Lately I feel like I’m seeing a lot of op-eds and exposés of eating disorders in the climbing community. It started with Beth Rodden, certified badass and hero to a generation of climbers. Then we got Cathy Karlo’s podcast episode about them, in which she got a bunch of us to send in little voice messages of our experiences with disordered eating and body dysmorphia and how climbing helped or hindered our healing. Kai’s post made me cry, and mourn for the kids I used to coach. I remember leaving for a year and coming back to the gym for a visit and being shocked and disheartened by one of the boy’s drastic weight loss. Then we got Light, which is full of good intentions, although it left a bit to be desired IMO (more men and BIPOC interviews, and maybe a couple conversations with 5.10 climbers? You don’t have to be a pro to want to gouge your eyes out every time you eat a bagel, you know.)
All this attention to the “dirty secret” of the climbing community has got me thinking a lot, and with all this free time in the snowpocalypse on my hands I figured I might as well butt in with my own little dissertation.
Because honestly, and maybe I’m way off base here, but I just don’t feel like eating disorders in climbing is a secret at all. I feel like, in my own experience, our disordered eating is openly joked about and even encouraged by one another. A friend asked to smell my burrito at the gym once, and stood before me with his eyes closed, breathing deep through his nostrils. He’d been getting ready for a bouldering trip, and restricting heavily. “Think skinny thoughts!” I’ve heard, and laughed, as climbers crux out six feet above their last bolt on slab. Maybe its because I started climbing in Los Angeles, where skinny is still very much in vogue, and then moved on to Smith Rock, where our climbs are technical, crimpy, and delicate and make you wish you were weightless, but I thought we all kinda knew how disordered climber eating can be.
And its weird because try as they may, they’re not going to get anyone to stop having an eating disorder through scare tactics A drug addict can’t “just say no”, like a person with depression can’t “just cheer up”. So all these documentaries and movies with scare tactics or magical healing hallmark moments aren’t going to work, and neither is talking to pro climbers who starved themselves to send their projects. Because at the end of the day, they sent their projects.
This is a mental illness, and Idk, maybe if more people could talk about their suicidal ideation there would be fewer suicides, and maybe if we all recognized that eating disorders are a coping mechanism that work just well enough, up until a point, to help people feel in control of their chaotic lives, we would stop trying to shame and scare people away from them. Something about radical acceptance…
Anyway, in lieu of these bad boys being here to stay, I want to remind y’all of some fun moments with, and management tips for, your eating disorder as a climber. Here you go.
- Some people get into climbing as a fun hobby. Not you; you are obsessed. You read training books, bought sandpaper for your abused skin, know how to pronounce Shiraishi, and you can point out an A2 pulley. Some people cut out refined carbs and that’s good enough for them, but not you; you went down the rabbit hole of nutrition optimization and now you there is nothing more stressful than figuring out what to eat for the day. When do I drink a protein shake? Is an apple’s sugar bad? Coffee black or coffee with butter I literally can’t make decisions anymore with all this conflicting nutrition science FUCK
- Your hair is gonna start falling out, which is annoying because that’ll leave it all wispy and choppy so it’s more likely to get into your eyes while you’re climbing. No bother; you should be wearing a helmet anyway, so now you just look like a champion of safety. No one needs to know you’re only wearing a helmet to keep your brittle, dead hair out of your eyes. Win-win!
- Now that your body is so depleted of energy and your tummy always hurts, you’re gonna lose your libido. This is good, because it’ll make you less likely to sleep with that sleazeball in the rickety astro van with the “live free or die” tattoo on his chest. You may think Sprinter boy is a better option, but he’s just a trust fund baby who’s never worked for anything in his life. You will NOT come. Your lack of libido and tummy ache will help you avoid these guys, so you can just go to sleep, have a nightmare about a buffet, and focus on your climbing.
- The best way to avoid a DUI is to be too scared of calories to enjoy a brewski with your friends. 🙂 You’re not as fun as you used to be, but at least you also have dry skin and feel dumber than ever since you’ve been depriving your brain of nutrients and can’t form a coherent thought to save your life.
- Speaking of friends, who needs ‘em actually? Friends get in the way of your anorexia, so it’s fine that you’ve got to avoid them now to protect your climbing goals. I mean, your friends are gonna do diet-ruining things like make burritos in the parking lot for you and invite you out skinny-dipping in the middle of the night (which you’re too cold to attend anyway because your lanugo is useless, and also you’re too tired, and also your tummy hurts, but I digress). They also “love” you and say things like, “hey have you eaten yet?” and “we’re worried about you” and “Do you want to talk about it?” Don’t give in; if they can’t get down with i n t e r m i t t e n t f a s t i n g, just isolate yourself and maybe they’ll eventually leave you alone.
- Your climbing partner isn’t yelling at you because you gave him a shitty catch, sweetie. He’s just hangry. Keto has changed his liiiiiiiiiiiife.
- Your body dysmorphia is too fucking gnarly to post that shot of you climbing, so at least you’re not spraying to the universe that you’re traveling to rural towns without adequate resources during a pandemic.
- Unfortunately, the dreaded rest day will come, and you’ll have to sit there not breaking down your muscles and distracting your starving brain with climbing. It’s too bad all this restricting you’ve been doing has triggered your gut to over-produce ghrelin and other hormones that make you impossible to satiate, so just know that on this day, you will binge. Every anorexic becomes a binger. The first time you feel yourself leave your body and watch this gremlin with your face shove entire blocks of cheese into her mouth and feast until her stomach aches, rejoice! You’re really in it now. You’ve got resistance bands AND a resistance to leptin. The only way to stop this starve-and-scarf cycle, as my mom called it (lmao thanks mom) is to start eating “normally” again and we’re not gonna do that, so buckle up. Your metabolism will never know what hit ‘im.
- Ok so its post-binge and you’re trying to climb, and it’s all good; you got yourself some detox tea the night before and had a little sippy sip this morning too. It’s gonna be fine; you didn’t want to actually pull the crux on this climb anyway and your clenching bowels and puckered asshole are the perfect excuse to scream “take!” Here’s the real crux; you’ve gotta get lowered, untie, get your climbing shoes off and your chacos back on, and casually explain to your partner you’ve gotta sprint to the pit toilet before you shit your fucking pants. Joke’s on you, babe; detox tea is just a laxative. Run.
- And while you’re sitting in the pit toilet, woozy, after waddle-running to it with your vision blurring in agony, after shoving past the family of gumbies waiting in line, you have time to reflect. With the wafting ammonia and wood chip stank stinging your eyes, think about the crux moves on your proj. Think about how skinny you’re about to be. Sure, you have no energy to actually send, but that just means you get season after season to enjoy the p r o c e s s. XOXO.
- Ah shit, you got back on the proj and your finger tendons all exploded because they need more nutrients you’ve been giving them. Apparently three cigarettes and a la croix isn’t an adequate breakfast. Who knew?! It’s ok, during this six-month rest while you research buddy-taping and cardio, you can watch the Reel Rocks that Red Bull has posted and tell yourself that when you get back to rock climbing, it’ll be different. You’re not gonna starve and scarf, you’re not gonna isolate from your friends, you’re gonna enjoy your life and the privilege it is to be healthy enough to rock climb.
This time, you’ll bump it up to two la croixes.