I was a competitive swimmer as a teenager. Every change in my growing body exposed in a tight, skimpy swimsuit. People weren’t shy to comment. When I look back at that time, I wonder at what moment did my own eating disorder take root? When did I start to feel as though my body were betraying me? When did I stop treating myself with the respect I deserved? I wanted to swim faster, I wanted to look different. I began to hate my body, like many women before me.
My new novel Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts is about a runner called Mickey. It’s not based on my life. I’m taller than she is, I’m not dyslexic, I cannot run as fast as she can. Our lives mirror each other in mostly insignificant ways, and yet – of course some of me is in there. That raging shame of my own lifetime of body dysmorphia and disordered eating fuels the emotional truth of my novel.
Whenever I read another woman discussing her feelings about her body and how it’s been disparaged by coaches or fellow athletes, especially all the incredible and inspiring contemporary New Zealand runners like Lydia O’Donnell and Esther Keown (the founders of Femmi, a running coaching business that puts the holistic well-being of female-identifying runners at its heart), it becomes more clear that we must do something to stop this cycle. It’s devastating to see so many people go through this. To watch as they hurt themselves, to witness another person suffering.
In 2019, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Mary Cain. Mary had been a prodigy – as a teenager, she set records running track and beating women much older than her. Watching her run was mesmerising. She was fast and so graceful, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the top coach, Albert Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project, asked her to join his team. The NYT piece was headlined “I was the fastest girl in America, until I joined Nike”.
There’s a video alongside the opinion piece. Mary sits talking, while video and photographic footage of her and the Nike Oregon Project plays occasionally. It’s gruelling to listen to Mary tell her story: public humiliation, no support, a sadistic obsession with getting her as thin as possible, terrible results, her body breaking – literally, her brittle bones breaking due to the syndrome RED-S.
I read and watched Mary’s story after I’d written the first draft of my book, and I was struck with the realisation that although everything about their stories was tragic, the most tragic element to me was that this story of women in sports is far too common.
It’s estimated that more than 100,000 people in Aotearoa struggle with disordered eating. Along with breathing, and drinking water, eating is essential for life. We need it for nourishment, for energy, for pleasure. Imagine a baby, five or six months old, desperate for solids, tilting their head toward the spoon held to their mouth. Consider how twisted and perverted the pressure that must be exerted to shift this mindset from curiosity and genuine delight in food to disgust and revulsion. Imagine of the misery that compels someone to refuse the base instinct of hunger. Imagine living as though your body is a prison. Imagine more than 100,000 people feeling this way.
There’s a global narrative that skinny is best, and it’s been around for some time, harming generation after generation. And while eating disorders aren’t a diagnosis only given to athletes, when it’s combined with intense exercise and focus on the body the result can be vicious. The physical body is under credible scrutiny in sport: it’s the performance vehicle. Measuring the strength of the body is important, the malleability, the resilience. In some sports, weightlifting and boxing for example, weight is a feature of competition criteria, but weight is measured in many sports, mostly unnecessarily.
The way we’re policing bodies isn’t benefiting women’s performance, it’s causing harm. The results of a survey published in 2021 by Healthy Women In Sport, a group that works and reports to High Performance Sport New Zealand, said that 15 percent of surveyed female athletes responded saying they’d experienced disordered eating, and almost three quarters of respondents thought that sport was damaging their health.
It’s interesting to discover what makes me feel good now, what keeps the shadows of my mental illness at bay, is exercise. Sweat. I need to sweat. Every day if I can. Research published earlier this year suggests that exercise regimes that last for 12 weeks or longer might be the most effective way to manage depression and anxiety, even more effective than most medications and counselling. There’s a desperate need to keep people active, especially girls, who stop participating in sports in startling numbers after the age of 17. But this must run alongside a change of attitude toward the way we understand and control our bodies. The human body is not broken. It’s not in need of repair. It’s good just the way it is.
Everything is Beautiful and Everything Hurts by Josie Shapiro (Allen & Unwin, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide. It was the inaugural winner of the 2022 Allen & Unwin Commercial Fiction Prize.