The best athlete response to a media question this year….

Jessie Diggins on body image….but did she miss out on an opportunity to say something greater?

This excerpt comes from Jessie Diggins’s blog after beating Therease Johaug, the greatest distance skier in the history of the sport, in a 10k skate race. Johaug had not lost an interval 10k start in ….half a decade? A long time….

While Diggins’s winning of the overall World Cup title, the first by an American female in the history of the sport, is viewed by many to be the crowning achievement on the year, I believe this race gave critical credence and validity to the season. She took down the greatest in the sport in probably one of her best events. Since the Norwegians were absent from most of the World Cup, some could argue the 2021 overall titles have a diminished value. By beating them here, Diggins proved to everyone that she could race with the best of them…and beat them. Here is a post from her blog after that race: 

Given that Eating Disorder Awareness week is coming up soon, I’d like to tell you about a very interesting moment I had in the media zone after the 10km skate race, because this very clearly illustrates to me how far we still need to go in body image education. 

One of the reporters asked me about my race told me that Johaug was much better than I was in the uphills, but I was faster in the downhills. Why did I think this happened? Before I could open my mouth to answer him, he steamrolled over me, hypothesizing on live TV that it was because I was so much bigger than Therese and weighed more, and that’s why I went faster. I blinked at him. I asked him to repeat the question, sure that I hadn’t understood him correctly (I had).

On what I sincerely hope was still live TV for the sake of women everywhere, I told him that he needed to learn how to talk to women. Secondly, he may never comment on a skier’s body. That is not ok. I pointed at my headgear, the Emily Program, and asked him to take a second and think about why I race with that specific logo on my head. I ultimately won that race because of my heart, not my body composition, and to suggest otherwise is harmful to every young athlete out there watching it.

I was really proud of myself here, because I didn’t let this comment throw me off. Many years ago, it would have stolen all my joy from my race and made me stay up at night questioning the size of my body and what other people thought about it. Now, I just dismiss it for what it is; one man being ignorant and insensitive, looking for clickbait. 

His colleague later asked me why I was “so angry” (they love to exaggerate. When I am actually angry, you will know). I explained to him “No, I wasn’t angry…just very disappointed. It is never ok to comment on skiers bodies and I shouldn’t have to stand there and take that kind of question. Maybe you don’t consider it YOUR job to protect the next generation of women in sport from harmful body image talk…but it IS my job.”

So how do we fix this? A few things. First, don’t ever comment on someone else’s body size or shape. I can’t believe I’m still explaining to people that this will never, ever help anyone…yet here we are. The last thing we need to impress upon young athletes, male or female, is that trying to achieve a body size they may or may not be genetically able to sustain is more important than hard work, mental toughness and health. Secondly, hire more women in sports journalism. Every time a woman asks me a question in the media zone, they (wait for it…) listen and let me answer them. They don’t try to feed me the answer they’re clearly looking for without regard to how I actually felt about my race. 

I’d like to point out that I’m not condemning all men in the media space here. I’ve had many awesome interactions with the press, and I genuinely like and appreciate many of them (hi, Jason, Tom and Anders!). But I have never had a woman try to “mansplain” to me how and why I skied the way I did. I have had many, many men attempt this. I would love to see equal representation of men and women in the sports media space. I think we will get better stories out of it. And hopefully less speculation on the size of women’s bodies and how it helps or hurts their racing. 

I want to preface my writing of this post by saying that I have not received treatment nor been trained in the area of eating disorders or body image health services. However, as an endurance athlete who competed as a high level distance runner in college, regularly participates in cycling and skiing events today, and is an avid reader and follower of all three sports, I will openly acknowledge having been personally touched by this issue. I have thought about it a lot, and as the “skieologian,” have worked on trying to break down the issue to its fundamental roots in an effort to further understand, help/heal myself, and potentially, counsel, encourage, support, and guide others. After reading this post, I had a few thoughts: 

1)Should I be offended if a reporter were to ask me this question?

