There are two days that will be forever etched in Jess Breach’s mind. The time she became a three-time Six Nations Grand Slam champion with England earlier this year she is not one of them. Nor the famous moment when she scored six tries on her Red Roses debut in 2017, when she was heralded as one of the brightest new stars in English rugby.
Instead, she clearly remembers sitting with her mother, Tricia, at her local coffee shop five years ago. “I was in Pret upstairs where I live in Chichester and I broke down with my mum and told her I couldn’t do it anymore,” recalls Breach. “It was hard for her to see and hear it and she told me she didn’t have to do all of this.”
For months, Breach had been trapped by her body image insecurities and had developed a dysfunctional relationship with food. It was her first season as an England Sevens player and, having spent weeks traveling the world with her teammates, and living away from home for the first time, the rigors of professional rugby had begun to take their toll. . Desperate to fit the image of an athletic-looking sevens player, she became determined to lose weight and began skipping meals.
“I knew what I was doing wasn’t right, so I didn’t want to get on the scale and see that I was a certain weight and say, ‘I can’t even have dinner tonight. It was a difficult period in my life and food became the only thing I could control,” says Breach, in her first interview with a British newspaper about his ordeal.
It was the start of an entirely challenging period for Breach, whose mother would later be diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2019. Tricia broke the news to her daughter in the car. “That’s the other day that will always stay with me, not because it’s a sad moment, but a moment when you realize how much of life you still want to live and experience,” she muses.
Breach can’t pinpoint a particular trigger for her body image concerns. Rather, there were several factors that gradually began to overwhelm her: the tight uniform of seven that she would wear, with shorts that were more revealing than she would have liked. Beyond the sphere of rugby, there were the dangers of social media. Every time she went on Instagram, she struggled to escape the constant stream of filtered and feminized images of skinny women, causing her to obsess over the ‘puppy fat’ teen of hers. “When I looked in the mirror or stepped on the scale, I was constantly comparing myself to other people, thinking, ‘My puppy’s fat has stayed on longer than others,’” she says.
Breach isn’t alone in experiencing body image issues, which carry with them a great deal of shame, stigma and secrecy in both society and sport. They are also one of the main reasons teenagers drop out of sport: a study published in March this year by the Women in Sport charity found that almost half of all teenage girls avoided exercise because they were too aware of how they felt. they saw
But as an international athlete, Breach consciously combined his dysfunctional relationship with food with his performance in the gym. At his worst, he remembers training on a single bowl of cereal and wouldn’t touch anything else until dinner. Whether or not he skipped a meal often determined whether he met his goals. “Some days they [my numbers] it wouldn’t be very good or in one session I would be so tired,” she said. “Other days I would be fine, but if I had eaten a little more and performed better, I wouldn’t eat that night. So the next day it would fall again. My friend from Harlequins told me that she wanted to lose weight and she asked me how she did it. She was like, ‘Did you plan your meal? Meal prep? I told him openly that I just didn’t eat, with a simple face. Then she was like, ‘Jess, that’s really unhealthy.'”