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Breaking the Silence: Holly Brooks Produces Video on Eating Disorders and Athletes

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Holly Brooks has made a video that she would like you to watch. The two-time Olympian, now a licensed professional counselor, has partnered with the Alaska Eating Disorders Alliance, or AKEDA, to make a video aimed at educating athletes about disordered eating and helping to reduce the stigma surrounding this.

The video is 27 minutes long. It is not preachy. It is not confrontational. It is educational, but not in the cringe register of 1960s scare films. It opens with a whimsical metaphor about “poodle science.” It ends with heartfelt thoughts from Jessie Diggins. It features, among others, a female runner, a male wrestler, and a Black female doctor and professor of adolescent medicine. There are a wide range of experiences and perspectives presented on what is increasingly being seen as not solely a female problem.

The film acknowledges the immense benefits that come from participating in sports, but also the potential risk factors: Being achievement-oriented and having perfectionist tendencies can frequently help one to succeed in athletics. But this can also feed into eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

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“Being an athlete, while it’s a healthy thing to do and there are lots of protective factors, being an athlete is actually a risk factor for an eating disorder,” Brooks told Nordic Insights in a phone interview last week. “And athletes experience eating disorders at rates two to three times that of their non-athletic peers.”

The film addresses various manifestations of disordered eating, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating, and orthorexia. It charts the pernicious effects of social media in foregrounding and rewarding a certain body type, aided by filters that can literally change one’s appearance from what it actually is. Consider performing a social media audit, and “unfollow everyone who makes you feel like crap,” says a naturally lit Brooks.

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As the film ends, Brooks’s longtime teammate Jessie Diggins, who races with The Emily Program as a headwear sponsor and who has written poignantly and compellingly about her own struggles with and recovery from an eating disorder, addresses the camera.

“You don’t have to be perfect,” says the most recognizable athlete in American nordic skiing history. “Your self-worth isn’t dependent upon your latest result. You just have to be you, and show up and do your best, and that will be enough.” And, crucially, “It’s okay to ask for help.”

I am going to switch to the first person in this paragraph and editorialize for a second: I think that you should watch this video. If you are a teenage athlete, or a non-teenage athlete, or you know anyone in either of these categories, you should watch this video. It will very likely be helpful to you, and you will very likely learn something, which will help either you or someone whom you know. I truly do not care if you link to this story or not — candidly, if I wanted to drive traffic, I would have written an article with “Jessie Diggins” in the title, not, “eating disorders.” Indeed, if you share one thing from this article, it should be this link, which is to the video as it appears on the AKEDA website.

I am switching back to reporter mode from here on out, but read a few paragraphs more to learn why the video in situ on the AKEDA site is a more valuable resource, to Brooks’s mind, than the video standing alone on YouTube. And why coaches should act with intent when they share this video with their team.

The only thing that I would add,” Brooks wrapped up last week’s interview, “is maybe just a couple of suggestions on how to use the video. Obviously it can be shared personally and whatnot. But if it is going to be sent over a team listserv, or if it is going to be shown to the team at practice or something, I think it’s always good to give a heads up. Because just given the numbers, if you have a big group, there’s a good chance, statistically, that someone in your group is in the midst of an active eating disorder, and it could be upsetting to them. Or it could be very triggering, it could cause them to have a panic attack.

“So especially if you’re going to show it a practice, give people advance notice: ‘Hey, tomorrow after practice, we are going to watch this video. This is what it’s called, this is what it’s about. I think it’s really important. I would like you to be there. If you cannot be there, I absolutely understand.’ And so just giving people fair warning.

“And then there’s the YouTube link, or there’s the Alaska Eating Disorder Alliance link, which has the YouTube embedded in the page, and it has all the resources at the bottom below that. So I feel like it’s very important that people have the resources, and when show or share the film, to also give the resources.”

“Because if it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m going to build awareness around this, but good luck, go find your own resources,’ that can be really challenging. So people should just give others forewarning, and make sure that there are some resources provided. And maybe if it is possible to add a local resource or two, that will be helpful. But it’s also not necessary. We have NEDA [National Eating Disorders Association] and the helpline and stuff like that. But just two little thoughts about how to best use the resource. But the goal is to have it shared widely and to have as many people watch it as possible.”

