E57 - Rosie Woodbridge, eating disorders and high performance sport
E57 - Rosie Woodbridge, eating disorders and high performance sport

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Eating disorders are disproportionately common in sport, and can be hugely damaging to athletes' physical and mental health. Jonny caught up with Rosie to talk about her experience of battling her eating disorder alongside playing Ultimate Frisbee for Great Britain, and how her faith shaped this struggle.

0:45 How do your sport and faith connect?
1:17 Rosie's journey to the top of her sport
4:04 What difference did it make to be a Christian in your sport?
5:46 Developing an eating disorder
9:11 The difference between healthy and unhealthy eating in sport
11:24 When Rosie realised she had an eating disorder
12:31 Dealing with the spiritual aspect of an eating disorder
16:57 Why is it that eating disorders are so prevalent in sport?
18:10 How can you help someone who might have an eating disorder?
20:41 Encouragements and challenges from the life of Jesus


Jonny Reid:

Great. Rosie, welcome. It's great to chat with you. Firstly, tell us, what does it mean for you to have your sports and your faith connected?

Rosie Woodbridge:

I guess sport is something that I see as a gift from God to something which God enabled me to do and play the gifts, talents, abilities and all that, and something which he deeply cares about and that I can actually use to worship him as well. And it can be a great opportunity to share something of the goodness of Jesus as well.

Jonny Reid:

Great. Well, tell us about your sport, then. What's your what's your background? How did you maybe first get into sport? Tell us about that. Take us back to the little girl who first got into sport and then where did that end up taking you.

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah, I think as a kid I was mostly just active rather than anything else. And then it was probably actually my teenage years in secondary school that I got into running and start taking that a bit more seriously and did that for Club and County as well. And I fully intended to carry on doing that when I got to university.

However, I then stumbled across this minority sport called Ultimate Frisbee, which I thought was a bit of a joke. So did almost everyone I knew. And but then I discovered that people can actually take it quite seriously. And so, I ended up getting into that. And then I was one of those people who took it seriously and played for uni, then club and country later on down the line as well.

Jonny Reid:

Unpack that a little bit for us them. What does the ultimate Frisbee scene look like when you're playing the sport internationally? What does that look like for you? Who are you playing against? What countries where you go to, what does that kind of look like?

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah. So in the club scene, I guess like with other sports, you've got European championships, you've got world championships.

So actually, every year that was the European championships. So we'd go and we normally qualified for that, so we'd go somewhere and play against other European teams. Every four years there was a world championship and I got to do that twice. And, and yeah, the second time sadly was just in London. So that's why I left. It wasn't particularly exotic to go to, but yeah, we played from countries around the world.

And then there's also the international scene where you play for your country. And so it's for Great Britain. And I first played for them when I was under 23, under 23 world championships. And then in 2015 and 16, I was able to play for the senior women's team.

Jonny Reid:

What is it? What do you need to make it as a Frisbee player for people listening in? Some people over in the States, they may know a lot about Frisbee, but others may not like you say, it’s a minority sport in the UK. What are sort of some of the attributes and the skills you really need to make it in Frisbee?

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah, just to be clear, like a lot of people understandably think it is just a few people throwing a Frisbee to each other. It is a team sport.

So it's seven aside and you imagine you're on the size of a football pitch. People say it's a cross between American football and netball. So like any sort of team sport, but the thing you're passing is a Frisbee. So like with I guess all the team sports, you need to be athletic and you need to be able to get free of a defender and you need a good change direction.

And, the bit I was really weakest on was you need to be able to throw and pretty well to varying degrees and and catch as well of course is very important.

Jonny Reid:

What difference does it make for you to be a Christian doing that. What how is that difference and maybe how your peers took their Frisbee? What difference does it make to how you dealt with pressure or disappointment? How did you of your faith help or challenge or impact the way you were dealing with your sport?

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah, I guess one like specific memory might encapsulate it a little bit. It was 2014 and we had the Club World Championships in Italy somewhere and, and we were we were going to get to the quarterfinals, probably the semi-final was that was a plan that was like a realistic aim for us.

And then all that stood between us and that was one team who we played the UK team, we played them all the time and we beat them all the time. So we like, no problem. We ended up losing to that team and then like it just felt like an absolute colossal loss and for the, for the whole club.

And it was like what would be working towards for years and years and just like, you know, if I stop to think about it, the memory of that game can still, still haunt me now. And so I was really gutted. I was really, really disappointed and but I think like I was able to just keep it in context.

