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Mikaela was 15 when she lost her place in her dance group because of her waist.

This post deals with eating disorders and disordered eating and might be triggering for some readers.

At 15, Mikaela Welti didn't have many hang-ups about her body.

The athlete - at that stage a professional dancer - had long been told she didn't have the feet for ballet, but we don't tend to take comments about our feet that personally, do we? 

She'd found her strength in hip hop, and throughout a professional dancing course she'd worked hard to earn her place in the front row of her group's performance. 

Watch: Sophie Grégoire Trudeau on her eating disorder. Post continues below video.



She'd trained hard and consistently. She was feeling proud of herself, and excited for the opportunity.

But then at one practice, she was moved.

"I actually got dropped from the front row because of my waist jiggling too much," Welti recalled in an interview with Mamamia.

"I'm short, and I wouldn't describe myself as ever having body image issues until that moment. It was like, 'Do I have body dysmorphia then? Am I looking in the mirror and seeing something that's not there'. I was really, really confident and a comment like that shot my confidence as a 15-year-old. Those kind of comments, they stick with you."

Earlier this month, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) released a call-to-action on the prevalence of disordered eating among high-performance athletes. 

The resources aim to address the serious, and often misunderstood, issues of eating disorders and disordered eating common among athletes.

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Jessica Smith had an eating disorder at the very peak of her swimming career, while representing Australia at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

"It was basically throughout my entire sporting career, so I'm lucky to have got to the places that I did," she told AIS.

"But it also destroyed my international swimming career as well."

Listen: Jessica Smith on I Don't Know How She Does It. Post continues below audio.

Thankfully, a strong support network of family and friends helped Welti from going down a path of disordered eating too and 10 years on, she's at the point where comments about her body are "no skin off my back".

"Why does it matter if you're a size 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 etc. Why does it matter? If you've been put in that position because you're a good dancer, for example, if they have a problem with how they look then that's on you. It's no reflection on you," she told Mamamia.

"But all it takes is one comment. One freaking comment from one person, that literally means nothing, and that's the saddest part. It can take one comment to spiral someone's life out of control."

The AIS resource has identified three categories of 'high risk sports', consistently considered as high risk for the development of disordered eating and eating disorders. Dancing, as an aesthetically judged sport, is one of them.

Mikaela and team mate Jessica Rastrick celebrate a try in March 2020. Image: Getty. 

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A decade later, Welti no longer dances competitively, but she's now a player for the Melbourne Rebels Women's team - which comes with a whole new type of body-related commentary.

"The reason I fell in love with [rugby] is no matter your body shape or what your body size is, there's a position for you on the field," she said, before explaining she'd come to realise this was a blessing and a curse.

"I've been told in rugby that I can't play a position because I'm not heavy enough - it was almost said to me as a badge of honour, 'be proud, you're too light for this position'," Welti said.

"But I was like, I want to be this position because of the role that position plays. I know I can do a good job performing - why does it matter how much I weigh? Why are you telling me I can't do something because of a number of a scale, which in your mind doesn't fit the position's 'ideal'?

"It plays with your head. I don't understand how we've come so far in Australian sport... how we've gotten to a place where someone's selection is being related to how much or how little they weigh, whether or not that has any reflection on performance."

Image: Supplied. 

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She's also a dietician with Team Compeat, focused on high performance nutrition and wellbeing, giving her a unique insight into how easily athletes can fall into disordered eating patterns.

There's obviously a pressure to perform at a peak, which often involves being hyperaware of what is going in their bodies, but Welti believes it is mainly a lack of resources and understanding of how to combat issues with body image and eating that has lead to such a large number of athletes suffering.

"It is not up to a coach to decide if a player is too heavy or too light. That is not their field, the is not their expertise. It is also not, in my opinion, up to strength and conditioning coaches to make decisions on whether someone's diet is right, whether someone should be eating less, whether someone is too heavy."

While a lot of money is spent on things like conditioning and rehab, Welti said the same importance is not put on nutrition and nutrition experts.

"The amount of eating disorders and disordered eating among athletes - generally, it's because of a lack of resource. If we don't have dieticians or nutrition experts in place within a club environment to support the understanding of athletes' nutrition, eating disorders and disordered eating is going to happen.

"It's a lack of understanding of what they need, it's the pressures that come from being told they need to be a certain weight and feeling overwhelmed so reaching for those fad diets, and not actually getting professional support. "You get this environment where they're almost fostering the development of disordered eating," she said.

Essentially, there needs to be an entire culture shift - towards the recognition that weight does not dictate performance and forcing athletes to fit into boxes may be harmful to their physical performance, health and mental health.

Towards nutrition and diet as a valued part of preparation, with advice provided by trained experts in the field.

And towards knowing the signs of eating disorders and disordered eating, and knowing how to intervene and help.

"It's the system that's broken," Welti said. "It's not the individuals. At all. At all."

You can access the AIS disordered eating resources here.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected] You can also visit their website, here

Feature image: Instagram.

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