Jenny Wallwork was once one of the top five badminton players in the world. But all the time she was hiding a severe eating disorder. Now, having admitted she suffered from bulimia, she has set up her own charity to provide support for girls in a similar situation. The Mixed Zone’s Susan Egelstaff hears her story
When Jenny Wallwork began getting pains in her chest, yet knew that she still couldn’t curb her bulimia, she began to get really scared. She recognised the damage she was doing to her body but she knew her illness was out of control and she didn’t know where to get help.
On the face of it, Wallwork lived a life that many can only dream of. Not only was she a full-time athlete, but she was taking the badminton world by storm. She was ranked in the top five in the world and was picking up medals in major championships. Yet it was then that her bulimia was at its most severe.
“I got to the point where I was just exhausted all the time, both physically and mentally,” she says. “People were talking to me and I wasn’t taking anything in. Then it got to the stage when I’d feel little pains in my heart – that was really scary. When you’re making yourself sick, the pressure you’re putting on your body is massive – your throat hurts and your head feels like it’s going to explode. It was really frightening knowing that it was out of control and I couldn’t get out of the cycle I was in.”
It hadn’t always been like this for Wallwork. She describes herself as “pretty slim” in her school years, but it was when she reached 18 that her weight and body image became an issue. As her body changed, she became aware that an obsession was developing. Despite doing daily badminton sessions, she would then go on the cross-trainer in an attempt to burn more calories. “I wouldn’t get off until I’d burnt 1,000 calories,” she remembers. “So even before the eating disorder started, there was something that wasn’t quite right with how my mind was working.”
As Wallwork hit her twenties, she put on around a stone. Often, eating disorders are triggered by a comment from a coach or a peer. But for Wallwork, this was not the case – she insists that her bulimia was triggered solely by how she felt in herself. She describes constantly being around team-mates who were naturally smaller and slimmer than herself and so her negative feelings about her body were amplified.
For a long period, she went no further than exercising excessively. But one day, she crossed the line. “The really strange thing is that I can’t remember the first time I made myself sick,” she says. “It’s very hard initially to make yourself sick. I remember trying and not being able to do it, so I tried again and again until it happened. But I can’t remember the first time I actually managed it.”
Then the secrecy crept into her life. She would eat normally in company and then would binge in the privacy of her bedroom before purging. Wallwork shared a flat with a fellow badminton player, who never suspected a thing. Neither did her boyfriend. Nor her parents. In person, Wallwork is confident, bubbly and effervescent. Even when her illness was at its most severe, she appeared healthy.
Part of the reason that bulimia can be so hard to detect is that sufferers are often not underweight. With Wallwork becoming expert at projecting a cheerful persona, she hid her illness well. But in reality she was far from happy. “I wasn’t enjoying my badminton and when I was on court, I felt really angry and stressed,” she says. “The weird thing is that when it was happening, I was doing the best I ever had, which makes no sense at all. I got to number five in the world, I won Commonwealth medals, but I was miserable and I didn’t take any enjoyment out of winning. I have no idea how I was able to keep my standard of badminton up.”
Eating disorders affect around ten per cent of the female population, but among female athletes it is double that figure. There are numerous reasons why elite athletes are more susceptible to developing an eating disorder, including perfectionist tendencies, early exposure to body-image issues and a connection between self-worth and body image.
It is tough for anyone to admit to suffering from a mental illness, which is what an eating disorder is. With Wallwork feeling that she should be immune to these issues, speaking out became even harder. Eventually, she confided in others. After telling her boyfriend and flatmate, she told her parents, an experience she describes as “one of the hardest things she has ever done in her life”. Suddenly, though, she realised that the more people she told, the better she felt.
With the support of family and friends, Wallwork began to recover. Not everyone was supportive, however. A visit to her GP highlighted quite how little understanding there is of eating disorders. “It was laughable what happened with my GP,” she recalls. “He told me to stand on the scales, then he asked me if I had proof of my bulimia. And then I got a letter a month later telling me that my BMI wasn’t low enough to allow me to go to the support group. If that’s the kind of help that’s out there, no wonder people don’t speak out.”
Wallwork quickly realised that it was the support of those closest to her that would help her recover rather than professional help. These days, she is happy and healthy, though she believes that she will never be ‘cured’ of the illness.
However, Wallwork’s negative experience in seeking help sparked an idea. Realising that the support for those suffering from eating disorders was so poor, she decided to do something about it. Wallwork set up the Jenny Wallwork Foundation to raise awareness of eating disorders and provide support. It was a nerve-wracking step, but since its inception the charity has gone from strength to strength.
“It was very scary talking about my bulimia, and it was strange everyone knowing about my story,” admits Wallwork. “I was so nervous, but I got so many messages of support. I was in floods of tears because I had people contacting me saying, ‘If you ever doubted telling your story then know that you’ve already changed my life- now I know I can speak out’.
“Also, I got messages from athletes saying that they never felt like they could talk about it until now. I feel like people can take a step forward just by speaking to me because I’ve been through it. I just want to help people. I want people to know that it’s going to be one of the hardest things you’re ever going to do, but it is possible to get better.”
Visit Jenny’s foundation website at www.jennywallworkfoundation.co.uk
Lizzie Kelly, Britain’s top female National Hunt jockey, talks about weight problems for women and eating disorders within her sport. Click here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.