How Do We Talk About Eating Disorders?

Gracie Gold skates at NBC's TODAY Show on Feb. 8, 2017 in New York City. (Courtesy Getty Images)

Gracie Gold skates at NBC's TODAY Show on Feb. 8, 2017 in New York City. (Courtesy Getty Images)

Reviewing the Today Show Interview with Gracie Gold

by Emily Dreher, Unspoken Voices Contributor

Last week, American figure skating champion Gracie Gold did an interview with the morning television news show Today about her mental health issues and recovery, including a longtime eating disorder.

It’s was quick five-ish minute interview, book-ended by your typical morning news show chatter. In short, she developed/spiraled further into depression and an eating disorder in 2016 and 2017, and then went to participate in an inpatient program for eating disorders.

Overall, it’s a pretty positive story, and her candor was refreshing, but I’m personally a bit frustrated by the “sports comeback” angle. On the one hand, that’s what makes this an easy-to-follow archetypal narrative — a modern comeback story — and it’s why she’s a noteworthy person. But on the other hand, it was strongly suggested that the sport had a lot to do with the situation.

Right off the bat, the voice over sets the story, saying that all these “battles” with her disorders (I could write a whole other post about the oddly combative language around mental health) is all part of a “fight … to return to the sport she loves.”

Which is like, okay. That may be her goal, but what if recovery for her meant stepping away from the sport permanently? She’s already 23, and I think that’s a few years shy of when most competitive figure skaters wrap up their careers, assuming a physical injury doesn’t end it earlier.

Then we get into another annoying narrative around mental health and eating disorders. The voice-over narrator mentioned how “she appeared to have everything going for her,” and how she was “figure skating’s golden girl, heralded for her confidence . . . with Grace Kelly good looks.” So the assumption here is that successful (white, cisgender, heterosexual) people can’t possibly have bad lives or disorders.

It’s particularly insidious to talk about how beautiful she was, when:

A) maybe let’s stop valuing people and especially young women based on their appearance, and;
B) the pressure to be seen as attractive is often a contributing element to many eating disorders, which is even talked about in her response.

Gracie said she was afraid of being real about these issues expressly because it would shatter that perfect media image.

Next comes the meaty part of the interview, where we gloss over how toxic the sport’s environment is, yet talk about the resultant disorder. Gracie said a coach’s comment marked the start of her eating disorder, though it’s not clear when exactly this happened. I’d rather not repeat the specifics of her unhealthy behaviors, but I’m glad she herself talked about how unusual her eating had become.

I don’t remember what specifically this was in reference to, but Gracie did say it’s not unique in skating culture. Given that she talks about how a friend praised her for how little she was eating, compared to that friend’s own dangerously low intake, it’s not hard to imagine that body image issues was what Gracie was referencing, if not eating disorders. I’m not sure if it’s because of diet culture or maybe how easy it is to find people and info online and through social media, but they all add up to a dangerous pattern of encouragement. It’s a positive reinforcement – through peer approval or worse, sharing “tips and tricks” – that reinforces unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. We don’t know that the friend was also a skater, but it’s not really better if they are or aren’t because of how toxic the conversation is around what bodies are valued.

The last thing I feel like touching on about this interview is the closing chatter. It’s overall positive as the hosts expressed happiness at her recovery and new endeavors in teaching kids how to skate. But I was grated by how they were so happy that “she’s not blaming anyone.” It’s one thing to praise her for her introspection and insight, which they did just before. (Gracie said she’d blamed the sport but also taking accountability for her unhealthy behavior.) However, it’s another to deny someone justifiable anger at a certifiably garbage situation. Especially in an environment that sparked and contributed to her troubles.

In retrospect, I give it a 3 out of 5, mostly for her very grounded and insightful comments.