GRACE HULL // the pressure to be thin as a rising swim star 🏊♀️
Grace Hull was a gifted junior swimmer and as she began to rise through the state ranks, her coaches sought out any edge they thought would help her swim faster.
When she was 15, that included the drastic proposal to have a breast reduction.
"I did have bigger breasts than most female swimmers. I was told that I had terrible posture because of this and as a result, my posture in the water wasn't good enough," she recalls.
While the now 22-year-old didn't take that advice, it was one example of many where her body was under the microscope.
And it all coincided with one of the most vulnerable times in any girl's life — puberty.
As she naturally matured and developed, she was forced to relentlessly reflect on her body's changes.
That constant scrutiny eventually led to significant body image and mental health issues, which drove her away from the sport.
Grace started swimming competitively when she was only eight years old and at 14, she was selected for an elite all-age state squad.
Grace Hull (left) was selected for an elite all age state squad at 14. (Supplied)
She was rubbing shoulders with Olympians and thought it was "one of the coolest things ever," but soon discovered it came with a heavy price.
Everyone in the group had to do regular weigh-ins and skinfold tests — which is common in high-performance sport.
But as a teenager going through major physical and emotional changes, it started to take its toll.
"I think every girl goes through a stage in their athletic career where they start to plateau through puberty," the distance swimmer says.
"A lot of my plateau was blamed on my weight gain and how my body was changing shape. And it was heavily criticised by coaches and support staff."
Things got worse when she was selected for the Australian junior team at 15.
There were daily public weigh-ins, with the results passed around for everyone to see.
"No matter the times I was swimming, no matter if I was on the Australian team or not. That my body was the reason that I wasn't swimming fast enough."
Catriona Bisset knows just how destructive the endless pursuit of thinness can be.
Catriona left athletics after developing an eating disorder and struggling with anxiety and depression.(ABC News: Andrew Ware)
The Australian 800m champion and national record holder qualified for her first national titles at 12.
But soon after, as she hit puberty and her performance dropped off, she felt pressure to "have a certain body and to be small, and to retain that boy's body."
"I even remember at the time saying to myself, 'you're never going to make it in this sport. Because you're just not mentally strong enough'.
Squeezing into an all-exposing swimming costume or a midriff-baring crop top can be confronting for many women, let alone girls who are performing on very public sporting stages.
If they compete in sports where there's a big focus on appearance or weight requirements, they're at higher risk for body image issues and eating disorders.
They could also fall into the trap of not eating enough to match their level of exercise — a syndrome called relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S).
That can affect their periods, they may have weaker bones, and their immunity and cardiovascular health could be compromised.
And a lot of it comes back to that message of leaner being better.
That's linked to power-to-weight ratio, or the idea that if an athlete's lighter, they'll be faster.
Catriona qualified for her first national titles at 12, but soon after her performance dropped off.(Supplied)
"A lot of the time, you do get a lot of benefit from being leaner," Catriona admits.
"But there's a huge number of trade-offs to it. And if you don't do it in the right way, it can ruin your entire career."
"I was asked to keep my first-ever food diary at the age of 11," Grace says.
"No 11-year-old should ever be in a position where they're asked to write down everything that they're eating in the day for the coach to criticise.
Sports dietician Rebecca Hay says it's important for athletes to follow their bodies' cues for hunger and not follow arbitrary meal plans.
And she's seen how gaining weight can actually improve performance.
"Being lighter possibly means that there's an over-restriction with food, which means that maybe their training is not as effective as it could be and they're not recovering properly from their training sessions."
She's also witnessed many athletes slip into disordered eating in order to live up to the perceived ideal body type.
"And unfortunately, quite often when a female athlete changes their body or their body becomes smaller, there'll be really positive comments surrounding that and that then reinforces that behaviour, so they keep going."
YOUTUBEYouTube Lean and Mean
Catriona developed an eating disorder at a young age and she also struggled with anxiety and depression.
She left competitive athletics for several years and eventually sought treatment.
The Melbourne-based runner still sees a lot of the same problems in the elite environment and believes there's a "guru mentality" amongst many coaches who think they know what's best.
"It's just really lazy coaching. There are so many different things that go into how a person's body looks. But it's just really easy, if someone has a bad run, you can be like, 'oh, well, it's because they're fat'."
She thinks more women in leadership positions throughout sport and more research into women's bodies can make a big difference.
Grace developed anxiety and depression as a result of her body image issues and left the sport at 17.
She wants coaches and support staff to become more accountable for the way they speak to athletes and the practices they utilise.
"We shouldn't be saying, 'you need to get skinnier or you need to get leaner, you need to lose weight.' We need to say, 'are we eating the right foods to produce peak performance?'"
While organisations like the AIS are taking action, Rebecca Hay wants to see greater coach education to identify problematic behaviour early.
"If their performance is dropping, if they're isolating themselves, if they won't eat in front of their teammates — all of those things are really important warning signals."
Despite their negative experiences, returning to their respective sports has been an essential part of Grace and Catriona's healing process.
"I think finding running again as an adult has completely changed my life," Catriona reflects.
"Just the way it's made me think about my body as this beautiful, functional machine that responds to good food and to nurture and it will reward me when I treat it well.
"It's fundamentally changed the way I think about myself."
"I think it's great that I've been able to educate myself and realise that what happened back then was a result of a system that was a little broken, and that didn't support me well enough as a young athlete," Grace adds.
If you need support with an eating disorder or body image issues, contact the Butterfly Foundation's National Helpline 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Grace's journey and adventures via her Instagram @_gracehull 💕