“Fitness has Nothing to Do with Fatness”: Teen Athletes Speak Out about Body Positivity
If the older generations looked to magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan to see prevailing beauty standards, teens today have a guide to the model body, how to (unhealthily) achieve it, and their self-worth if they can’t, in their pockets all day, with no escape. Social media. It’s flooded with get-fit-quick schemes, detox teas, and photoshop, and it’s no secret that the perfected bodies teens see on Instagram are a major prompter for eating disorders and body image issues. And while teen CrossFitters probably aren’t obsessed with fashion models like their peers, the people they see as they scroll do create a high standard that can be just as destructive.
17-year-old Emma Spath knows the consequences of this new cultural touchpoint particularly well. Spath qualified for the 2018 CrossFit Games in the 14-15 division, years after setting her mind on getting to the Games when gymmate Brooke Ence earned a trip in 2015.
- “Watching Brooke compete was definitely when I decided I wanted to go to the Games,” Spath said. “Seeing her on TV, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
In the 2017 Age Group Online Qualifier, 14-year-old Spath placed 36 worldwide, just 16 spots out of the Games. So when the 2018 Open and AGOQ rolled around, she came out with a vengeance and ambition that seemed to surprise even her.
- “I think I redid one of the workouts three times,” Spath laughed, recalling that she tried to give herself as many tries as possible to qualify for the Games.
Spath recalled deleting social media, advising her friends not to talk to her, and avoiding the leaderboard in order to stay focused during the weekend of the Qualifier. And in the end, it paid off. Spath placed 18 in the AGOQ in 2018, punching her ticket to Madison. After scores had been finalized the Wednesday after the AGOQ, Spath got the good news surrounded by her favorite people.
- “It’s an amazing feeling,” Spath said. “It was one of my favorite moments of my whole life.”
As the school year finished up and Spath looked down the barrel of a summer full of training, she took on a new challenge to up her game — counting macronutrients. According to Spath, though, her motivations weren’t in the right place.
- Spath: “I wasn’t just working out to be a CrossFit Games athlete, I was working out to look more like the CrossFit Games athlete I thought I should be.”
As her drive to be taken seriously as a Games athlete grew throughout the summer, Spath fell into a cycle of restricting and binging, resulting in a Binge Eating Disorder. For the month leading up to the Games, Spath moved to Idaho to live with her coach so she could focus on training with other competitors. As a result of the intensity of her training and restrictive eating, Spath recalls her body constantly telling her to “give me food!” which led her to repeatedly binge eat.
When the Games finally came around, Spath remembers being too stressed about the food she was eating, how her body looked, and what people thought of her to really take in the few days of glory she had worked for years to earn. And while Spath does remember the many happy moments from the Games, like meeting other like-minded teens that made her feel less isolated, a surprise visit from her grandparents, and the workouts, she says her anxiety about her body and food tainted the experience.
- “Thinking back on the Games is really sad for me,” Spath admitted. “I was living my dream and I was so obsessed with food and my body that I wasn’t actually living in it, which is really sad.”
When Spath returned home from Madison though, she slowly started to recognize the toxicity of her relationship with food and began her journey of recovery. Which, over the past 20 months since the 2018 Games, has led her to become an outspoken advocate for self-love and body positivity in (and out of) the CrossFit space.
- “As CrossFitters, I think we’re taught to appreciate what our bodies can do,” Spath said. “But at the same time, we see the one-percent (athletes), and it’s very rare that you can actually look like that, be that lean.”
Unfortunately, Spath is joined by many other teen CrossFit athletes that are also struggling with different phases of eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and other body image issues. Spath said that because she doesn’t have the typical, “perfect” body type that you see on social media, she used her platform to prove that “fitness has nothing to do with fatness.”
- “I felt a bit misplaced at the Crossfit Games because I felt like I didn’t have the abs or muscle definition that the others had,” 2019 Games athlete Josefin Andersson admitted.
Andersson recalls struggling with body image issues since she was as young as eight-years-old, and always having her current daily calorie count in her head since.
When she traveled from Sweden to Madison last summer, Andersson felt different than the other athletes, and wouldn’t take her shirt off, even after a tough workout. And while 16-year-old Andersson does appreciate that her goals as a Games athlete require a different body type than that of the Victoria’s Secret models, she does believe that some big-name Games athletes can create just as much toxicity.
- “It hurts knowing you don’t look like (Katrin Davidsdottir),” Andersson said. “Crossfit influencers love showing their lean meals even though they probably eat a lot more, but to young impressionable girls seeing those posts it looks like that is the only way for them to look like that.”
In an interview with the Morning Chalk Up, Spath said she believes the toxic culture surrounding food in CrossFit is more a result of social media. But sometimes, when the two come together, it can be ever more calamitous. For example, when three-time Games athlete Sheila Barden posted an ab-pic on Instagram in 2019, people were furious.
To many teen athletes, Barden’s message of “eat less, go to bed hungry, burn more than you consume” was heartbreaking and wrong, Spath among them. Diet-culture opponents were quick to sound off in the comments, sharing messages of disappointment for Barden and encouragement for girls going through these struggles.
- “It worries me that some people might believe you after reading this post,” AGOQ athlete Olivia Skogstrand commented. “Reading what you wrote can be really triggering for others and people like you writing this is one reason why people develop eating disorders. They believe that they have to starve themselves to feel worthy and good.”
But, of course, there are other girls who have been saved by CrossFit. Among them are Delia Moises and Karis Jackson, two tough 14-15 competitors placing 20th and 70th respectively in the 2020 AGOQ. Like many of their peers, they’ve been competitive athletes in a variety of sports — volleyball, cross country, and track — and were driven by an urge to look skinnier. Both Moises and Jackson developed eating disorders, restricting their calories to extreme amounts, still never satisfied with their bodies.
- Moises: “I would avoid eating in social situations, cancel plans so I could get my run in, and wouldn’t eat cake on my birthday.”
Jackson was struggling just like Moises, and when she saw the 2017 CrossFit Games documentary, “The Redeemed and the Dominant,” she knew that was her way out. Jackson was eating as few as 600 calories a day, but when CrossFit came into her life, she slowly but surely grew with her body image and eating habits.
- “What helped me in recovering (was) realizing all the amazing things my body was capable of, and how much I should appreciate it and be thankful for it,” Jackson explained. “I finally realized stressing about what your body looks like just wastes precious time in our lives.”
And so while CrossFit is most certainly healing some young athletes as they grow up and navigate a new world of social media and body comparisons, the issues that athletes like Emma Spath have faced are prevalent and concerning.