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Anorexia and Competitive Climbing

Canadian comp climber Sarah Spurell is a 19-year-old based in Newfoundland who hopes to return to competitive climbing sooner, rather than later

When Canadian Sean McColl reposted French climber Charlotte Durif’s article on anorexia in competitive climbing, my coach texted me. I was sitting in my clinic waiting for the receptionist to call my number for Woodwork and I had this feeling of hope that someone was going to throw this dark monster I struggled with into the light. I expected the author to dust some of the stigma off this serious illness. What I read felt more like a slap in the face. Durif said, “Yes, I’m calling it a method of doping. Despite not requiring a chemical product, it is an artificial physical alteration process, just as blood doping, to cite just one example in other sports.” According to Durif, “These anorexics are not sick, they choose it mindfully, convinced of their legitimate and free will.” While I could not agree more that anorexia in competitive climbing is a real issue and deserves the attention of those who love the sport, this is not the right kind of attention. This article perpetuates stigma in a million and four ways, but I don’t think this is the author’s fault. I know first-hand that anorexia is hard to talk about and in general is not well understood. I’m here now to do what I can for myself and for anyone else who’s suffering.

First and foremost: anorexia is not a choice. It runs in families. Many women who develop anorexia experience the onset of an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder in childhood, on average five years prior to the onset of their eating disorder. Where society pushes guilt and blame, science reveals that anorexia is not chosen willfully. Anorexia is an illness. It has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses. The lo-year survival rate is comparable to that of malignant melanoma. The symptoms of anorexia impact every area of a person’s life. Some effects are reversible, some are not. Osteoporosis can occur. Muscles become weak and muscle mass is lost. Fainting, fatigue and general feelings of weakness are normal. Does this sound conducive to enhanced performance? Anorexia is a disease, not a competition strategy.

Anorexia is not a body type; not all light people or thin people are anorexic. The media’s portrayal of the anorexic” is one-sided and misrepresentative. I’m not going to tell you how much I weigh to convince you I have an eating disorder any more than I’m going to tell you what grades I climb to convince you I’m a climber, because I don’t endorse that attitude. When I was diagnosed I met the DSM-v criteria for anorexia and still didn’t think I “looked anorexic.” I leveraged the pop culture perception of anorexia to convince myself I didn’t have a problem.

I’ve always felt anorexia snuck up on me, using stereotypes as cover. Anorexia can be incredibly dangerous before extremes of low body weight are reached. In fact, anorexia can kill you before you ever have a chance to “look anorexic.” Eating disorders affect up to 70 million individuals worldwide. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. A young woman with anorexia is 12 times more likely to die than a woman her age without anorexia.

And what about in climbing specifically? Think about all the times you’ve heard the phrase “power to weight ratio” or paid extra for lighter quickdraws or heard someone berated at the gym that they only stuck that move because they don’t weigh anything. Female athletes in esthetic sports have been found to be the highest risk group for developing eating disorders and this isn’t to say that males aren’t at risk too. According to the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders in judged sports — sports where performance is scored — the prevalence of eating disorders is higher.

In a comparison of the psychological profiles of athletes and those with anorexia, and found many factors in common: perfection-ism, high self-expectations, competitiveness, hyperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, tendency toward depression, body image distortion and pre-occupation with dieting and weight.

In the middle of my last competition season, I walked into the counselling centre of my university and requested an appointment. I was weighing myself multiple times a day and “body checking,” pinching my belly and hips multiples times an hour. I would never had admitted to being on a diet, but for years I had an increasingly rigid food and exercise regime and was prone to severe anxiety attacks when my plans were disturbed. My “safe” foods list was always shrinking. I measured and rearranged food to soothe myself. I read nutrition information compulsively; I shopped by those labels, hoarded recipes and ate only what I prepared from scratch. I cried when the counsellor asked me why I had come to see her. I told her I wanted to be a good role model for the younger girls on my team. So we decided to challenge my food rules and everything went to hell.

Taking away those rules took away the only thing I felt I could control. It caused a spiral effect. I cut my food intake in half, then quarters and sometimes didn’t eat. I tallied calories religiously. I spent hours in the kitchen obsessing over food, opening and closing the door of the fridge, paralyzed by anxiety. My weight plummeted. My grades in school plummeted. My athletic performance hit the floor. My counsellor leapt into action: she referred me to an intensive outpatient program for people with diagnosed eating disorders.

Recovery has been full of ups and downs. Shortly after my diagnosis I had to stop climbing. Six months later, I am still not allowed to exert myself because my heart activity and weight are not where my doctor wants them. I miss climbing very much. The bitterness in Durif’s article stung more than the needle for the Woodwork my doctor had requested that day. I realized that anorexia in climbing is something that needs to be talked about and that my perspective is valuable to that conversation. Anorexia has no place in competitive climbing. I vote we combat it with awareness, compassion, early intervention and the support of a strong, passionate community.

It’s never too early to seek help for an eating disorder. If someone comes to you for help, listen without judgment and take them seriously. You could save a climbing career or a life.

Sarah Spurrell on Chickens V3 three years after this article was written. Photo Greg Locke