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Words matter, so let’s learn What To Say.

The spring after competing in my first Olympic Games in 2014, I should have been full of self-confidence, fired up about training hard, and setting big goals. And I was! But one particular event really shook my faith in myself, and my confidence in rocking the muscles I had spent hundreds of hours sweating to be able to have. We had a bonfire party at my house to celebrate the end of the season, and invited a bunch of friends over.

Someone who had been one of our many awesome volunteer coaches for my high school team came over to wish me well after the season, and after talking for a few minutes they casually threw out “wow, you look a lot bigger than you did in high school! Have you gained weight?”

The casual comment about my size and shape of my body was what I would call an unintentional cruelty. In fact, when I look back on it, they may have even intended the remark as a compliment! But whatever the intention was, that evening, I slid back into my eating disordered habits for the first time in over a year, throwing up everything I ate for three days before getting help and once again committing to taking care of myself. I didn’t reach out to or talk to that person again for 3 years. When I think about this person, to this day, their comment is the first thing that comes to mind, which is honestly really sad. Clearly, they didn’t have any idea that they caused me harm, but through their words, they caused me such physical distress that I was one unlucky day away from a serious trip to the hospital.

That an off-hand comment from someone who wasn’t even extremely close to me could have such a destructive impact on my mental and physical well being seemed crazy, but there I was, relapsing into my eating disorder because I no longer felt fast, powerful, or confident. I only felt “too big”.

If one sentence can spiral an Olympic athlete back into an eating disorder, take a moment and imagine what a parent or coach could cause by telling a young athlete directly under their mentorship something along the lines of “you’d be much faster if you lost weight”, or “you could jump higher if only you dropped 10 pounds”.

Words matter. What we say to the people who look up to us, especially as coaches and parents, can have a huge impact on them. You can’t directly cause an eating disorder with your words—eating disorders are complicated, and multiple factors contribute to their development. But the words we say to others can be, and often are, significant contributors to a person’s an eating disorder.  Or, words can set one off. I know, because it happened to me.

I am so proud to speak up about my past with an eating disorder in order to help people currently struggling see that there IS hope! (photo from Julia Kern)

So what do we do? Say nothing? We could never, ever bring up food or body image for fear of saying the wrong thing…  OR, we could be the person in a young child’s life who sets a great example by not being afraid to start the conversation in a positive direction! As a coach, teacher or parent, you have the incredible opportunity to mindfully acknowledge the role food and body image play in each of our lives, and model self-care for the people who look up to you.

Which is where the “What To Say” initiative from the WithAll Foundation comes in! WithAll is the nonprofit that focuses on advancing eating disorder prevention and support. “What To Say” is an initiative to empower adults to help the kids in their lives develop healthy relationships with food and body. Decades of research show that what influential adults in a child’s life say about food, body, diet, and exercise has tremendous power in shaping the child’s body image, self-esteem and the likelihood that a child will develop an eating disorder. That’s why WithAll started this program; to give adults simple and direct resources to raise their own awareness about their relationship with food and body image, and to be able to take proactive action with the children in their life.

Happy to talk about WithAll and the importance of educating all the adults in a young athlete’s life! (photo by Render Photography)

So what exactly IS “What to Say”? Glad you asked!

  • “What to Say” is starting with 5 phrases adults can use now with kids, as well as age-specific phrases for youth sports coaches. They will expand with specific phrases for pediatricians, teachers and parents, as well as more resources for all adults.
  • Their premise is that while inspiring a child’s health and sense of self is a big responsibility, it doesn’t have to be complex. Knowing what to say, and feeling empowered in the small moments of each day, can have a big influence. Learn more at whattosaynow.org

They’re starting with coaches, because eating disorder risk and prevalence is higher among athletes. Having a coach simply be aware of how they talk about their athlete’s bodies and food, or even how they talk about their own bodies in front of their athletes, can have a huge impact. I mean, think about it…no child is born counting calories, declaring carbs to be off-limits, or saying that they are “being bad” when eating french fries. These are learned behaviors they pick up from mimicking the adults in their lives. Even if you never say anything disparaging to a child about their body, how you treat yourself and how you talk about your own body in front of them has a lasting impact. Not only do you want to treat the kids in your life with love and respect, you need to treat yourself that way, too!

