Body Issue(s) By Jessie Diggins
This is a blog post I wasn’t ever sure I’d write. It can be scary to reveal the less glamorous parts of ourselves to others, the parts we’re sure that nobody will love. But it is precisely because of this that I knew I needed to write this post. It takes a different form of bravery to open up to others in the hopes of helping, but it’s the most important kind of bravery I hope to possess.
This spring, I posed for the ESPN Body Issue. That is something I never thought I’d do! For those of you wondering, I had an all-female closed set for the photo shoot, and it was incredibly empowering.
Admittedly, I mostly figured I’d never get asked or have to consider it since cross country skiing isn’t a “famous” enough sport, but times, they are a-changin’! But the biggest reason I never thought I’d do the tastefully nude shoot that shows off athlete’s muscles is because when I was younger, I struggled with a healthy body image. When I was 18-19 years old, I had everything in the world going for me, but I struggled with confidence and didn’t love myself. I suffered from an eating disorder, and eventually sought help at a treatment center, checking in for a summer program that saved my life. So when I was approached about the ESPN issue, I thought “is this REALLY something I want to do? Will it bring back old memories? Will I be ok with everyone seeing my body exactly as it is?”
And the answer was yes. I am so far recovered and removed from that period in my life that it can’t hurt me anymore. Internet trolls can’t hurt me either, I’ve had practice with those beauties for years! Realizing that I was confident enough in my own skin to say “yep, this is what training so many hours makes my body look like” was an amazing moment for me. While I’m realistically not going to love it every second of every day, I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my fast legs, my strong arms, my core and my mental toughness that got me through the hardest time of my life. Posing for ESPN was a real full-circle moment for me, and a chance for me to use a large stage to waltz right up to the microphone and share a message that I think is extremely important, and long overdue.
We need to open up the conversation about body image, self confidence, and disordered eating. It should not be a shameful thing, or a taboo topic. It’s more prevalent than people think, and perhaps making help easier to find and less difficult to ask for could save some lives.
When I first joined the National Team, body image is something that was literally never talked about. Now, we try to make it an open conversation, just like how we share struggles with confidence in hitting the right training plan, or race day nerves. Body image is such a hard thing for people to talk about. And eating disorders carry this strange secrecy around them, a shameful taboo topic that really doesn’t need to be off-limits. Many people struggle with body confidence, and it’s not just “a girl thing”. I don’t know a single person on this planet who hasn’t, at some point, looked in the mirror and thought “darn it.”
Every role model you’ve ever had has struggled with something at some point in their life, whether you knew about it or not. Even the seemingly perfect fairy-tale lives have challenges and obstacles to hurdle over, or tunnel under. I think it’s important to share my story because when I was in the midst of my battle with an eating disorder, I needed to know that I was not alone. I needed to know that even my biggest heroes had challenges they faced and that if they could overcome them, then so could I.
I also want to be sure that my story is told the right way. The last thing I’d ever want is for a young skier struggling with body image to hear a rumor, and think that I came home from the Olympics with a medal because of disordered eating. On the contrary, getting help and becoming healthy again was the ONLY way I could have made it through the stress, pressure and expectations of the Olympics and the following spring. Without the confidence to say “I’m great as I am, thanks” I couldn’t have faced the media day after day and pursued my goals without feeling like I was about to crack into pieces.
On the outside, the year I graduated from High School was a perfect year for me. I was pulling straight A’s, loved playing violin in the school orchestra, had a great group of friends and was winning every ski race I entered. Hell, the one time they let me race with the boys I beat them, too! From the outside, it looked perfect. And that was the problem.
I’ve always been a “try-hard” girl, someone who tries maybe a little too hard to be perfect. When coaches give me feedback I’m more likely to over think it, asking so many questions that I might overshoot and miss the point entirely instead of just relaxing and giving it a shot. So when I felt like I needed to make sure I was doing everything 100% all the time, I started to feel like I was out of control. I would get really stressed, and the one thing I could hold onto was the numbing of stress that came along with my eating disorder. Even though I had never been more out of control in my life, I had the illusion of being in control of something, and I clung to that fiercely.