And whereas for some of and others that I knew or who went through that sort of thing, it like it really, really rocked them. And so whilst it did deeply affect me and I just knew that my identity, I guess, and who I am like is so secure in, in Christ. And, and I think I've often thought of it like, you know, whether I win or lose, whether I play well or terribly, whether I get picked or don't get picked.

The creator of the universe still loved me so much that he was willing to die for me. And that cannot change. And that's better than anything that sport can give us anyway. So I think that sort of perspective just took the pressure off. I took some of the edge off the disappointment, perhaps when things didn't go so well.

Jonny Reid:

Now I think that’s a really helpful sort of foundation for us as we continue to chat. You've written a blog, it’s on the Christians in Sport website, where you've been really honest about your struggle with particularly food and eating as you go into the high levels of Ultimate Frisbee. Can you maybe just tell us a little bit about your story around food and sport? How did it get to a situation where you realized that that that may be a problem?

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah. So as you can see, you know, the stuff I talked about, how I really grasped that sport is worship and identity in Christ is everything. Obviously, I didn't quite always live that out perfectly. And so as I got to a higher level, when I started playing for an elite women's club and then trialling and playing for GB as well, and I started to take my fitness much more seriously and following the programs that they sent me.

I also wanted my diet to match what an elite athlete should be and to best improve my performance that way. And so I made some changes and it really worked. My performance did really improve and my physique changed and it went well and I enjoyed it. And so, I can't remember, like I can't fix a point at which it became unhealthy, I think. And, you know, there I guess I mentioned, you know, there are sporting disappointments. And so like one of them I just mentioned, there were other times when, you know, my performance was terrible. I wasn't getting picked and I found that quite hard. And then I sort of look I was like, look, my fitness, as long as I work on my fitness and as long as I keep on those things and keep my physique fine and eat the right things, then then I'll be okay.

That's how I'll get back in. And, and also there were other things in life which was funny but hard. I think I probably had some sort of mild depression at the time and that all, all interplays together. And so basically, I think I loved the idea of being fit and thin too much. But then I just travelled to far down that road where I started being overly restrictive about the foods that I was allowed to eat or when I could eat them, or if I had eaten a certain thing, I had to, you know, atone for it.

So either by throwing up or going for a run or just over exercising or not eating something, at the next meal or something like that. So that led to bulimia. And I can't remember how long it was…

Jonny Reid:

What do you mean by bulimia?

Rosie Woodbridge:

So that's a clinically diagnosable eating disorder. And it basically follows a bit of a binge and purge pattern, or at least a subjective binge where you eat more than you should or more than is normal or you think is normal.

And then and because you actually care a lot about your weight and your health, you feel like you need to atone for that. And so you might do that by some sort of purging. So that might be throwing up, laxatives, running and exercise and or a variety of other things. And so, yeah, I guess it took me a while, I had sort of excuses as to why what I was doing wasn't unusual or why it was okay.

But then eventually I realized, you know, this is something wrong, this is bulimia. I'm going to do something about it

Jonny Reid:

And maybe just help us if we’re, listening in. And there'll be a lot of elite athletes listening in nutrition is really important, isn't it? And they'll have nutritionists potentially. What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy when it comes to thinking about food?

Rosie Woodbridge:

You know I was thinking about this earlier on, and it is really hard to know because it is such a fine line. And often when I was out with my teammates, it's not like I'd be doing like drastically different things all the time or like I'd be skipping meals. It wasn't and that wasn't the case. And I think I did.

I did notice that, you know, they were more relaxed about what they could eat, and I just thought they didn't care enough. Perhaps that was true for some of them. At some points I didn't know, but I realized that I was overly strict and there was some things I would never eat, which they like perfectly happily. But again, it was a big warning sign that I was throwing up my meals and I guess or some of them sometimes.

And it became a bit of an obsession in my head as well, what I could eat when I could eat it, and which was again a warning sign that it wasn't a healthy way to live. Yeah.

Jonny Reid:

How did it get to a situation then, when you were able to realize it was a problem? Obviously, looking back now, you can identify kind of that wasn't healthy. When did you realize? How did that come about?

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah, I can't really remember. And maybe it's just helpful that you see that you can just be a bit of a blur. I remember the Costa I was sitting in and I was on my laptop an hour before I was going to go to my training session as I was on the NHS website reading about these things.

