The Inside Edge: TSN’s ‘Disorder’ brilliantly examines the prevalence of eating disorders in sport

Canadian pairs skater Kirsten Moore-Towers shared her story as one of several female athletes who contributed the film.

The Inside Edge is a column by Faith Bonds about figure skating.

“He told me that if I was really trying, I would stick my finger down my throat.”

Three-time Canadian champion and Olympic team silver medalist Kirsten Moore-Towers suffered in silence for years. She believed — and quite honestly was conditioned to believe — that in order to succeed in pairs skating, she had to shrink herself down to the tiniest possible size.

While figure skating culture pressures mens' and ladies' athletes to whittle down their weight to the bare minimum, the burden on pairs and ice dance competitors is even more extreme. These disciplines, which require the man to lift, throw and catch the lady sometimes hundreds of times per day, require both partners to be strong but completely compact.

To put it another way: there’s no room for extra weight.

The constant expectation to stay stick-thin drove Moore-Towers to hate her athletic body. Her body dysmorphia became so debilitating that she hated looking at herself in the mirror, and she eventually developed bulimia nervosa.

“It’s overwhelming to think that I have to eat dinner, but I know that once I eat dinner, I need to walk to the bathroom and throw it up,” she recalled in the film. “I was only allowing myself to ‘keep’ one apple per day.”

The film cites that while 1% to 5% of the general population develops an eating disorder, some sports — and I suspect skating is one of them — see more than 30% of their elite athletes suffer from this disease. And while many people associate eating disorders with vanity and glamour, “Disorder” took care to distinguish anorexia and bulimia as mental illnesses.

“The truth about eating disorders is that they really actually have nothing to do with food, and nothing to do with the body,” said clinical therapist Kyla Fox. “But that food and the body become the manifestation of what’s really going on with a person at a much deeper level.”

U.S. national champion Rachael Flatt also recounted her experience as a young teenager trying to make her mark on the skating world. Though Flatt never personally suffered from an eating disorder, like many of her peers in the skating world, she was overwhelmed with negative comments about her body.

“Before my first World Championships, I was told that I needed to drop 20 pounds in one week,” Flatt said. “I was told, when I was going through puberty, that it looked like I had a sack of potatoes on my body. Honestly, you think of a [nasty] comment, I’ve probably heard it.”

Encounters like these are nearly synonymous with figure skating culture. Only recently have people started to expose and address the harmful effects of body shaming and extreme dieting in sport.

Athletes need nutrition to fuel their bodies — their instruments — in order for them to function properly and perform well long-term. The mix of survivors and experts in the film really drove home the negative mental and physical repercussions, including death, associated with eating disorders.

Ultimately, the women in the film want to dedicate their careers to stopping the vicious cycle of eating disorders in sport. Whether that’s through research, facilitating therapy, raising awareness, advocacy or just lending a listening ear when someone comes forward, they are all making advances toward a more body-positive and healthy athletic environment.

“If somebody can relate to something I’ve experienced, then maybe we can start to have these conversations that can change the culture of sport,” Moore-Towers remarked.

In terms of body shaming, change in the culture of the sport is sorely needed, indeed. Thankfully, through films like “Disorder,” we can begin to pull back the veil of shame and stigma surrounding eating disorders — and start a dialogue about what we can do to help our fellow athletes heal while preventing others from suffering the same plight.

For more information, you can watch the full 12-minute feature film here.

The Inside Edge runs every other Monday.