Jessie Diggins used to tell people how often she'd made herself throw up.
She's stopped answering that question now though, because she worries talking about frequency of bulimia could normalize some amount of self-induced vomiting. Like, if you didn't make yourself throw up as much as she did before she sought help, maybe your eating disorder isn't that bad.
That's not how it works, though. If you're even thinking like that, your disorder is already advanced. You're sick.
But not beyond saving. Diggins, a Minnesota native and Olympic Gold medalist in cross-country skiing, is going public with her story as a sufferer of an eating disorder, and is partnering with the Emily Program to promote its services. It was that organization that got Diggins to move forward from a painful period of her life that threatened her relationships and health.
And her career. Diggins' tale is an incongruous one. She's a world-class athlete; perhaps you've seen this clip?
Why would someone who relies on her highly capable body treat it badly? It took Diggins years to find the answer to that question, and to start taking care of herself, growing into an adult whose mental health matched her strong physique.
Diggins has partnered with the Emily Program, a multi-state organization specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. The nonprofit's holding a 25th anniversary celebration at its St. Louis Park facility tomorrow afternoon, with the gold medalist skier appearing as a featured guest. (Click here for details.)
City Pages spoke to Diggins about her struggle with body image, and the long trek she took to get better.
City Pages: Can you describe the exact moment you knew you had a problem? Was there a particular day, or even a meal that did it?
Jessie Diggins: My disorder sort of crept up over time. It was never one "Aha!" moment, at least until I made myself throw up. Then it was pretty obvious, that this is the definition of bulimia, and that was what was happening here. Until then I was just restricting myself, not eating enough, overexercising. But it flied under the radar because it's like, "Oh you're just being lean for your sport." But I was carrying it too far.
CP: Did you tell anyone about it, or keep it a secret?
Diggins: I was so ashamed. Which is a big part of the reason why I wanted to partner with Emily Program, to reduce stigma. At the time I thought, "This is something that happens to other people, this is a behavior problem." I thought I could fix this myself. I tried to hide it from friends and family, my parents. At the start it is pretty easy to hide. Often times people with eating disorders look pretty normal. You may not look like the stereotype. Eventually my parents figured it out, like, "You aren't acting like yourself anymore, you're not happy. You're just not enjoying things as much, and acting weird around food." It started to show up. It was easy to hide for a while, and I didn't want to come forth. I had to learn this wasn't my fault, that this is a sort of mental illness, and needs to be treated the same way.
CP: When they confronted you, what did you say? Did you own up to it?
Diggins: I said, "Yeah I'm really struggling with this. I can get better, I know this isn't healthy. I'm not dumb, I know this isn't good for me. Logically speaking, I'm hurting my body, and it's not going to make me a better skier. And it's making me unhappy." I started seeing a therapist, but that wasn't working out for me. You have to really trust and click with your therapist. You have to open up, and they have to get you. I was making some efforts to get better but wasn't truly invested in it. I felt like I needed my eating disorder. It was this crutch. I thought I would never ski fast, or accomplish anything without it. A lot of people use the metaphor of an abusive relationship, like, "You're nothing without me. You can't go anywhere without me." As it's hurting, you you know it's bad, but you can't get out of it, and you feel trapped, and don't have control.
CP: At the time, when you got yourself down to this very low body fat, were you happy with how you looked?
Diggins: No. That's the thing people don't realize. No matter how you look, the person with the eating disorder doesn't think they look good. There is no "thin enough," there is no "small enough." I felt like I always wasn't good enough. It was part of my tendency to be a perfectionist. I have a good work ethic and I'm really driven, and those are generally good qualities. But combined with wanting to be perfect and wanting to be good put me at risk of an eating disorder. I wanted to be what I thought would be perfect for an athletic body type.
I realized this was going to destroy not only my career and life, but it's going to wreck my family's lives. The big turning point for me was realizing what it was doing to people around me. I didn't have meaningful relationships anymore, because I was always hiding. My parents said they'd found this program called the Emily Program. They said "You're 18, no one can make you go, but if you wanna go we'll help you." I was very, very, very fortunate that I was so supported. I had people pulling me out before I got too far in.
