I’d always (though I never saw her at her lowest weight) just thought she was petite. Never did I imagine her ordeal.
What are the answers? Awareness, recognition, support from people who care. Please don’t automatically say, “This doesn’t apply to me.” Ask yourself if it does, or applies to anyone you know.
Someone once came up to Stephanie in a gym and said, “You know, I see you in here every day with bloodshot eyes, working out like crazy. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
Stephanie replied that she was fine, but at the same time she knew she’d been busted. It helped, she says, to keep her in line.
Did the question make her mad? (Denial is symptomatic.) Yes, at first.
“But later,” Stephanie says thoughtfully, “I appreciated it.”
Stephanie Forte’s piece, along with the note from Susan Price, will be posted in the coming days.