*    *    *

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That is the video, and that is what Brooks wants to happen with it. Go watch the video right now if you would like. Or read on for a more in-depth look at Brooks’s background, why she made this video, and her sense of the current scope of the problem of disordered eating in this country.

Brooks was interviewed by phone last week. Her answers are presented verbatim. The questions have been refined somewhat from what was originally asked, to make them serve as more effective transitions in a standalone article.

Nordic Insights: I’m certainly familiar with your skiing accomplishments. But you’ve been retired from pro skiing for several years now. What is your official job title these days?

Holly Brooks: I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor. And I am the owner and practitioner of Holly Brooks LLC. So I’m a licensed therapist. And then with this particular video project, it was a collaboration with the Alaska Eating Disorder Alliance. And I got to add the title of Executive Producer to my résumé, so that was kind of exciting. But definitely partnering with them on this project.

What do you focus on as a professional counselor?

I work with athletes, high performers, and moms.

The way that I describe it, in a condensed way, is I work at the intersection of mental health and performance. And I think it’s pretty cool to be able to use and combine my own athletic experience, and then of course some study in that area, with my professional and kind of more academic experience as a therapist.

But you know, it’s interesting, right? When my niche is working with athletes, athletes are actually just humans, right? That have all the issues in the world. Whether it’s an eating disorder, or addiction, or depression, or anxiety, or OCD, or grief. I mean, I have a niche, but the niche is the population, and the population is, they’re humans that engage in athletics. But they have all of the human issues under the sun.

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It seems like there is a growing realization that, as you say in the video, athletes are “human beings who participate in sports.” And that’s sort of just a self-evident truism, but also a remark that is deceptively simple but actually extremely insightful at the same time. There’s a lot to that.

It’s something that I think a lot about. Because you could say someone is an Olympic champion. And that is true. But they are also, you know, a person who skied the fastest, on that given day — and it’s not to minimize that accomplishment. But what I think is really difficult is that people are kind of becoming their accomplishments. 

So it’s not, you’re a person who, for example, you ate fried rice tonight, and are trying to go to bed early because you’re tired. It’s like, oh, you’re an Olympic champion. And people just get put up on this pedestal.

And then sometimes when we become our own achievements, then there’s this pressure to maintain that same level of achievement. And that’s kind of where I see people fold under under that pressure.

Without obsessing about your results or defining you by relation to them especially given what you just said, I am curious how your significant experience as a professional athlete informs your current practice. [After coming to high-level skiing relatively late in life, Brooks made her first Olympic team at age 27, in Whistler in 2010, and her second team in Sochi four years later. She was also on two World Championships teams. She skied the scramble leg in the epochal breakthrough women’s relay podium team in Gällivare in 2012, and had a best individual World Cup finish of fifth in five seasons of World Cup racing.]

I think it gives a certain additional level of empathy. I haven’t just read about the pressure in books, but I’ve experienced the pressure, I’ve felt the pressure. The pressure has kept me up at night. Or the pressure made me break at certain points.

And so obviously, everyone’s an individual and they’re going to have this experience. But I have had at least some experiences that are somewhat relatable or similar to many of my clients. And so I think sometimes the use of personal disclosure can be powerful, as long as it is — as long as the goal of sharing your experience is to benefit the client. Not not to talk about yourself, but like to normalize and validate whatever it is they’re going through. And that can be really powerful.

And I will just add at the same time, there are lots of very qualified people working in this space that weren’t athletes at a high level. And they can be amazing, too. I think it’s always a question — even with coaches too, right? In order to be a good coach, do you have to be someone that skied at the highest level? And there are great coaches who did ski at the highest level, and there are great coaches who did not. I don’t think it’s necessary. But I do feel like it’s a benefit, at least in my professional life and the way I practice.

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Turning to this video, how would you describe the Alaska Eating Disorders Alliance?

