This blog is a personal viewpoint from the service’s eating disorders specialist…
Will Devlin, clinical psychologist and specialist in eating disorders for the University of Bristol, looks almost sheepish as he describes his mixed feelings about the great sporting achievements we watched with pride just a few months ago:
“…Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “there’s no doubt that the Olympic Games were a proud moment in the history of the country and many of us have been inspired by the achievements of athletes like Jessica Ennis, Jonnie Peacock, and Anthony Joshua.
“But what I can’t help wondering is what effect images of these almost superhuman, super lean, super muscled athletes is having on people who are unhappy with their bodies. Very few of us have the genetic make up, let alone the motivation, dedication, sponsorship, training and time to develop the kind of body which we’ve seen so much of during the UK’s summer of sport.
“It’s one thing to be inspired to get fit by the Olympics, even I’ve been inspired to get back to the gym. But the fact is,” Will says with a smile, patting his tummy, “like most of the population I’ll never have the body of an Olympian however hard I try!
His fear is that amidst the pride and positive social change inspired by the Olympics, one untold legacy will be an increase in the number of people at risk of eating disorders: “I worry that if more of us end up unhappy with our bodies, then more of us might resort to unhealthy attempts to shape up as we aspire to a rippling six-pack, tight buns or super-pert breasts.
It’s not a popular view, that inspiring a nation with acts of sporting heroism could actually be bad for some people, but as I listen to Will’s concerns I do see his point: “Condemnation is growing on all sides at the use of size zero models on the catwalk, and Kate Moss was roundly criticized for endorsing starvation when she said, ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ …but it’s not easy to say that super lean athletes might have just the same effect as emaciated supermodels on those of us who want the perfect body but simply can’t have it. “And don’t forget,” Will says, “the athletes themselves face these same pressures, eating disorders are rife amongst sports men and women, in fact it is estimated that more than one in 10 elite athletes may have an eating disorder.”
Will’s comments get me thinking about this untold legacy, and what some of the unintended outcomes of our summer of sport might be. There’s no doubt that the efforts of Team GB and our paralympian heroes have the power to inspire a generation, but perhaps it’s also important to recognize that the pursuit of athletic success and the body beautiful may also have its downsides.
Will works at the University’s Student Health Service. If you think you might have an eating disorder, talking to one of the service’s GPs will ensure you get access to the specialist help you need.