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Emily Harrington, raised in Boulder, is one of four top athletes in the documentary. She tells her story with openness, grace and hope. (Photo by Caroline Treadway)
Emily Harrington, raised in Boulder, is one of four top athletes in the documentary. She tells her story with openness, grace and hope. (Photo by Caroline Treadway)
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“They say I should gain weight. But they’re just jealous. They just want what I have: the power to chew food and spit it out. To stick my finger down my throat. To starve myself. But if I start eating again it will all go away. All that hard work, for nothing. And I’ll be back to average, boring, un-special Caroline.”

This excerpt, in her voice, is from Caroline Treadway’s powerful new documentary, Light – a film about eating disorders (EDs) in climbing, and beyond.

Throughout the film, Treadway cleverly weaves her personal story between those of four top climbers who have suffered from EDs, three of whom spent many years living in Boulder.

We learn the problem is far greater than any individual. Disordered eating goes beyond climbing, beyond sports; it’s a societal issue that makes us question how we define “Success” and why we place so much stock in it.

Caroline Treadway in autumn 2020, while working on Light, her first film. (Photo by Mary Mecklenburg, Instagram: @marymeck)

“An eating disorder has the potential to be more powerful than love, a family, or God,” explains Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, a Denver-based ED specialist, in the film. “And you have to take a moment to realize how powerful that is.”

In a recent phone conversation with “Dr.G.” she spoke to me about the “systems of oppression” that explain why reasonable people would put themselves through something as horrible as an ED. “And what we understand is that these behaviors are associated, visually and functionally, with winning. With achievement.”

As a young climber, Emily Harrington, of Boulder, podiumed in many national and international competitions in the early 2000s. But the price, she explains on camera, was incalculable.

“You deprive yourself, you starve yourself, you drive yourself into the ground. And then, you (succeed). And that was the mentality back then. Like, all the climbers I had seen before — that was how they achieved success.”

Athletes of all shapes, sizes and colors (not just young, white women) still walk this self-destructive path.

Kai Lightner is the only male that Treadway said was willing to speak about EDs on film.

“It was less for me about body image than it was about performance,” said Lightner, one of America’s most celebrated competition climbers. “I just wanted to be the best rock climber possible.”

Within one week of the Feb. 1 release of Light, Treadway received more than 500 personal messages. More than half of them were from men.

“The male piece is fascinating,” she told me, “because a lot of guys talk about how they don’t feel like they measure up to the ideal that they see at the gym — this sort of Adonis, statuesque kind of body.”

Our culture neatly packs body image insecurity into the female stereotype, but the data show that EDs don’t discriminate.

A screen shot of one of the many artistic illustrations used throughout the film. (Artwork by Sarah Nicholson/Petite Press)

Treadway’s own story began with an off-hand comment in 1984 after a day at the pool with a friend. The two 8-year-old girls in bathing suits squeezed into the front seat of a car so their legs were touching.

Pointing at Treadway’s legs, her friend said, “Ewwww, you have thunder thighs!”

The critique, as innocent as it may have been, made a painful, lasting impression on Treadway, who said, “For the first time in my life — but certainly not the last — I despised my body.”

Within two years, at just 10 years old, she started dieting.

Despite the ubiquity, the gravity and the darkness of disordered eating in athletes, there is also light. All four featured climbers, and Treadway herself, have overcome or are overcoming their illness. Their healthier relationship with eating and with their bodies has lifted them out of misery as well as danger.

At one point Lightner was so undernourished he risked organ failure, but he eventually gained enough weight to become stronger than he had ever been.

Harrington concludes, “I’m 34 years old, and I climb just as hard now, at this body weight, at this age — I actually climb harder — than I did when I was 18 years old.”

Dr. G. offers hope as well. “Anyone can fully recover from an eating disorder. Any given day can be the last day you’re doing these behaviors to yourself.”

Contact Chris Weidner at cweidner8@gmail.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.

For more information

*Watch the film, Light, on YouTube: (youtube.com/watch?v=thtDQJGrO5s)

For more information on eating disorders:

  • Gaudiani Clinic (gaudianiclinic.com) for treatment options, podcasts and scientific resources, including her book, Sick Enough: A Guide to the Medical Complications of Eating Disorders
  • National Eating Disorder Association (nationeatingdisorders.org) for help line, support, treatment, resources.
  • Treadway will be doing live Q & A sessions with Dr. G. starting in April. Stay tuned for dates on Instagram: @carolinelovesphotos @gaudianiclinic