2)What kind of response will benefit people who may be struggling with body image/food relationship issues?

3)How do I think Diggins handled this situation?

First, I’ll look at the third point. I want to give credit where credit is due. Unlike many athletes who routinely spout meaningless cliche responses in the mixed zone, Diggins had the presence of mind to react naturally to the reporter’s question. She boldly spoke what was on her heart. That was refreshing. Quite honestly, it would have been ‘easier’ in a sense to just absorb and compartmentalize the question. (Of course, ‘harder’ in a sense, too, as she would have been, as she pointed out, thinking about the question all night ….). Not only that, but the actual response she gave was powerful and meaningful – it left us with something to think about, which is good!

Regarding her response, I would also agree that I think in general, it is harmful for reporters to bring attention to differences in body type, even when it is done perhaps in a spirit of inquiry regarding the nature of an objective component to the race results. In this case, the nature of the course could have certainly lent an advantage to a certain body type; we see this in cycling as well. Some courses tilt the value of strength/weight ratios so as to give a certain build an advantage. It’s a fair, “scientific” question. All that is to say, while I believe on the one hand that the reporter has a journalistic ‘right’ to ask this question (which Diggins clearly does not feel), I am in agreement with Diggins that these types of questions, generally, are not beneficial – to the sport or those participating in it.

A brief side opinion – the observation, when made by a journalist, carries some damaging power. Far, far more damaging, however, is a similar statement from a coach or teammate. If there is a place for education, as Diggins wishes, I would say it needs to be there (and it is…I can attest to it having taken L100 and L200 courses).

An important thesis – I think – hope – we can all agree on: Ultimately, what we want to avoid are young people having improper views on food and body image. People end up going down this crooked path from different entry points. One of them certainly could be the errant question of a reporter, but other times it is a comment from a teammate or even a suggestion from Grandma at the Thanksgiving dinner. I think it is ok to caution the general public on the potential effects of our words. I see that as being Diggins’s main point, and I’m behind it. But, as the skieologian, I’m obligated to think about this on a deeper level and provide you, the reader, with some nuance.

I don’t fault Diggins for her response mainly because it was off the cuff – had she had a chance to gather herself, think about the best response, I think there are some deeper points she would have brought out. In fact, as you will see at the end of this article, she really did just that. If she had recognized the observation of the reporter but also cautioned him to the dark path he is potentially leading others to, she would have won a more important victory. To say, “You should NEVER ask or talk about body image to an athlete” is also not beneficial, in my opinion. As someone who might be struggling with an issue, cold turkey avoidance of it isn’t a path to healing. I want to mature to a place where I can address a topic while maintaining the strength to not let it pull me to a negative, dark place.

Ultimately, the attitude and viewpoint I think we want to cultivate in young people is 1) a recognition that they are made a certain way, and that’s ok – its purposeful – and the way they are made does not need to limit them in performance (people of different sizes and shapes can actually do the same things that people of other sizes and shapes can do)…and 2) a realization that the focus shouldn’t be on the size and shape, but on the training — let your body become what it will…you just follow the training and nutrition rules. When they arrive at this place – a proper perspective – they ought to be able to answer questions like this from the media. 

Does ‘media guy’ understand the potentially negative undertones of his question? Probably not. Ok….of course not. Anyone who has been even part way down this dark road, however, knows this is part of the struggle with eating disorders/body image. A comment from an aunt or uncle at a meal can be completely harmless to everyone….except you. My viewpoint: that doesn’t mean we silence the aunt or uncle from making that comment. They can be educated on the potential affects of the comment while we are simultaneously being brought to a better place ourselves, able to properly place the comment in its context and ultimately not allow it to have a dark, negative affect on us

This is where I’ll address my questions 1 and 2. Hypothetically, I have been prepared to answer this question (again – lets give credit to Diggins for her response, which was totally off the cuff). Here is my response:

