Dear Women’s Running

I recently came across an article in Women’s Running Magazine on the subject of disordered eating.  The first time I read it, it bothered me.  I decided to sit with it for a while, and see if the feeling would pass.  After a few days, it didn’t.  So I sat down and wrote the following letter to the magazine.  I have yet to receive a response, and I’d really like to hear what the editors or the author have to say.  I hope they’ll take the time to get in touch with me.

***

Dear Women’s Running,

I want to begin by saying that as an avid female runner, I’m a fan of your magazine; for the most part, I think of Women’s Running as a magazine that has positioned itself differently from other fitness-themed magazines targeted to women.  You take female runners of all levels seriously, and provide them with intelligent and empowering content.  Needless to say, a women’s magazine that does this is not at all easy to find.

It’s for this reason that I was, and continue to be, so disappointed by Amy Reinink’s recent article, “Dangerous Relationship”, on the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors in women.  This is a topic that merits far more attention than it gets in mainstream media, so I commend you for publishing an article that addresses this subject matter; however, it also happens to be a topic that needs to be handled with great care, as a failure to do so has the potential to do more harm than good.

Ms. Reinink begins her article by stating the weight, height, and amount of calories consumed daily by Kendra Glassman—for anyone suffering from either an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, information like this could prompt feelings of inadequacy, a need to further limit caloric intake, or criteria against which to judge one’s own body and most likely come up short.

Not only do the details given in this opening paragraph have potential to trigger a reader’s disordered behaviors (and with 65% of women displaying these behaviors, it’s fair to assume that many of the readers of Women’s Running struggle with them on a daily basis), they are also completely unnecessary.  Instead of providing the reader with information that will help her to understand the rest of the article, they reinforce the warped and conflicting definition of health that haunts many women and that is usually touted in magazines like Shape and Fitness.  As Ms. Glassman ultimately learns, overcoming disordered eating behaviors and living a truly healthy lifestyle means putting emphasis on the way a body feels and performs rather than how much it weighs, or how few calories it can be fed before basic functioning is compromised.  Ultimately, the inclusion of these details at the beginning of the article undermines the overall message that Ms. Reinink is trying to get across.  This piece could have served as a platform to combat many of the stereotypes that contribute to disordered eating behaviors.  The fact that it doesn’t is disappointing.

To make matters worse, Ms. Reinink describes Ms. Glassman as “the picture of health”, reinforcing the notion that there are specific looks associated with both EDs and disordered eating, as well as good health.  The implication is that Ms. Glassman fits in with the model of a woman who is thin and conventionally pretty, but that she isn’t rail thin; because an observer wouldn’t be able to count her ribs, she’s healthy.  This could have been an opportunity to take on the idea that having these narrow definitions and images of ‘sick’ and ‘healthy’ is detrimental and dangerous—they prevent us from being able to identify the cases in which someone needs help, and allow us to make assumptions based on very little other than the messages we’ve been sent by society and the mainstream media.

Additionally, in specifying that Ms. Glassman is consuming a nutritionally balanced 1,500 calories a day, Ms. Reinink gives the reader the impression that a diet consisting of a caloric intake this low fits right into the “picture of health” Kendra Glassman represents.  Not only is this a limited caloric intake for a woman training for a marathon, it’s a limited intake for anyone who isn’t actively trying to lose weight.  All this and we haven’t even made it past the article’s opening paragraph.

Finally, although Ms. Glassman’s story has a happy ending, Ms. Reinink fails to acknowledge the fact that many similar stories don’t. Disordered eating is an extremely slippery slope, and overcoming such behaviors is much more challenging than simply refusing to obsess over one’s weight.  In many cases, addressing these struggles may require the help of a therapist or an entire treatment team. Even if professional help is sought, there is no guarantee that the behaviors won’t still develop into a full-blown eating disorder. Moreover, disordered eating and eating disorders require constant vigilance and daily work, and this fact is only vaguely referenced in the article.  Recovery can be a lifelong process for many women, and Ms. Reinink’s omission of the degree to which disordered eating and eating disorders can be life-altering and dangerous really trivializes what these women experience and often fight extremely hard for.  In keeping with this, Ms. Glassman’s suggestion to observe and emulate a man’s eating habits in “Disordered Eating”, the piece that accompanies the article, comes off as insensitive and glib.

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that Women’s Running, or this article in particular, are to blame for the prevalence of disordered eating among women.  I also want it to be clear that disordered eating behaviors and eating disorders are not only the result of environmental factors, but are also influenced by a person’s biology.  But in a society like ours, where there is so much environmental pressure on women to be thin and conventionally beautiful, and where this pressure has such a deleterious effect on the way women view themselves, it’s unfortunate to see a publication that has an opportunity to endorse and promote a different message of health throw it away like this.  I can’t help but feel confused and extremely let down by the way this subject was handled.