Oh no, actually I do know. And I went to a church service, not my church. And the talk happened to be on depression and I was thinking, Oh, hold on a second. Actually, I tick a lot of those boxes which you're talking about. And then I think probably the very next day I happened to be chatting to my vicar’s wife, and she was like, “Look, how are you?”

She's a doctor, “and I've seen you. I think you might be struggling with a bit of depression.” And so at that point I thought, you know what? I think you might be right. So I started looking into these things and then I thought about my eating as well, and I looked up eating disorders and then it all sort of came to came together and made sense.

Jonny Reid:

The Bible clearly teaches we're embodied and you kind of articulated there in terms of stuff going on in terms of depression in your mind to the mental side of life, your body sort of outworking some of that in terms of bulimia, what did thinking and dealing with this look like spiritually for you. You were going to church, you were trusting in Jesus. How did you kind of think about this when it when it came to thinking about the spiritual aspect of what was going on?

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah, I think what I might say now might sound what might not sound articulate at all but might sound a lot more articulate than it would have done at the time. It's not like I realized all of these things it's more perhaps as I've looked back on it and as well, and but I’d read something which just talked about eating disorders as a sin and purely in that way. And also there's other things which talk about it just being a sickness and nothing to do with sin or anything like that. And I think it was probably reading Emma Scrivener’s work and people like her and she's written a couple of really helpful books and resources on eating disorders, which she's says they’re both.

And so there's an interplay of both. And so that's why I sought medical help from a GP as well as and biblical counselling or just help from my church as well. And so from the spiritual side of things, you know, I see that our bodies are gifts from God and they're made in the very image of God. And so we're just of more worth than we could ever believe or imagine that we are so much value.

And so we are to be grateful for the goodies that God has given us. And you know, the physical really matters to God. And you can see that through the gospel, because Jesus himself actually became a human being in a physical body. He died and he resurrected in human body, etc., etc.. So, so that our bodies really matter.

So and it's helpful to think it is good to care about our bodies. And it is good to, you know, think about what we eat to a certain degree and exercise to the right amount, etc.. So it's good to have that affirmation. But I also had to confront the fact that whilst there was sickness involves as well, there was sin.

And so I could see the ways in which my heart had gone astray. And the Bible talks about idolatry, you know, it says you have no other gods before before me. And whereas I could see that I had made an idol, I guess, out of my body and my fitness. So, you know, something that I've made into like an ultimate thing, something I put above, above God, and that's breaking one of the commandments.

And whenever we do that, it leads to damaging consequences and also I was harming my body. There's all sort of medical things that we can learn about - the negative effects that eating disorders can have on our bodies. And also, I read a book by some called at Elyse Fitzpatrick, and she mentioned that of all the commands in the Bible, there's like 6000 commands or something, how many of them are about being thin and looking good? Zero, None. And so it just really struck me that that's not a priority for God for us. And so why is it becoming everything for me?

But then I think probably the things which helped me the most at the time was, you know, I knew I had messed up, so I knew I had to come to Jesus, and I felt ashamed. But actually realising that he's a God, he stands there with open arms not a pointed finger. And so I didn't need to feel ashamed before him.

He just helps us and loves us and says, Come on, let me help you through it. And like I talked about before, it was knowing my identity in Christ and that, you know, I'm so much more than my body and my value is so, so, so much more than that. And whereas with sport and body image or performance or anything else, you know, that goes up and down and up and down, it's never enough.

You never reach the goal that you're looking for the goalposts always change, and even if you did it, it doesn't last. You know it won't last forever. Whereas comparing that with the identity that we find in Jesus, you know that I am so loved that the Creator of the universe, was willing to die for me. And that can't change no matter what I do.

And that is a secure foundation which, you know, will never, ever let you down, never let you go and never perish, spoil or fade. So I think it was the biggest thing was just finding my identity in Christ as a child of God, rather than in how I how I look or how I perform or what other people think of me or things like that.

Jonny Reid

No, thanks. I think it's really helpful just for people listening as they kind of reflect both themselves and then also on maybe friends, family in the lot of sport who may be maybe struggling in this way or struggling with different issues. Let's chat a bit on that in your in your blog, which we’ll reference people can find it. You quote some stats which show that eating disorders are more prevalent in sports than in wider society, quite significantly actually. Why do you think that is? What sort of research which shows why that is.

Rosie Woodbridge

We know many of us live under some cultural ideals anyway of what a body should look like. And so all of us struggle with that or can struggle with that. And but in sport, there's a number of factors which can make it a lot harder.

