Athletes are at high risk of developing eating disorders, which can often be masked as training and dietary plans. Jessie Diggins knows this firsthand. The 28-year-old cross-country skier from Afton, Minn., tells of her eating disorder in hopes of helping others. After her recovery, she and teammate Kikkan Randall became the first U.S. skiers to win Olympic gold in the team sprint in 2018. She has recorded six victories and a total of 21 podiums on the World Cup circuit, and has won two world championship medals. – The Editors
I would like to tell the story of the eating disorder that I turned to in order to try to race faster. It hurt my career short term — but it didn’t ruin my life, and my racing took off once I got healthy again.
The hard part to tell is what it was like nine years ago, when I was too scared and ashamed to even admit that I had a problem.
Don’t you think it’s time the shame, secrecy, and stigma surrounding eating disorders disappears? When you feel that you may be judged for having one, you’re much less likely to reach out for help. What if we could create a world where eating disorders are treated the same as a broken wrist? You realize you’re hurting, you ask for help, you receive medical care, and you heal.
When I think back to 2010, when I picked up the phone to call the Emily Program [a national treatment center for eating disorders] and get treatment, it was the scariest thing in the world. It felt like my life couldn’t possibly go on without my eating disorder. It also couldn’t go on with one.
It’s alarming how quickly it spiraled out of control. I went from feeling a little insecure and starting to use some disordered eating habits — going for a run after dinner even when I’d already trained that day, deciding certain foods were “off limits,” never using butter or salad dressing, etc. — to having a full-blown eating disorder. Despite the fact that I had lived 18 years of my life without it, my eating disorder had become my new life sentence.
I was scared that, without my eating disorder, I would get fat, slow, and unable to race fast. I was scared I wouldn’t make the national team. I was scared to go into a recovery program because I worried I wouldn’t be able to train. I was scared I’d get kicked off my club team. I was scared boys wouldn’t like me if they found out. Worse still, I was scared that they would like me.
When you believe that you are not worthy of love because you don’t love yourself, you question anyone who tries to show you love or support. I thought the people who were trying to help me get better couldn’t possibly understand that without my eating disorder, I was nobody.
When you’re in the middle of an eating disorder, deciding to ask for help can be the most terrifying first step. That’s why it’s the most important one. I couldn’t believe how accepting, warm, and welcoming the team at the Emily Program was the first time I stepped in the door after making the phone call for my appointment. I never felt judged for needing to be there. I found acceptance for who I was, and that was exactly the confidence boost I needed to decide to start moving forward with recovery.
For me, it was never about the food or my body, but about trying to be perfect and feeling like I wasn’t good enough if I didn’t do everything in my life 100 percent. I had to realize I was worthy of love, and good enough the way I was, before I could stop trying to control everything in my life.
Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. There were many days when I thought, No way is this worth it, because going through all the emotions and facing your eating disorder is scary. But I was fortunate to have an amazing support system around me, and, over time, the process of making friends with food (and myself) got easier.
I began to remember how much fun life can be when you’re not obsessing over food and how to get away from it, and just enjoying the people around me. My relationships became more meaningful, and I became truly happy again — not the fake happy I had plastered on my face to pretend everything was OK.
Fighting for myself in recovery remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done — but also the most important thing I’ve ever done.
So, if you’re struggling with an eating disorder, I can promise you this: It doesn’t have to be this way forever. It can, and it will, get better if you seek help. Getting your life back is absolutely worth the fight.
By the Numbers
- 1 in 6 Female Athletes
- 1 in 10 Male Athletes
Estimated number of athletes who meet diagnostic criteria for eating disorders.
Percentages vary widely, depending on studies, and can be especially high in sports with weight classes, “aesthetic” sports such as gymnastics and bodybuilding, and sports where low body mass is thought to give a competitive advantage. Many researchers also believe that athletes tend to underreport their disordered-eating behaviors for fear that it could derail their careers.