Elena Vallortigara wearing Gabriella Marin (© Gianluca Zanella)
It’s an issue so many athletes struggle with, but one we rarely talk about in sport.
Body image, dieting, eating disorders – they’re topics I’m very sensitive about, due to my own experiences and what I saw in friends, fellow athletes and patients I worked with over the last year.
While finishing the third year of my psychology degree, I spent the summer working in a hospital in Siena at a centre for people with eating disorders and, when it was time for my thesis, I asked if I could do it on eating disorders in athletes.
My professor wasn’t too fond of the idea. Firstly, because it wasn’t in his expertise, but also because it’s not easy to find athletes who will open up about it.
That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, and I know this from personal experience.
In my event, the high jump, striking the balance between professionalism and proper eating can be especially difficult, with everyone aware of the effect of extra weight.
But along with that, a woman’s body changes a lot through the years, which causes so much stress when they see a link between their physical shape and their performances.
When I was 18, I won a high jump medal in the World U20 Championships but I had a body that was developing later than other girls. In the years after it changed a lot, and I spent a lot of time unable to high jump because of various injuries.
My ankle needed ligament reconstruction. I had back pain since the age of 16. One season I ruptured my calf, another year it was my knee. I always had problems, and from 2011 I never had a complete season.
Those rehab and injury periods are always the hardest. The key is to have long-term goals, to see the rehabilitation training as different. You always need a goal and have to understand you’re just working a different way in order to get back jumping and running.
I’d been thinking many times of quitting, that maybe it was just in my mind that I could jump over two metres. I began to think I had been lying to myself.
But what I learned was that the biggest obstacle is our minds. Those years affected me much more mentally than physically – you can heal the body easier than the mind.
Because I wasn’t competing for so long, I didn’t have to face the change in my physical shape and what it meant for my performances. When I returned, that was one of the hardest things to deal with.
My body was different from the past. Because of that, there were days when I was not eating or eating very little because I would have to compete or have to weigh myself. That’s so difficult, because if something goes wrong or you’re tired, all you want to do is eat.
This is my job, and the reality is that sometimes 1kg less allows me to jump higher. But thinking in that way is often a dangerous cycle.
Until last year, I was always more aware and concerned about how others saw my body than how I saw it myself. In this age of social media, everyone wants to seem perfect, and it’s become a problem – many athletes suffer from anorexia.
I have friends who suffered and they are not at the top level so it’s really very common, but many people don’t talk about it.
I can understand why, but it’s very important and I’d like to help coaches and people who have anything to do with sport to become aware what happens in the minds of athletes – female and male, because this is not just a female matter.
It’s difficult because sometimes you see yourself as a person, sometimes you see yourself as an athlete and you often have to weigh less to jump higher, to run faster. But it’s a fine balance.
What we need to think about is what’s good for our health and accept that we are not all the same. We are all different and beautiful in our uniqueness.
It took me a long time to realise that.
Last year was amazing for me. I set my personal best at 2.02m but it wasn’t so much the height itself that made me proud, but knowing that result was made with a lot of sweat.
I knew something special could happen that day in London as soon as I started going over earlier heights. When I jumped two metres it felt like I was on top of the mountain, looking at the landscape below – an amazing feeling.
But the biggest difference in 2018 was my mindset. There was still disappointment – I didn’t make the final at the European Championships and then spent the autumn injured with a stress reaction in my ankle – but I was happy with myself, with who I am and how I looked.
I wasn’t taking my weight, even if I ate a pizza or ice cream, and there’s no doubt in my mind that being in a good mood helps a lot with controlling weight. My confidence grew a lot, and I’ve been able to see myself differently.
As athletes, we can be so hard on ourselves, always looking for perfection even in areas where it’s not possible, but I’d like more of us to realise that your weight does not determine who you are. Your weight does not determine your results, or your value.
It’s important to have good support around you, people who make you feel good and love you just the way you are – those who help you forget the bad moments and learn from what you did wrong. Stefano Giardi has been my coach for two years and he’s been fantastic, and every person – physio, nutritionist, psychologist – has taught me something. I’ve been keeping with me the things that help not just for success in athletics, but also my happiness as a person.
In athletics, in life, others will always have something to say about you, but in the end that shouldn’t be what defines your confidence.
Just try to be honest with yourself. We are all beautiful, and our good and bad things are what make us unique, what make us beautiful. It’s just a matter of seeing it ourselves.
Photography: Gianluca Zanella