I sincerely hope that in the future, topics such as this one will be explored with much more care and sensitivity than were on display in this article.

Sincerely,

Emilie Littlehales

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7 comments

  1. I agree with most of your points, Emilie, although I have to (sheepishly) admit that as I don’t suffer from disordered eating, I am morbidly fascinated by the actual numbers of people’s stories. Like, how can the body work at X calories per day, how does this person divide up their food througout the day, etc. I know that I’m in the minority, sadly, in not ever having had problems with food, however, and so I’ll concede that these sorts of details might be triggering, because I simply don’t know.
    Another thing I’m curious about – you mention that you think EDs are related to individuals’ “biology”. What exactly do you mean by this? I would have expected to read “psychology” or “brain chemistry” or something along those lines…

    1. Triggers can be pretty personal, but as a general rule with EDs, it’s best to avoid referencing specific numbers, especially when it comes to calorie counts and weight. They can seem like pretty innocuous (or informative) details, but they just hold a lot potential for competition. In a lot of cases (with restriction, at least), people are already competing with themselves to see how little they can get away with, and hearing that someone else can manage with less can be problematic. Weight presents a similar challenge–“If this person weighs X, then maybe I can get down to X-10”, etc.

      Good point about my use of the word biology–I’ll admit that your pointing it out makes me realize that it wasn’t the best word to use. Brain chemistry would have been much more appropriate. What I really wanted to convey was just that there’s both an environmental and a chemical component to disordered eating habits and EDs, just as there is with many forms of mental illness.

      Thanks for your comment, Sarah-Louise! I hope I’ve answered your question and not just managed to be more elusive!

  2. I definitely consider myself as part of the “disordered eating” group. I track food and am obsessed with stats like the ones in the opening of this article. The part I found the strangest though was this quote:

    “Now on the morning of a long run, Kendra drinks Gatorade early and often and refuels with a real meal—eggs or a breakfast taco.”

    First of all, what makes a “real” meal? Why are eggs alone enough? And the Gatorade thing is just weird. Even when I’m at my most intense training, I don’t drink the stuff – not because I think it will make me gain weight, but the sugar content makes my insulin levels so unstable I crash and often get headaches. Not to mention the product placement.

    And don’t even get me started on the assumption that “just don’t think about your weight” is a real solution for many people (at least, not on it’s own – it sounds to me like telling an alcoholic to “just stop thinking about drinking”).

    Maybe that just raises the question of dividing “official” eating disorders (diagnosed) and the undiagnosed but on the spectrum. No answers for that, but something to think about!

    1. That’s a good question– what does a “real” meal consist of? That could mean so many different things to different people. And it also plays on the idea that disordered eating is going to look a certain way: very restrictive. But a person could start her day with a “real” meal and still go on to undereat during the remainder of the day, or eat a really narrow range of foods that she considers “safe”, etc. Disordered eating comes in a lot of different forms.

      And the weight thing bothers me, too. I wish it were easy enough to just not think about it. I haven’t weighed myself in over a year, but I still think about it every day. I know that if I were to step back on the scale, it would probably send me right back into a downward spiral with my ED. Simply not thinking about it is not realistic for me, at least not right now.

  3. You made some excellent points in a really well-written article. I didn’t read the article with that critical of eye, simply because I was interviewed for that article and anything I said didn’t make the cut. I know that I talked about how important it is to remember that healthy women come in all different packages and that focusing on how fitness can make your heart beat stronger and your breathing more efficient are some of the things I try to use when coaching women, as well as remind myself if I start to get down on myself.

    And I actually did find those numbers a little bit triggering, reminding myself of times when I severely restricted and I am (sadly) really good at convincing myself that maybe, just maybe, life was a little better then. Those kind of made those thoughts resurface. And I have to fight and use a lot of my recovery arguments to counter those. Someday I hope to not have to fight those that much, but it is hard when those influences are in a lot of places.

    1. Unfortunately, I think there are probably lots of us who are good at convincing ourselves that things were better back when we were restricting, or purging, or engaged in our disordered behavior of choice. I hope we both get to the point where we don’t have to fight so hard against those thoughts 🙂

      I’m really glad you put an emphasis on the benefits of running that have nothing to do with appearance when you’re working with other runners–I wish that were more of a widespread phenomenon. It seems like things always turn to appearance and weight loss far too quickly in discussions about many athletic activities that involve women.

  4. I agree with your points too although i didn’t get the same impression on first reading the article – however i did do what you said was was problematic about publishing specifics i.e. compare.

    I really like the above comment you responded to about ‘real meals’. They don’t actually sound like a real meal to me and and if it’s a long run x sports drink is not ness. the right amount of fuel for her or anybody. These specifics are as worrying as listing people’s physical attributes. They are also benchmarks of how we judge and compare ourselves. Now i want to know what a ‘real’ meal is.

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