CP: How much of this was internal, like you wanted to look a certain way, and how much was external, like you wanted to look that way to impress other people?
Diggins: It felt completely internal. I would say I had a lot of people supporting and cheering for me, saying, "Great job skiing." It was all only positive. Everyone sort of internalizes perceived external pressure, like, "Oh, I want to impress them." I never had anyone putting anything on me. It was completely internal. The interesting thing is it became less about looking a certain way and more about control, I had control over something in my life. It was about dealing with stress.
I was doing tons of things, and after a while didn't know how to process those emotions, of feeling nervous or stressed out or anxious or sad. Instead of processing the emotions and feeling them, and working through them, I would use symptoms of the eating disorder to numb myself. One huge thing Emily Program did for me is, to learn "OK, this isn't even about the food. If you're feeling anxious how do we deal with that?" I have to be able to feel these emotions and survive -- and you will survive. I had just gotten to a point where I felt I couldn't handle that sort of stress.
CP: Was it all around your sport, like looking good as a skier? Or was any of it just vanity about looking good as a woman?
Diggins: It's interesting. In our society right now -- well, not just right now, for a long time -- we've put so much pressure on women, but also men. Women are supposed to be strong and independent, and also petite, and curvy in certain spots. Men are supposed to be strong and burly but also have a sensitive side. It's all so unrealistic. The whole thing is, we're unique. I'm never gonna look or act like anyone else. And that's awesome. There was sort of this feeling like, "I should look like these other skiers." And then when it comes time to shop for a prom dress, and you have more muscles than typical people your size, none of the dresses are fitting. And that is hard on a young woman's psyche. My shoulders look strong, and that's great in the gym when I'm doing pull ups. But I'm trying on this dress and none of them fit.
There are a lot of brands now that have wider varieties of sizes and cuts. The standard of looking good should be made to fit human bodies, not the other way around. I think it's a slow change, and hopefully that will change. But it's gradual. A lot of people struggle with eating disorders, and it can be men, women, and people from completely different backgrounds. You don't know if someone is struggling. I'm hoping to normalize the conversation for people, and letting them know they're allowed to get help. Knowing that getting help is really brave can help people make that step, make that call, early on. There is no, "Now it's serious enough." Its shouldn't be that. By then it's so hard.
CP: You were in ESPN's "Body" issue this year. Was stripping down for a national magazine part of you coming to terms with all this?
Diggins: That's the reason I did it, to use it as launching platform for my message. I knew eventually I wanted to share my story. I didn't know when the right time was, and how to do it. I was really nervous about sharing my story. I didn't want that to be the only thing people associated with me. And I didn't want skiing to be the only thing people associated with me. I'm a complex person, and there are a lot of different things about me. I don't want to be known for one thing. The thing about doing the Body issue was, what a full circle moment. There was a time in my life I didn't want to look myself in the mirror. The Body issue was about showing the strong body I have, from this sport I love. It seemed like a fitting way for me to come forward.
My eating disorder was the only thing that mattered in my life, and now what my body looks like is just a product of what I do for a living. My body looks like what it does. I can ski for four hours and go run up over a mountain.
I paired that with a very personal blog post, and feedback from community was overwhelming. It was really emotional and really heartbreaking, in some ways, to see how many people struggle with this. The cool part was I felt like people in a position to help really responded. "I'm the coach of a young women's team, and this was important for me to hear." Or "I'm a dad and I have two young daughters, this is good for me to read." Or "I'm a mom and my daughter is struggling, and I'm going to read this with her tonight." I knew it was the right decision to come out and share my history in hopes that can maybe help somebody else.
CP: OK one more question. It's a food question. Say you've had a big event -- winning a gold medal, for example -- and want to celebrate, and you get to pick one meal you really want to eat. What's on the menu?
Diggins: The best thing now is, the meal can be anything. My philosophy around food is I don't restrict anything. I can eat anything, and everything, in moderation. I mean, even carrot sticks will make you orange if you eat too many. So, my favorite meal is one my mom made when I got home. It's salmon, grilled salmon, and orzo pasta, with basil and Parmesan cheese, and a kale salad.