The not-so-secret cost of being superhuman: elite sport’s problem with disordered eating

Athletes are breaking their silence about their experience of eating disorders and disordered eating. Why is this happening in an arena celebrated as the epitome of health?

Elite sport has long been consumed with the idea of the superhuman. Pushing the capabilities of the human body to its extremes in the hopes of uncovering the blueprint to engineer bodies that can jump higher, run faster and endure longer. And, as professionalism has increased, so too has the optimisation of athletes’ bodies in the quest for peak human condition.

But recent revelations that former Australian women’s cricket captain Meg Lanning cut her international career short due to struggles with disordered eating have exposed some of the cracks that have long been forming in the elite sport system.

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Eating disorders are not a choice, they are a disease – I wish more people knew how treatable they are | Xavier Mulenga

Recovery can be a lengthy process, but I see more people get better when they engage with treatment than not

Emily is a 24-year-old single female with anorexia nervosa and depression who was referred for an assessment due to restricting food intake, being underweight with some alcohol abuse. Emily had been living in a share house but has returned to living with her parents due to her worsening mental health.

Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric disease in which patients restrict their food intake (by extreme diets, purging and excessive exercise). Patients become severely underweight and do not realise it and have a distorted perception of weight. But eating disorders are treatable and can lead to good outcomes.

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‘The perceived scrutiny is immense’: how weddings can worsen eating and body image disorders

From dress shopping to weight-loss pressures, nuptials can open a Pandora’s box of body-image issues. Experts share advice on reducing the risk of new or worsening symptoms

It’s often expected to be the “happiest day of your life”, but the preparation for Brianna Woodward’s wedding had her crumpled on the kitchen floor, sobbing.

The 36-year-old has struggled with body image and eating disorder symptoms since her early teens, but only received targeted psychological treatment briefly several years ago, after a dentist noticed the enamel of her teeth was eroding due to purging behaviour.

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It’s a grotesque insult for Back to Black to suggest Amy Winehouse died of heartache over her childlessness

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic suggests that the singer’s desire for a baby was the main source of her suffering. It’s a gendered simplification that exonerates the forces that killed her

• This article contains spoilers for Back to Black

Anyone who saw Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary Amy is well aware of the injustices faced by Amy Winehouse during her 27 years of life. She endured addiction to alcohol and drugs, as well as bulimia, depression and self-harm. In Blake Fielder-Civil, she married a fame-hungry leech who has said he got her into crack and heroin. (“Of course I regret it,” he later said.) Her father, Mitch Winehouse, is depicted (in a portrayal he disputes) as absent until she finds success; as the song goes, he agreed with his daughter that she didn’t need to go to rehab when her first manager, Nick Shymansky, stressed that she definitely did, and trailed her with a camera crew when she was finding calm away from the UK’s vicious tabloid media in St Lucia. The film suggests that promoter turned manager Raye Cosbert put a barely conscious Winehouse on a plane taking her to her disastrous final date in Belgrade in June 2011, a month prior to her death from alcohol poisoning. Of course, the humiliations of that performance and many others like it were hers alone to weather.

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s shallow new biopic, Back to Black, is the latest injustice meted out to Winehouse. It is a regressive retreat to damaging tropes with a focus on her self-destruction that handily exonerates everyone surrounding her – bar the convenient bogeymen of swarming paparazzi and Clueless Men From The Record Label Telling Her What To Do, who the director can count on any faintly Britney-literate viewer to understand as The Bad Guys – and it undoes much of the work done to establish a fair and de-sensationalised understanding of the singer since her death. It is voyeuristic about her pain, revelling in actor Marisa Abela’s shocking thinness and scenes of her stumbling through Camden with those grimly famous bloodied ballet pumps, with portentous attempts at symbolism – what could this caged songbird mean?! How about this fox she sees while crying on the pavement?! – yet makes no authentic attempt to understand where that pain stemmed from.

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Jessie Diggins: ‘Eating disorders are about control when you feel like you have none’

Having reached the summit of cross-country skiing (again), the former Olympic champion opens up about a relapse that nearly thwarted her season

Cross-country skiing at the elite level feels closer to survivalism than sport, a staredown with existential resistance that requires a tolerance for suffering bordering on inhumane and an appetite for pushing past the outer limits of what the body and mind believe is possible. Jessie Diggins calls it the “pain cave”, the place that endurance athletes enter when they’ve willed themselves beyond their breaking point and every muscle group is gripped with an agony that would leave the rest of us mortals supine and helpless along the trail. Diggins’ hard-won mastery of this aerobic mental and physical torture chamber is what’s carried her from small-town Minnesota to the summit of a sport that was dominated by Europeans for more than a century. That is, until she came along.

