BY: MELODY MOORE, PH.D
“I’m a coach of a collegiate running team. How do I encourage my team to stop focusing on their and each other’s weight? How can I help them stop commenting on their bodies when I feel hypocritical, because I do the same thing?” This is just one of the messages that Lauren Fleshman and I received when we advertised our “Running and Eating Disorders” course on Embody YOUniversity, an online learning platform we recently launched at Embody Love Movement to provide access to classes that most of us weren’t offered in school.
The woman who asked this isn’t alone. Many of our 35 live participants, made up of adult runners, therapists, coaches from middle school to college, and parents of runners, wondered how to create a culture supportive of the holistic health of the individual and of their team. Their concerns mirrored those that the data we collected after our Running on Om podcast about the same topic revealed: coaches, runners, and parents want tools to shift the climate and the culture of running away from promoting comparison, a narrow focus on outcome, and a celebration of thinness, to one of mutual support, destigmatization, and a holistic perspective of the individual runner.
It’s widely known that Eating Disorders are all too common amongst competitive runners, but it seems that the stigma against them has created an environment where they aren’t often revealed. An overwhelming majority of the runners in our course and in our data never told anyone about their Eating Disorder. This is especially frightening because one of the markers of resiliency for someone in recovery is a strong sense of community support. And if no one knows about a struggle, no one can serve as a buffer against it. One obvious place to transform culture is to offer open conversation and destigmatization about the range of Eating Disorders. These conversations should include an explanation of body shaming and the detrimental impact of body talk, both internally and amongst team members. No one benefits from being told that they “look” fill-in-the-blank, and neither does anyone around them. Runners who are told they are thin or have lost weight may hear that to mean that they should continue to do so, and that this is what is pleasing about them. If they are already struggling with an Eating Disorder, comments like these will serve to fuel the disorder. If a runner is told the opposite, that she needs to find a “race weight” or “goal weight”, it could trigger unhealthy thinking and behaviors, and undermine the runner’s confidence, not to mention her health. Instead of commenting on runner’s appearance, talk about their qualities, their effort, their attitude.
Another common question amongst the students was “How do I approach a runner/teammate who I think may be struggling?” Great question. My advice:
- Ask permission to talk. Before starting a conversation, ask your teammate for a good time to talk in private. This allows them to have a sense of choice and control, so you’re setting up the conversation to feel safe.
- Don’t make assumptions. You’ll put your teammate on the defense and they’ll be much more likely to shut down. Instead, ask about their global well-being, including how they are feeling in general, their sleep, their nourishment, their energy. Show them that you care about their overall well-being.
- Tell them what you are observing. After they’ve shared with you how they feel things are going for them, share what you have been observing. Do not tell them that they look differently (that they’ve gained/lost weight), as this could feed or trigger an Eating Disorder. Instead, tell them about any mood changes, behavior changes, or other issues that are causing you to feel concerned for them. For example, “you’ve seemed withdrawn lately”, or “I notice you don’t ever come to lunch with the team anymore”.
- Offer resources. In case your teammate is open to hearing your concern and being offered support, be ready to share resources with them. Depending on the age and circumstances of your teammate, you could offer to go with them to talk to the coach, their parents, or a counselor. Be prepared to offer them names of therapists who specialize in Eating Disorder recovery in case they are open to receiving help. The National Eating Disorder Association is a great place to start. *They also have a toolkit for athletes on their site.
- Assure them that you care. Even though there may be a part of your teammate that wants to protect their Eating Disorder (which thrives on secrecy and isolation), your support and your investment in them may help pivot them toward recovery. Let them know that you are available for support.
I’m hopeful these tips allow you to feel more confident in approaching conversations like these. Still, I wish they didn’t have to occur at all. That’s why I founded a non-profit to prevent negative body image and Eating Disorders, Embody Love Movement. During Lauren and my course last week, it became even more obvious that Embody Love Movement workshops, created for small groups of girls and women ages 7-11, 12-18, and adult, would be incredibly beneficial for any team. The three-hour workshops, which Lauren says “shifted the way (I) respond when I hear other runners talking about their bodies” create a sense of cohesiveness around our common experience of being objectified and measured based on our external appearance. Each of us has been impacted, and this shared vulnerability, when channeled out of shame and into courage, creates shared responsibility. Participants leave our workshops with tools to pivot their perspective about their own bodies and to change body shaming conversations to those of substance.
If you feel empowered to shift the culture of your team or running group, check out Embody Love Movement and use our workshops to instill kindness, non-comparison, and cohesiveness.
For our part, Lauren and I are going to continue to build on the excitement garnered from our collaboration and are creating a toolkit for athletes and for coaches. Stay tuned, but more importantly, stay kind to your self. You deserve that.
- Melody Moore, Oiselle Muse
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