Alaska has incredibly high rates of eating disorders and disordered eating. And before AKEDA came along, there was really no professional organization tackling this issue. And in just a very few years the co-founders, Beth Rose and Jenny Loudon, have made an enormous impact on bringing training to the state, on raising awareness of the issues, and trying to provide support and resources in Alaska. Which is, historically, an under-resourced place due to our geographic isolation. For example, we have no inpatient treatment centers up here. We have no intensive outpatient centers up here. So for example, if an Alaskan is experiencing a severe eating disorder, they have to go thousands of miles away, away from their family and their entire support system, to receive treatment.

Every article that I’ve read about mental health services in Alaska, especially during the pandemic, is really grim. My sense is that the level of resources available right now is just tragically below the extent of the need for them. Is that also the case for people experiencing disordered eating specifically?

Absolutely. And there are way more people who need and who want help than there are therapists and doctors and nutritionists who are able to work with the people who need and want help. And those are just the people who are reaching out, right. I think about this other huge population that is kind of suffering in silence but they don’t know where to go or they don’t have the resources for help. And that, my guess, is an even bigger number. But I would say that I get — not an email a day, but I get a handful of emails a week for clients who want treatment for an eating disorder, and I don’t have the capacity to take them on. It’s really hard.

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This may be a decent segue to the video. I just watched it again, and you talk about the importance of destigmatization. So maybe that’s part of the answer right there. But that said, I’m curious why you devoted the time to produce this professional video.

A couple of reasons. First of all, in 2015, I was going through infertility treatment. And I had spent some time without having periods. And I decided that I wanted to talk about it. So I actually went around to all the Region IV [southcentral Alaska high school] cross-country running teams and presented on the female athlete triad at that time, and some body-image topics. And so it was a way to productively channel my frustration. And then, I actually went around last September and gave an updated version of that talk, and talked about eating disorders, disordered eating, body dysmorphia, and relative energy deficiency in sport

And I think that we have an epidemic on our hands. It depends on what you read [for the statistics]. But the rates of eating disorders are insanely high. Being an athlete, while it’s a healthy thing to do and there are lots of protective factors, being an athlete is actually a risk factor for an eating disorder. And athletes experience eating disorders at rates two to three times that of their non-athletic peers. And the numbers are really, really high, and they only got higher in the pandemic. So I really feel like — for a while I was calling it an epidemic in the middle of a pandemic. 

There are lots of pressures on on athletes to look a certain way. I call it the athletic aesthetic. And there’s this fine line between discipline and disorder sometimes. I really felt like something needed to be done, something needed to be said. And if someone is really entrenched in a full-on eating disorder, treatment can take an average of seven years to get them out of it. And some people never recover, some people fully recover, and then other people are in and out of it. 

I’ve really been kind of tuning into some media lately, like Allie Ostrander just put out a video with MileSplit. And she’s been pretty open about how entrenched she’s been for a long time. Like, since she was 12. Right? She’s in her 20s now. And so it’s been a long road. And Molly Seidel just came out with an article in Runner’s World, talking about her continued struggles and how difficult it is. And those two keep having injury after injury after injury.

So I know that’s a very long-winded answer, but I wanted to make the video because sometimes, once someone has a full-blown eating disorder, it’s too late. And I really wanted to tackle this issue more from the front side, and just give people more knowledge, give them the language to not only think about it for themselves, but to talk about it amongst each other. 

When we don’t talk about these things, they thrive. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy. If no one’s talking about it, it just gets worse and worse and worse. And then there’s also this contagion effect. It can be really toxic for teams.

So I made it because I wanted a scalable way to share the information. And after I went around and did the talks to the Region IV high schools for running last September, I was getting requests to go other places. And it was like, Okay, well, I do have a job. So I can’t just go around giving this presentation. But I can make a video that can be shared widely, within the ski community, but also, within any athletic community. And we tried to make something that could appeal to teens, but also to parents, to coaches. And hopefully, people representing a wide range of ages can benefit from it. So that was the goal.

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How do you think about presentation or messaging for a video like this? I think that people should watch this. But if you present this as “eating disorders are bad, scary scary bad,” I’m sure that has a different effect than, “here are some tools for you.” So how do you think about presentation?

One thing I say in my intake, whenever I have a new client, is I always say, We have our mental health, we have our physical health, and together, they make up our wellness.