So, you know, as we've both said, like if you're playing a certain level, you are thinking about your fitness and, and what you eat in order to maximize your performance. So given that you're already thinking about that, and given that you really want to improve your performance because you're a sportsperson, you're already down a road which is easier to keep walking down that road and to take it more and more seriously because it's just always on your mind.

And, you know, some sportspeople do whatever it takes in order to do anything to help improve that performance as they think it might. And there might be pressure from coaches as well, telling you that you need to do that and change that. And so I guess that's in any sport. And you might also have kit which you want to feel comfortable in and the way you look, especially if you're going to be on a screen or with lots of people watching you.

And there are certain sports like aesthetic sports, where you are actually just by how you look at sports, where you need to make weight like boxing or something like that, or sports where it is believed that a lower body weight will increase your performance like running or swimming or those sorts of sports. And so, yeah, all those combined together in a way, no surprise really, that we are more susceptible to eating disorders, as sportspeople.

Jonny Reid

Now, you kind of reflect in your own story, really clear that when medical help is needed, that athletes do need to seek that professionally and hopefully most places around the world there will be an option to do that, whether that's through counselling, through seeing great doctors, getting the right medication in certain places. But for some listening in, I'm sure that they may be involved in the lives of sportspeople, maybe they are coaches themselves, maybe they are just walking alongside others in their team and they can sense, maybe in some of those risk sports, they kind of sense some friends may struggle in this area or they themselves are struggling in this area. But particularly for those who are kind of looking in and they think they want to have that question and ask “how are you doing?” A Bit like your pastor's wife did, how can they help them to think about this clearly and point them to Jesus in it?

Rosie Woodbridge

I think one thing to do is to be a bit informed at least, and to know what some of the issues are with eating disorders and the signs to the for and the risk factors as well.

And then I think it might be getting alongside them, being their friend, gently asking them some questions. So rather than pointing things out unnecessarily or pointing the finger in any way, just asking them questions about their relationship with their food and their body. And as things come out, I think it's a lot of listening to them.

Don't just assume that we know their stories and why they're why they're doing this and trying to cover like what was behind it and what are the struggles. Where is my heart looking for things. And then I just think reminding or showing people that their worth is and is in Christ so much more than their their bodies or their performance - there's all sorts of factors which can lead to eating disorders.

You know, it's not just because I want to look a certain way necessarily. It's not just because I want to perform well in my sport. It might be a means of escapism or control because the rest of life seems crazy, you know? So it's just trying to understand a bit about why that might be from that person and then just trying to speak the gospel into that.

That can be hard to do, but just a lot of listening, a lot of speaking of Christ showing us our true worth. And I think just being willing to walk alongside them for the length of this journey, which could be a long one, offer to be accountable, to be accountable for them and offer to be an encouragement offer you know, if you can and go and get help to go, go with them. And just being alongside them in that I think.

Jonny Reid:

Just as we land, as we close, is there anything, particularly with Christians, we follow Jesus, we look at Jesus, Is there anything we look at a life of Jesus where we can be encouraged or challenged in this area?

Rosie Woodbridge:

Yeah, I'm really fascinated as I look at descriptions of the physical appearance of Jesus. So we're not told loads about it, but we're told in Isaiah 53 that he had no form or majesty, that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him. So obviously Jesus attracted, you know, loads of people and billions of followers still today, but it wasn't anything to do with his appearance.

It was nothing. It says that we should know beauty, that we should desire him. And so, again, if we think about our own appearances, that we're not that great or whatever we're good company with Jesus, and but then it goes even further. It's look, but actually, when he was on the cross, it says, you know, he was like one from whom people hide their faces.

He was despised. And we held him in low esteem, just as there were many who were appalled at him. His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness. And I was just reading a book by Sam Allberry the other day, and he talked about these verses and said, you know, Jesus knows what it is to experience body shame.

And you know that people looked at him and they couldn't look at him and they wanted to turn their faces away from him and say, you know, we can have a bit of solidarity with Jesus. Said that he if we're experiencing body shame, that Jesus actually understands what we're going through. And but even more than that, that that experience with Jesus on the cross is what saves us from our own body shame.

So, you know, Jesus becomes ugly in the deepest sense of the Word so that we can become beautiful in the most important way, right. Unblemished before God. And he died for all of the sins the way that we have committed idolatry, cared about our bodies more than him, harmed our bodies, all of our sins, so that we can be free from those things and so that we can have this incredible, secure identity. We've been talking about as a child of God in Christ.

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