In observance of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2012, The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore is excited to offer a special community event to raise awareness about the serious nature of eating disorders, the importance of treatment and support, and to help shed some light on the surprising place where eating disorders often hide - on sports teams and among athletes. On February 26th, former World Champion rower, Whitney Post, will be speaking about her own identity as an elite athlete and how she ultimately used it to her advantage while recovering from an eating disorder. Today, Whitney is the President and Co-Founder of Eating for Life Alliance and spends much of her time educating college students, professionals, athletes and coaches about eating disorder prevention and treatment.
In advance of her talk, we asked Whitney to comment on this important topic and provide our readers with a glimpse into her February 26th presentation entitled, Invisible Victory: An Athlete’s Story of Hope & Triumph in Eating Disorder Recovery.
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Q & A with Whitney Ladd Post:
WP: For starters, we live in a culture that is incredibly rewarding of the goal-oriented, driven, take-responsibility, and perfectionistic qualities of athletes. In addition, the media sensationalizes athletic bodies, not just athletic performances. In athletes, the body can become an obsessive focus as well as a tool for athletic success. Many of the traits that make people successful and driven athletes, can also be easily misdirected towards disordered eating and an overly-critical body image. In one study of college female athletes, 88 % felt they were overweight or needed to lose weight. Another challenge is that some athletic cultures perpetuate the myth that weight loss improves performance, and athletes may be reluctant to acknowledge a problem or seek treatment. In short, it can be very easy for athletes to hide a serious and dangerous eating disorder because they often appear, from the outside, to be excelling at their sport and may look incredibly fit and healthy.
My goal is for everyone, athletes in particular, to understand the physical and emotional consequences of eating disorders and disordered eating in the short and long term. Weight loss in athletics can often be presented as the magical elixir, but if it compromises health it will ultimately compromise performance. I want athletes to know that it is a highly treatable disorder with early and proper interventions, and I want to address their reluctance to seek treatment. In my experience an eating disorder never gets better if left untreated, only worse.
Research tells us that eating disorders are biologically-based illnesses but that a variety of other factors can also play a role in how and when the illness is expressed in different individuals. Did being an athlete affect your struggle with the eating disorder? What role did it play in your recovery?
WP: When people ask me if lightweight rowing gave me an eating disorder, I say absolutely not. I loved being on the water, I loved the sense of team, and I loved working hard to win. Yet, I also had an attraction to the grueling process of making weight for the sport, as part of my willingness to put my body through extremes for the sake of weight loss. Lightweight rowing offered me a mechanism to play out my unhealthy relationship with food and my body. My years as a lightweight further entrenched my eating disordered mentality.
Yet, there are many features of athletics that can be applied to recovery if the right goals are set. The sense of team, commitment, step-by-step training toward a goal, and positive self-coaching as well as support and guidance from others can be applied to the treatment of an eating disorder. Part of my message is that some of the same liabilities of competition and training can be redirected toward recovery.
Your blog about eating disorder recovery is called “Invisible Victory” – why do you refer to this victory as invisible?
WP: Great question. For me, all my goals in my sports career involved getting noticed, recognized, and praised. There was always a teammate or a coach or spectator to witness when my hard work resulted in success. The situation was very different with my eating disorder recovery. I had to be my own cheer leader, because so many of my victories were not even perceptible to anyone else. Monitoring and changing my thoughts, behaviors, and reactions were crucial to creating a new relationship with food and my body. I had to learn to both accept the invisible nature of my new quest, and celebrate the victories big and small with or without witnesses.
When you were struggling with an eating disorder, did you ever reach a point where you didn’t think recovery was possible? If so, what helped you push past it and what message would you give to other individuals who may be feeling that way now?
WP: Recovery felt very much the way many of my lofty athletic goals felt. At times I faced feeling totally devastated, discouraged, and depressed, but I never stopped working in the direction of my goal. So of course there were many times when I wasn’t sure I would ever find my way out of my little prison in which I was both warden and prisoner, but I never stopped trying.
How has your definition of health changed throughout your life as you were struggling with an eating disorder and now, as an advocate for recovery?
WP: The biggest tangible change over the years has been that my self-worth and self-image are no longer tied to exercise. Exercise is still very important to me, but now I workout mainly for the health, mood, and social benefits (I love working out with a friend). I believe the best way to advocate for health and recovery is to live it. I continue to place a high priority on physical, spiritual and emotional health. Without that, nothing else works very well.
It’s clear from your bio at Eating for Life Alliance (ELA) that you’ve accomplished a great number and variety of personal and professional goals. What would you say you are most proud of today and why?
WP: I am so happy to be freed up from the narrow vision of the world that defines eating disorders. Instead of all the daily struggles faced when I defined myself by my body, I am now free to channel my energies to so many things. For me, recovery from my eating disorder was a gateway to an easier and more fulfilling life. I have a wonderful marriage and a new family, great friendships, and the opportunity to work professionally on something I am passionate about. Before recovery these things seemed to always belong to other people, not me.
What do you hope is the take-home message for those who attend your presentation on February 26th? Who could benefit from attending?
WP: My message is one that can benefit anyone who has been affected by an eating disorder themselves or has had a loved one with an eating disorder. It is also important information for any parent, professional, educator, coach or friend who will likely be in a position to help someone someday if they know what to look for and how to respond.
One practical message I plan to get across to athletes and those who work with them is this: although athletes have a unique set of factors that make them more susceptible to eating disorders, they also have impressive assets that can be enlisted in helping them recover. Eating disorders are common in athletes, and I don’t want anyone to be isolated and without the help she or he needs.
I want to offer education and encouragement to everyone who attends and wants to know more about eating disorders as they pertain to exercise and athletics, as well as to anyone out there who is looking for more hope.
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Many thanks to Whitney Post for taking the time to provide these responses and for having the courage to share her story so that so many others may know they are not alone.
If you would like to hear more about Whitney’s story of recovery, please join us on Sunday, February 26th at 2:00 pm for our NEDAWeek kick-off event, Invisible Victory: An Athlete’s Story of Hope & Triumph in Eating Disorder Recovery. All are welcome to attend this FREE event. We strongly encourage athletes, coaches, athletic trainers and athletic directors from surrounding schools and colleges to attend, as well as any individual who has been personally affected by an eating disorder, their parents, friends, educators, and health professionals. Please download an event flyer for details. Attendance is free but seats are limited so pre-registration is encouraged by emailing: RSVP@sheppardpratt.org.
This is just one of several special events to be offered over the course of NEDAWeek. Find out more on our Events Page.
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