“Your question is astute (I might even add a hint of sarcasm here for fun…make the ‘mansplainer’ feel really good about himself….for a second.) but what I will say is this: It is possible that differences in body type could have lent an advantage to one skier or another here (The nature of a course can grant the strength/weight ratio of skiers a larger role than maybe is ‘normal.’) but I think it ignores a larger truththat body type does not have the final say in who wins and who loses….and by asking that question, you run the risk of suggesting to young people that it does. While I can stand here and let you talk about weight and body types and deal with it objectively, for many young men and women, a comment like that could send them into a dark spiral which could take years to recover from. You might want to think twice about bringing attention to this component of racing.”

It’s easy to Monday Morning Quarterback this quote, and thankfully, I think Diggins did a little bit of that as well in her blog. Look at the quote she had posted — it pretty much captures my rhetoric:…..

  • “The last thing we need to impress upon young athletes, male or female, is that trying to achieve a body size they may or may not be genetically able to sustain is more important than hard work, mental toughness and health.”

To the young girls and boys who struggle with body/food relationships – Diggins is like Aragorn standing at the final, evil, scary gate of Mordor in the last Lord of the Rings movie. When she says to the reporter, “How DARE you talk about body image. You must NEVER do that,” she is telling all of her followers, the army standing behind her, that this is an enemy that is to be feared. We can’t overcome it. So don’t even bring it up. In contrast, Aragorn instills confidence in his army when he looks Sauron in the eye and says, “bring it.” In the same way, Diggins, if she were to say, “bring it….I’ll answer your inconsiderate question, even though I know you don’t really know the deeper complexity behind it….” what she tells her followers, the people looking to her for leadership, is “You don’t need to fear this. Respect? Sure. Avoid? No. Face? Yes. Fear not. You can overcome it.”

Thus, if Diggins missed something here, it was an opportunity (and again, I believe her comments did a lot, but hopefully by now you are seeing the deeper nuance and its importance…the subtle message that could have been said, but wasn’t). An opportunity to show people who do struggle with these things that you can face them head on…not shirk away in fear. I don’t think it is positive to say we should never discuss body image in sports. I also don’t think it is fair to condemn a reporter for asking the type of question they are – which was basically identifying how on this particular course, the nature of the climbs and descents could possibly lend an advantage to a certain type of athlete, physically speaking. I think someone who has been to the dungeon of eating disorders and body image struggles can and should recognize that these topics can be talked about in a mature way without allowing them to spark them into another spiral of negative thoughts and behaviors. I understand that it IS these very types of questions and conversations that have the potential to do that to young people! But that is all the more reason why someone ought to come forth – someone like Diggins who has struggled and is in the process (never ending, of course) of working through those struggles – to be the Aragorn at the gate and show those people who are struggling that we can stand above those trigger phrases, that they don’t have to control us. When Diggins answers the question in that way, it empowers every person out there who is struggling with an eating disorder by saying,

“Look, the enemy (an errant comment) does not have to be avoided….it can be conquered.”

Her response was great, but I would have loved to see her stand up and, in a dry way, simply answer the question… but then in a much deeper, more significant way, flavor it with a little bit of spicy sauce to make the reporter think twice about the potential consequences of speculating on sport in such a manner. 

All in all, this is not meant to be a sharp, negative critique of Diggin’s words. I think some people probably think I have a negative view of Diggins, and that is far from the truth. I honestly think, and I don’t say this lightly, that she is the Prefontaine of nordic skiing in America. (Can a distance runner possibly give a higher praise?…NO!)

The biggest difference between the two is that Diggins has medals…(mic drop).

She is a true champion in every sense of the word – both on and off the course. She is a true role model for young people everywhere, and her principles are admirable. This is pretty nit picky, to be honest, of me, but I hope you see the nuance as being valuable, especially if you are someone who has seen and experienced even to a small extent, some of these issues. 

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