But people, you can’t give someone an eating disorder. You don’t get one from looking at photos of skinny, ripped athletes. Can it be a trigger for some people? Absolutely. But eating disorders are a type of addiction, a mental disorder, and as the saying goes: “genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger”. If you’re hard-wired to have an eating disorder, it’s nobody’s fault and most certainly not yours. It’s not something to be ashamed of, no more than struggling with anxiety or depression or a broken leg or a bruised elbow. It’s simply a really tough challenge that you’re facing at this point in your life, and something that you can get help with.
I finally, at my parent’s urging, sought some professional help. I checked into The Emily Program, a national leader in eating disorder treatment. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but also the most important. Because it saved my life, in every way that a life can be saved. I learned that I was struggling with this so much because I needed an outlet for stress, and that it was ok to feel a range of emotions – that I could survive feeling pressured, stressed, unhappy, sad, or angry as well as feeling happy-go-lucky.
Once I grew into myself and let my body settle into where it was supposed to be, I grew into my confidence as well. I started getting faster, stronger, becoming a better racer. Instead of trying to change the shape of my body, I embraced my strengths and let my strong legs be the way they were meant to be. They carry me up the hills, but they also turned me into one of the fastest downhill cross country skiers on the circuit. I don’t always have great technique, but I am damn good at carrying speed on the flats and powering my way through transitions. I WOULDN’T be if I was trying to change the parts of me that make me fast. I also started to grow in my relationships, with my friends and with my boyfriends. I finally loved myself, so I could open up and just be me, and I had the power to love others more deeply and feel more connected.
At the end of the day, dealing with an eating disorder is something that happened to me. It is not WHO I AM, and it does not define me. I am more complex than that.
On the flip side, winning the Olympics with my team is ALSO something that happened to me. But that moment does not define who I am. I am more complex than that.
The things I go through, both good and bad, do not define me. How I handle them and what I choose to do with my experiences will. I want to be known not for winning a medal, but for using it as a platform for things that I care about; climate change. Girls in sports. Raising our sport up and sharing it with more people to get them healthy and active. I want to be known not for going through an eating disorder, but for helping other women and men speak up when they need help and not feel judged for needing a friend to talk it through with.
These days, I literally cannot remember the last time I had to say “someone throw me a life preserver, here!” and that feels really good. Do I unconditionally love every single part of me, every day? No, don’t be ridiculous. I am always going to wish I had bigger biceps! But I appreciate and take care of my body for the ways that it is unique and fast and strong and beautiful, and I know that I will never look exactly like anyone else…and nobody else will look or feel or be exactly like me. And when you think about it, that’s pretty cool.
So Coaches, Parents, Teammates, Friends, Significant Others….what can we do to be helpful? Unfortunately, there’s not one universal easy approach or fix, but the best thing you can be is compassionate and understanding. For me, the best help was to be able to talk about it with my parents and never feel ashamed or judged or like a failure, but instead feel heard and know that they were always going to be there to support me in my journey to get healthy again. Educate yourself on what it really means to have an eating disorder, and try to think about it as if you were in someone else’s shoes.
For me, it was never about food or really even about getting skinny. It was about feeling like I had control over something in my hectic, fast-paced life, feeling like I could turn to using symptoms of my eating disorder to numb myself and not have to feel the emotions that I was feeling. So instead of someone saying “you look too skinny” or “are you struggling with eating”, I needed someone to say “are you stressed right now? What needs to happen so that you can have less anxiety and put less pressure on yourself right now?”.
Statistically speaking, at least 6% of you reading this right now are struggling with disordered eating in some way. So to those of you for whom it feels like the end of the world, I can say this: it can, and it does, get better. I know, because I lived it. It will take more courage than most anything else in your life, but you can get better. And it’s worth it.
At the end of the day, the athletes that make up the World Cup are a group of human beings, not robots. We feel, we struggle, we triumph, we make friendships and we work hard. There are the amazing sports moments that bring countries to their feet but there are also struggles and hard-fought battles to win confidence and trust in ourselves. These battles are the ones you don’t see on camera, but they’re the most important ones.
Let’s try to focus not on what our bodies look like, but rather what they can DO. Because they can take us to some pretty amazing places. Our bodies can run us up and over mountains, ski us through awe-inspiring trail systems, and take us on some pretty sweet bike tours. If we can respect and take care of the body we have, we can have an amazing time in life.