It’s been four days since Diggins nailed down her second World Cup overall title to put the finishing touches on the most successful season ever for an American cross-country skier. The 32-year-old from the tiny St Paul suburb of Afton (population: 2,951), whose trademark glitter, megawatt smile and almost nuclear positivity have become her calling cards, could clinch the crown with no worse than a 20th-place finish in last Sunday’s season-ending women’s 20km mass start freestyle in the Swedish town of Falun. But rather than playing it safe, Diggins conjured a sensational knockout blow on a course tailor-made to her strengths. Clustered with a gaggle of rivals entering the closing 2.5km, Diggins broke free with one final lung-busting sprint and crossed the finish line first by ninth-tenths of a second ahead of Norway’s Heidi Weng for her sixth individual win of the season, cementing herself as the world’s most dominant cross-country skier.

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Instructions for a Teenage Armageddon review – Bridgerton’s Charithra Chandran glows and rages

Garrick theatre, London
Chandran is brilliantly bratty in Rosie Day’s one-woman story of vulnerability masked by sarcasm and bravado

Rosie Day’s one-woman play takes teen pain seriously. In a blank bedroom washed in lilac, this coming-of-age story deals not just in rite-of-passage angst but also in a roll call of traumas: grief, eating disorders, self-harm, sexual assault. This is not so much the klutzy call-to-arms it’s advertised as but a story of vulnerability covered by sarcasm and bravado.

Day, who performed the play at Southwark Playhouse in 2022, was compelled to write it after reading that one in four teenage girls in the UK self-harm. Now confidently performed in the West End by Bridgerton star Charithra Chandran, the sincere yet unevenly paced show – directed by Georgie Staight – uses teenager Eileen’s twisting journey as a platform for outrage and exhaustion.

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How I stopped comparing my appearance with my identical twin’s – and healed our relationship | Lara Rodwell

Comments about our differences used to wound me. But then I was forced to confront my decades-long resentment

“Why are you fat, and why is she thin,” a puzzled middle-aged man asked, as my identical twin Katy and I strolled into a restaurant in central Mumbai for a post-yoga samosa. It wasn’t the first time we had been asked this question – but each time it hurt just as much, and stoked a decades-long resentment towards my sister, who was always being told she was better looking than me.

As children, we had relished in our identicalness and were joined at the hip. Physically, the only way people (even family members) could tell us apart was by our face shape. I had a slightly rounder face than Katy, with chubby cheeks that earned me the nickname Chipmunk growing up. Katy and I got the same grades, had the same interests, and on birthdays and Christmases got given identical gifts – but in different colours. We were inextricably “one”.

Lara Rodwell is a freelance journalist and author

In the UK, Beat can be contacted on 0808-801-0677. In the US, help is available at or by calling ANAD’s eating disorders hotline at 800-375-7767. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is at 1800 33 4673. Other international helplines can be found at Eating Disorder Hope

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UK eating disorder charity says calls from people with Arfid has risen sevenfold

Beat chief says NHS bosses must end postcode lottery in care for people with avoidant restrictive food intake disorder

The number of people in the UK who have a previously little-known eating disorder, in which those afflicted avoid many foods, has risen sevenfold in five years, figures show.

The eating disorders charity Beat received 295 calls about avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (Arfid) in 2018 – comprising 2% of its 20,535 inquiries that year. However, it received 2,054 calls last year, which accounted for one in 10 of its 20,535 requests for help. Many were from children and young people or their parents.

Feeling full after eating only a few mouthfuls and struggling to consume more.

Taking a long time over mealtimes or finding eating a chore.

Sensitivity to the texture, smell or temperature of foods.

Eating the same meals repeatedly or eating food only of the same colour, such as beige.

Avoidance of sensory aspects, such as particular tastes, smells, textures and look of foods.

An apparent lack of interest in food.

Concern about adverse consequences, such as a fear of choking or vomiting or fear of new foods

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Your illness worsens – so care is cut off. This is the scandal playing out in eating disorder treatment

Patients I’ve spoken to in the east of England were desperate for help, with dangerously low BMIs. On what possible grounds were they discharged?

Last week, I had a long conversation with a woman who is trying desperately to loosen the awful grip of an eating disorder. She wanted to remain anonymous; for the sake of this article, I’ll call her Jane. She is in her 30s and lives in Norfolk. Her illness, first diagnosed when she was a teenager, is known as the restricting type of anorexia, meaning that she has a long history of drastically limiting her food intake to the point of self-starvation.

Over the past 10 years or so, she has spent some of her time as an NHS inpatient. She told me about her first stay in a specialist ward, where there was “a massive turnover of staff. We all knew we needed therapy, and we couldn’t get it.” She was once moved to a residential facility hundreds of miles from home, in Scotland: “You’d hear people screaming and being held down while they were fed.” And again and again, she talked about the impossibility of coping with the repeated switch from this kind of 24/7 care to the woefully inadequate visits she received when she was allowed to go home.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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Brianna Ghey’s mother warns tech bosses more children will die without action

Exclusive: Esther Ghey says she believes social media use left her daughter vulnerable, while killers were able to access violent content online

The mother of Brianna Ghey has called for her murder to be a “tipping point” in how society views “the mess” of the internet, warning that a generation of anxious young people will grow up lacking resilience.

Esther Ghey said technology companies had a “moral responsibility” to restrict access to harmful online content. She supports a total ban on social media access for under-16s – a move currently under debate in certain legislatures, including Florida in the US.

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