And I don’t think that scare tactics are helpful, right? They just kind of scare people away. And so just in terms of the tone, I want to make these topics approachable. I love the whole dog thing [“poodle science,” the video’s opening trope], trying to get buy-in and interest from people. I really like the title that we’ve picked for the film itself, which is, “Winning at all costs.” And even at the cost of our own mental health. And then this idea of breaking the silence of athletes and eating disorders. And I think it’s so important.

And our goal — and when I say “our” I mean myself and AKEDA — the desire or the aspiration would be that every high school sports team in Alaska was mandated to watch this video. That would be the dream. And, you know, not just in Alaska, but other places as well. I want to normalize it and normalize the conversation around mental health. And it shouldn’t be this, like, taboo subject. Because everyone has their mental health, everyone has their physical health, and everyone has their mental health. And thankfully, we’re starting to talk about it more, but I want to do my part in making it approachable so that it doesn’t continue to have this huge stigma.

What are you seeing, in very general terms, in your practice or in athletes generally, with these issues right now. Is there a generic way I can ask this question, while still respecting client confidentiality?

I’m just seeing intense levels of anxiety. And people kind of resorting to eating disorders as something they can control, or even as a trauma response. It is a maladaptive coping mechanism. There is a bio-psycho-social foundation to it, but I am just seeing rampant struggle out there. People who never struggled before, all of a sudden — I think the pandemic is still affecting people.

And the pandemic was a catalyst for a lot of the disordered behavior and actions in terms of food. And people are just really folding under the pressure, and it’s really, really, really challenging. So I’m doing my best to work with this population.

And I think about girls specifically, or people who have a biological basis for being a woman. And puberty is a — can be a difficult component. Something that I say all the time is, How can we think about a body’s function instead of a body’s aesthetic. 

There are these twin Ph.D. sisters [Lindsay and Lexie Kite] that do a lot of body image work. And they wrote a book called More Than A Body. One of their taglines is, “your body is an instrument, not an ornament.” And so one of the things we can do is we can talk a lot about functions, rather than weight, shape, and size, and be really careful not to objectify others. And we need to be very careful not to objectify ourselves, our own bodies. How we act and how we treat our body is noticed and picked up on by our kids, by the athletes we coach, all of those things.

But it’s really hard, because girls who go through puberty, you know, your body is preparing to have a baby. And sometimes that has an implication for performance. And I always think about what Lauren Fleshman says [in her famous “letter to my younger self” from 2017].

She says girls have three options [when going through puberty]. You either quit; you fight against it, which means, you know, develop an eating disorder and try to keep your body from changing in the way it naturally needs to change; or to be patient and wait it out, because the best is yet to come.

And so I do a lot of talking about patience. And do a lot of talking about maybe kind of, like, distress tolerance skills. And of course there’s always an emphasis on performance. But sometimes I try to put more emphasis on the experience than the performance. Because sometimes a freshman girl who’s prepubescent, can be really fast. But, at the same time, puberty is a superpower. It’s really important to have those hormonal changes; it’s important for our bone mineral density for life. And with some patience you absolutely can come around and continue to perform well. And in fact the longevity and the rest of your career is dependent on letting your body go through those changes. So there’s a huge emphasis on performance at this time that’s quite awkward for girls’ bodies, right? Because they’re changing. And they’re changing at different rates.

I know that Lauren talks about high school boys benefitting from testosterone, which is a natural performance enhancer. Personally, I fondly remember getting faster every single year in high school, largely just by dint of showing up and being another year older. It was a largely linear and upward progression, as is the case for most adolescent boys. And if you take that away, I’m sure that’s profoundly difficult, because, at any level, it’s fun to get better.

So that’s why it can’t all be, or can’t only be, about the results. It has to be about, you know, we talk about deepening the relationship with a sport. It’s your why, it’s why do you love it? Is it social? Does it make you feel good? Is it a positive way to manage your stress? And all of this is separate from, like, how fast did you go? What place did you get? Did you get a personal best? Hopefully it’s creating and instilling healthy habits, which someone can benefit from for the entirety of their lives.

— Gavin Kentch

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