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Caroline Treadway
Sam Firman
Written by Sam Firman
Published on 20th March 2022
8 min read

A conversation with Caroline Treadway, director of LIGHT: a climbing documentary which breaks the silence around eating disorders in the climbing community.

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Caroline Treadway’s documentary LIGHT explores the normalisation of diet culture and disordered eating in climbing culture. Watching it at Kendal Mountain Festival, I couldn’t remember the last outdoor film that seemed to so tangibly bring a suppressed issue into the light. A year since its lockdown release, I was keen to ask Caroline about LIGHT’s reception, and how the conversation has since developed.

Caroline has lived with an eating disorder for decades, and watched many of her climbing friends do the same. “It doesn't seem like what we want the younger generation to be emulating,” she says. “So a lot of the inspiration was: what can I give to climbing that will help the younger generation? And I really wanted to be honest.” Having pitched the story to magazines unwilling to tell the story, she started making a film independently, without any funding or sponsorship.

Disordered eating is a complex problem with a slippery definition. The American Psychiatric Association defines eating disorders as “behavioural conditions characterised by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviours and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.” They aren’t one-size-fits-all, and can manifest in thousands of often subtle or even invisible ways. Disordered eating to one person might be healthy to somebody else.

Caroline reiterates a point from the film: that eating disorders can prove particularly  cruel and difficult to treat for people who don’t look emaciated. “I've had that so often, where I'm really struggling with my eating, and everyone's like, ‘You look amazing! What are you doing differently?’” Caroline explains. “And it's like, ‘Well… I'm starving myself.’”

Image courtesy of Caroline Treadway

There are some common red flags, Caroline says, like rigid eating behaviours and a fearfulness around eating. But even these are often only identifiable if you know a person really well. And even then it can be difficult to raise the issue.

“It's really hard to say what somebody else should do,” Caroline says. She cites the common practice of losing a little bit of weight for a climbing project, then putting it back on after sending it. This may seem logical, she says, but many people will struggle to retain that balance. “A lot of people I spoke to, their eating issues started on a road trip, where they just didn't have enough food. So they lost five pounds, and then they started climbing better, and then they wanted to lose more weight. So it's a tricky area. It's like a gateway drug.”

'I've had that so often, where I'm really struggling with my eating, and everyone's like, ‘You look amazing! What are you doing differently?’” Caroline explains. “And it's like, ‘Well… I'm starving myself.’'

The symptoms of eating disorders make them pernicious enough. But the normalisation of diet culture, and the reluctance of climbers to speak about eating disorders, only deepens the problem. “Over the years I've had so many uncensored conversations with top climbers about their eating struggles, and a lot of them just would not agree to be interviewed,” Caroline says.

Thankfully, LIGHT features some powerful voices. Emily Harrington, Angie Payne, Meagan Martin and Andrea Szekely are all top professional climbers. Emily Harrington has put up multiple 5.14 first female ascents, among other achievements, and Angie Payne was the first woman to boulder V13. Having built stellar careers, Caroline says, these women finally felt ready to speak publicly about either their own eating disorders or observing eating disorders in climbing.

Image courtesy of Caroline Treadway

But there is only one male climber in LIGHT: twenty-two-year-old Kai Lightner - an emerging climber, but also a thoughtful emerging spokesperson. “The problem is that, in order to talk about [eating disorders], you have to admit to being vulnerable,” says Kai in the film. “That’s a really hard thing for a lot of men in society. So we have to debunk that association that being vulnerable means being weak. Because there’s nothing weak about asking for help. In fact I think that’s one of the strongest things you can do.” 

“I've spoken to probably ten top climber men who have opened up to me and then said they didn't want to open up on camera,” Caroline says. In her experience, women struggling with the issue have more of a language of and sensitivity towards it. “I don't know if that's just because we are used to being so critical of our bodies from a young age,” Caroline speculates.

'That’s a really hard thing for a lot of men in society. So we have to debunk that association that being vulnerable means being weak. Because there’s nothing weak about asking for help. In fact I think that’s one of the strongest things you can do.'

Kai Lightner

Eating disorders aren’t unique to climbing, and Caroline has recently started researching a series that explores the issue in a range of sports. But is there something specific to climbing that shapes how the issue plays out?

It’s a relatively new sport, Caroline observes. Coaching practices are still evolving, after an initial wave of pioneers and dirtbags have helped establish the sport. The inaugural IFSC Climbing World Championships were in 1991, and Tokyo 2020 (or Tokyo 2021, depending on how you look at it) was climbing’s Olympics debut.

The combination of competition and measurable grades is also surely a big factor. Although different climbs suit different styles - it’s an art as well as a science - the short-term benefits of weight loss are, as many in the film outline, immediately measurable when it comes to climbing a grade harder. Make no mistake, style is part of climbing. But in some ways climbing feels closer to the quasi-scientific process of achieving a running personal bests than it does, say, the expression of a freestyle skiing line.

Images courtesy of Christoph Deinet (left) and @speckfechta (right), both Unsplash

LIGHT pushes back against the notion that being lighter helps climbers climb harder. There is a particularly powerful segment during which Angie Payne projects and sends Freaks of the Industry (V13) while at a healthy weight, without losing any weight. “Feeling light feels amazing,” Angie reflects in the film. “But what I realised, once I started gaining weight again and getting healthier, is that you can get that feeling by being strong, and feeling really strong feels even better than feeling really light.”

“When you rebuild from an eating disorder,” Caroline says, “you notice your metabolism kicks back in and your body starts functioning again. And you can have regular bowel movements - all these different things start working the way they're supposed to, which is a great feeling.”

'Feeling light feels amazing,” Angie reflects in the film. “But what I realised, once I started gaining weight again and getting healthier, is that you can get that feeling by being strong, and feeling really strong feels even better than feeling really light.'

Angie Payne

LIGHT has resonated with people around the world, such that Caroline has been bombarded with messages. “I felt like an ostrich with my head in the sand for many months, because I didn't expect this, and I don't know what to do,” she admits.  

The vast majority of these messages have been thankful, from young to old. “I was at an event where a nine-year-old girl came up and thanked me,” Caroline says. “She had watched it with her parents. She's on a climbing team … She was like, ‘Everybody on my team is struggling with this. Thank you so much.’” At the other end of life’s spectrum, Caroline has also heard from people in their sixties, who have struggled for most of their lives with an eating disorder. Such messages are bittersweet. “Some people don't recover,” Caroline says. “Some people are stuck there forever.” 

There has also been some denial, and even some criticism that LIGHT shares a scary message. But Caroline respectfully disagrees. “I took that kind of as a compliment,” she says,” because I don't think it's a bad message. I don't think it's a scary message. I think it's scarier when we don't talk about things.”

'I don't think it's a scary message. I think it's scarier when we don't talk about things.'

This, more than anything, is LIGHT’s message: let’s talk about things - as storytellers, climbers, friends and family. A simple request, but not necessarily an easy one. But the message appears to have landed in fertile soil. There has been considerable coverage of the film, contributing to an emergent openness around disordered eating. It has “started to feel a little more normal to have these conversations,” Caroline reflects. “I don't think we saw that five years ago, and certainly not because eating disorders didn't exist.”