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that my Mom never, ever said “do these pants make me look fat?” in front of me as a kid. Pants were, well, pants. You wore them around in lieu of being stark naked. Nothing more. They didn’t carry emotional baggage. Clothes didn’t make me feel shameful if they failed to make me look skinny. Similarly, my Dad never talked about food being “good” or “bad”…it was just delicious, and a good way to have energy for going out and mowing the lawn or going out and canoeing! If you were hungry, you ate. It was very simple. And the coaches I worked with all the time were always awesome in how they referred to food – it was powerful fuel that we needed in order to do what we loved. Food could also bring about happy social events, like the big team pasta feeds the night before a race! How they referred to food and their own bodies had a really positive impact on me, and I still ended up with an eating disorder later in life…but in all honestly, I think being surrounded by all that positive messaging saved me from developing my disorder at an extremely young age.

Really grateful to have such loving and supportive parents!

WithAll created a coaches challenge, to have coaches spend a little bit of time each week thinking about how phrases they use to describe their athlete’s bodies could have an impact on the kids they spend so much time coaching. For example, the first week’s phrase was “Healthy athletes come in all shapes and sizes.” Coaches learned how they have a powerful voice in reminding their athletes that they don’t have to look a certain way to be a great athlete. They were prompted to think about how well they accept the shape and size of their own body and its abilities, and how they might be communicating that to their athletes. Suggested action steps included modeling positive self-talk with their athletes, jumping in to redirect negative comments they overhear, and bringing their athletes together to discuss how appreciating their own bodies is an important part of being a good athlete and playing their sport well.

I’m so appreciative of having so many coaches who think I’m a badass for working hard, not for looking a certain way. (photo from Coach Pat)

In their own words, the WithAll “coaches challenge” is pretty simple, and for a busy coach they don’t want to take up too much of your time. But, this is incredibly important! “This challenge offers guidance for how and why to use the 5 phrases with your athletes. It consists of a short weekly email with suggested action steps for one phrase and poses a question or two for your own self-reflection. Our goal: make it easy for you to have an even bigger positive impact on the health of the kids who look up to you.” They’re running another challenge this summer/fall, and if you’re a coach of any sport, any age level, you can sign up right here: https://whattosaynow.org/coaches/

Because you can’t focus on training and jumping high if your brain is busy worrying about your body! (photo from Coach Cork)

And for those of you reading this who are currently struggling through an eating disorder (statistically, 6% of you)? I’m sending out a huge hug of loving support. And I’d like to tell you to be brave, to do the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life, and reach out for help. Talk to a trusted family member, friend or coach and share that you need some help. Pick up the phone and call the Emily Program at 1-888-EMILY- 77 and someone will be there to talk to you, do a short quiz over the phone to determine what sort of eating disorder you might have with a few simple questions, and schedule an intake provider meeting within just a few days for a more thorough assessment of what type of care and treatment plan you may need. They do an incredible job breaking down barriers to treatment, so your concerns are quickly heard and you will be able to start recovery as soon as possible!

It’s time to Make Peace With Food. (photo from Julia Kern)

We can so often find reasons to put off doing things for ourselves, but when it comes to your mental and physical well being, there really isn’t time to wait. When you’re living with an eating disorder, you’re only living half a life. The sooner you can start recovery, the sooner you can get back to living your full, whole and happy life again! People often put off going to treatment because their eating disorder tricks them into thinking they don’t deserve help, that they’re not worth it, or that they are selfish for wanting to fix themselves instead of spending their time taking care of other people in their life. But think of it this way; if you aren’t healthy, you can’t be there for the people in your life the way you can if you’re taking good care of yourself. If you are healthy and empowered, you can be such an incredible positive role model and force for good in someone else’s life, too! So even if you don’t want to start recovery for yourself, ask for help for the people who love you in your life. For just about a million other reasons to start getting your life back right away, check out this inspiring post from the Emily Program at this link. 

One more reason to start recovery this summer? So you can picnic on the beach and simply enjoy it, not worry the whole time!

A really great resource if you’d like to learn a little more? The Emily Program’s new podcast, called Peace Meal. Their first episode, Eating Disorders 101, is incredibly enlightening and will help shed a little light on what eating disorders are, how to go about getting help, and how to support a loved one going through treatment. They also dispel a lot of myths that people still believe about eating disorders!

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