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LIGHT: eating disorders within the professional climbing community

Blyth McPherson discusses a new climbing documentary, Light, exploring eating disorders within professional climbing

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Image Credit: Sarah Nicholson/ Petite Press

CW: This article mentions eating disorders.

Restricted eating in the professional climbing world “was more like the order than a disorder” states Caroline Treadway a climber and the director, writer, producer of the new documentary LIGHT.  This new documentary created by an all-female creative team sheds light on the sport’s darkest secret, through the courageous narrative of the people being affected by it.  It is beautifully balanced in its discussion of how eating disorders affect members of the climbing community and the personal stories it delves into.  The documentary starts with Caroline narrating her experience so far of eating disorders within the climbing world, revealing how as a writer she pitched pieces to climbing magazines discussing this darkness within the sport but to no avail, being told that ‘no one wants to hear’ about eating disorders.  This seems to perfectly summarise one of the key issues which is explored further throughout the rest of the documentary; the taboo nature of this topic and how difficult it is to talk about in a competitive, professional environment.

To explore the issue of eating disorders within professional rock climbing, Caroline speaks to many successful and professional climbers about their experience with weight and eating throughout their careers.  Angie Payne has won every major US climbing competition, and had known Caroline for 15 years before they sat down together and spoke about the eating disorders they were both aware the other was suffering with.  Angie expresses that when she was younger and was in the prime of her competition success she was constantly thinking about when the next competition was, when did she have time to train, did she have time to eat, was she strong enough – and it was this continuous rhythm and cycle that led her to the situation she ended up in.  Angie knew she was depressed then, but she was climbing well so did nothing to change it.  The documentary highlights this mentality that was shared among so many climbers at the time; there was an awareness that the way people prepared for competitions was not necessarily healthy but it meant people succeeded, and if they were succeeding what was the issue?

Emily Harrington was another climber at the prime of her success at the same time as Angie, instead focusing on sport climbing rather than Angie’s bouldering, and the two of them were close friends.  Emily explains the mentality she had at the time as, “you deprive yourself.  You starve yourself.  And then you send.  And that was the mentality back then.” She says that she was constantly worried about food and control but would do whatever it took to be successful.  With all the successful climbers looking extremely slim, it bred the mentality of needing to lose weight to climb well.  Caroline speaks about when she moved to Boulder, Colorado – the main American scene for climbing – and that everyone in the community there always seemed to be on a diet or speaking about what they ate or didn’t eat.  She noticed that everyone that moved there then dropped weight, yet everyone always said they were fine, as it became the normal to deprive oneself to climb harder.  There was an obvious awareness in the community of what people were doing and how they were suffering, but it was not discussed as there was an acceptance that this was the done thing for people to succeed.

The documentary follows the journey of Angie and Emily on their roads to recovery of their eating disorders, and breaking down the wall of no discussion that there is in the sport.  At the height of their competitive careers Emily and Angie lived together, however with them both suffering this put a strain on their friendship.  They ended up becoming distant and they never spoke to each other about the eating disorders they were aware they were both suffering with until years later, when they ran into each other at a competition.  Angie explains that “the whole community kind of praised you for doing it, [so] you couldn’t really talk about it”.  There was an awareness within the professional community of what was happening, with Caroline saying that she saw it for herself when she started photographing competitions; she would see climbers get skinnier and skinnier, and get praise for it.  Upon reflection Caroline notices that all of her climbing heroes were very slim women, and that there were hardly any women who climbed hard and looked healthy – a rarity which only proved the prevalence of disordered eating in the sport.

The stories of Angie and Emily help make the documentary seem quite personal.  They are both very open and honest in talking about how they were suffering and their mentality at the time, and how they are still struggling with it now.  The impact of eating disorders in the wider world is also discussed in the documentary, with details offered from Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani – fondly referred to as Dr  G throughout.  This adds a nice level of balance between personal experiences, reflection on the greater climbing world, and the medical information regarding eating disorders.  Dr G reflects on the stigma that still surrounds eating disorders, saying how there are always people who are suffering with eating disorders who are missed.

Caroline expresses how she knew of as many men in the climbing world who were suffering with eating disorders as she did women.  Upcoming male climber Kai Lightner spoke to her about his experience with his eating disorder and the taboo nature of the topic for men.  Kai states that you have to admit to being vulnerable to talk about eating disorders, which he feels is harder for men to do as there is still a perceived connection between vulnerability and weakness, although Kai feels vulnerability shows strength not weakness.  Emily expresses in the documentary that she is scared that nothing has changed with the sports mentality towards weight and eating, and with Kai being a younger climber suffering with similar issues, it suggests that the mentality is still breeding.  Kai says for him the disordered eating was less about body image and more about performance, as he wanted to be the best and felt that he needed to fit into the mould that had already been set to achieve that. The professional climbing world had effectively become a collective weight loss culture.

The documentary ends with a discussion of how the cycle can be ended for everyone.  Emily says she felt she was brought up in the culture of having to deprive oneself to have success in climbing, as that was the way it was painted, but she believes there is a better path.  Both Emily and Angie have accomplished huge achievements since being on their roads to recovery, with Angie being the first woman in the world to climb a confirmed V13 at the start of her recovery journey. They are very honest about the struggles they have faced during their recovery, with Emily saying that some days she thinks if she fell back into that mentality maybe she could complete the climbs she can’t now, but knows that is not the case.  Angie says she had to learn that feeling really strong is better than feeling really light, but admits that she doesn’t feel like she’s fully recovered and it’s been nearly 18 years.  She also says that speaking about it, sharing her story and being in recovery “feels way better than all the years it was a secret.” Emily’s fear that the mentality still lives on comes from a feeling of responsibility, as she is aware that younger climbers would have entered the scene and admired her while she was suffering from her eating disorder, seeing her performance, physique and training as something to aim for to succeed.  She feels she is responsible to come forward and say that is not the proper approach and that there is another way forward.

The issue of eating disorders in the climbing world could be so much better, provided that it is spoken about.  That is exactly what this documentary does.  It unearths the problem, shedding light onto real experiences and almost calling out the industry for not being open to discussing this problem within it.  It is an eye opening account of the ways in which professional sport can harm athletes in more ways than just physical injury.  The documentary continuously expresses the need to keep the conversation going, as bringing awareness to the issue is the only way to actively build making a change into the way the climbing world functions.  The documentary was independently made and has already amassed over 400,000 views on YouTube in just over a month since it was uploaded.  It has received over 400 comments of people expressing their gratitude for the stories of those involved being told, and sharing their own experiences within the world of climbing and these exact issues.  The amount of men actively engaging in the discussion is heartwarming to see, with this being directly mentioned in the documentary.  I was sent this documentary from my dad, a 50 year old man with a love of climbing, which shows just how impressive the reach of this documentary is whilst simultaneously achieving Caroline’s goal of it sparking a fresh dialogue on the issue.  The documentary was the first of its kind about climbing, and I hope to see more sports discussing the taboo issues that hide within them to help less people feel isolated in their struggles.

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