Eating Disorder Awareness Among Equestrians
As you may know from the deluge of social media posts about eating disorders in February, the official National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) week was February 22nd-28th, 2021.
Despite this being such a popular movement, for most individuals, it’s just a fleeting week that doesn’t produce much systematic correction. What we need is a catalyst for change.
As humans, we have selective memory which makes our brains prefer information that is most meaningful to ourselves. If we can make NEDA personal by sharing our own experiences, both big and small, then we can make a more lasting impact.
My journey with an eating disorder started like any other, which is yet another reminder of how simple it could be for support systems to spot them early on. I was first influenced by friends and older girls from school through casual conversations about how pretty one girl in class or in a movie looks (who is undoubtedly skinny).
As my peers and I grew up in elementary school, I noticed many of us fell into habits of restrictive eating, or self-consciously preferring certain clothes. The general consensus was that we all wanted to be as small as possible, ideally to fly under anyone's radar until puberty runs its course for the next five years.
I experienced growth spurts very early on and inevitably stood out amongst my peers. At home, I also stood out because my twin brother was growing far slower than me. The only time I never felt out of place was when I was in the saddle. I always gravitated towards the big horses because of my naturally long legs and arms. I felt so empowered to be able to ride such strong animals. Still being a little kid, I never really saw myself as a “fat rider” until middle school when I was finally the height to match the right-sized horse. Then, self-consciousness kicked in for every aspect of my life. Long story short, it didn’t feel good at all.
I never pursued school sports teams in middle or high school because I solely focused on my riding. I was so driven and narrow-minded with my ambitions, for better or for worse. I loved riding and wouldn’t change anything. But, because I never did school sports, I never really felt like I fit in with the other “jock-like” students. And of course, there were the kids that would protest that riding wasn’t a sport.
After seventh grade, which was a very low year for my mental health, I decided I needed to really restart for eighth grade in order to give my high school years the best shot. I was living every day of middle school, just hoping I could survive to see myself in high school. But more specifically, I was hoping to see myself as my ideal version of a high school student. I always dreamt that “highschool me” would be tall and slender, have straight silky-smooth hair, and always have a few notebooks in her hand. There are so many issues with this ideal, but most obviously because I have wildly curly hair.
But “middle-school me” desperately just wanted something good to live for. So, starting the summer before eighth grade I forced myself into an intensive exercise regiment and restrictive diet on top of my increasing riding schedule. Then, shortly after school began, I was given the opportunity to train with Olympic Showjumper Anne Kursinski for that winter’s WEF 2018. It was a dream come true! But it also gave me a pit of endless dread that I wouldn’t be good enough. I heard rumors that she was a hard instructor and talked about rider’s fitness and health. (In my young mind, I just interpreted that as desiring a skinny body).
My disordered-eating habit turned into an actual eating-disorder when I began being bulimic. Starting out as a quick purge after a dessert or large-meal, quickly unraveled into an extensive trip to the bathroom after every meal. I remember often running up to the single-stall bathroom in school mid-way through lunch so that I could throw it all up before my next class.
It’s painful to remember, and I’m sure it’s painful to read, but that’s why I want to show others that they aren’t alone with this difficult journey.
When freshman winter rolled around, I was as lean as I had even been. However, I didn’t feel that way at the time which is why I now see how truly sick I was. My entire time down at WEF I was never once criticized for my weight, even though I was terrified every single day that it would come. On the contrary, I had an incredibly successful time under Anne’s guidance with my then-horse Chaz moving up from the Children’s to the Junior Jumpers.
But it was just one thing after the next that fed my eating disorder. In April, I had a George Morris riding clinic and I was terrified I could be called out for my body. That clinic went very well and no criticism arose. But then, I decided to pursue the Big Eq classes with Chaz. Well now of course I had to be skinny right? Soon, it became too unmanageable to sustain while continuing long days doing barn work.
I felt weak and I never even saw myself as skinny, so in what world is that considered a win?
When I switched back to the junior jumpers fully and pursued the working-student position with my then-trainer, I really forced myself to stop my eating disorder. It was not easy, and I had several remissions, but I knew it had to stop if I wanted to pursue my passion at the best of my ability.
I am really grateful my disorder wasn’t so extreme that I couldn’t get out of it alone. I do not recommend trying to heal on your own, it is a very lonely journey. And even in my case, where none of my family or friends knew, I still found support online through educational resources and truly inspirational women. Social media can lead to these downwards spirals, but it can also help you get out of them. I met so many amazing individuals that were struggling with similar disorders and we helped each other through it.
It pains me to see, and to know, so many young individuals that struggle with eating disorders. But I am never surprised by it, because our society generates such a toxic culture around body image, especially in athletics.
I think body image issues are especially prevalent in the equestrian world because there’s still doubt around how much the rider is truly an athlete in the horse-and-rider pair. Instead of admiring a strong rider, often people are influenced to look for a far leaner rider, who may not have the strength to be as effective as the more muscular rider. On the flip side, there are riders who are thin and have always been that way and can't seem to gain weight. So in reality, the body types of athletes are wide-ranging.
What we should be asking ourselves is, “how can I become a better athlete?” not automatically, “how can I change my body?” The difference between those two questions is that the former is focusing on improving ability and the latter is focusing on improving vanity.
In these last four years, I have seen myself blossom into a well-rounded athlete. I found a love for running and now race half-marathons. I can go through a day of hard manual labor at a barn without collapsing (at least most of the time). And most importantly, I feel strong and confident in the saddle.
If you are currently struggling with an eating disorder, please seek out professional help. Visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support for screening tools, helplines, and more information about eating disorders.