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Sports have always been an incredibly important part of my life. They've provided an outlet for my stress and helped me form so many lifelong relationships and memories. But because sports are sports, competition is fierce, and sometimes the pressure to perform and succeed takes a severe toll on personal health. It happened to me (and many others).
What started as a watchful diet turned into a life-consuming eating disorder, and I'm sadly not alone in this experience. According to a 2006 survey by the National Eating Disorders Association, 20% of college students said they have or have previously had an eating disorder. Eating disorders and subclinical symptoms are most prevalent among female college students, with 91% of female students surveyed saying that they have tried to control their weight through dieting, and 25% stating that they've binged and purged.
Female athletes in particular are at some of the highest risks for developing eating disorders due to the "perfection" we seek in our sport. A study by the NCAA found 33% of Division 1 female athletes have symptoms that place them in the high-risk category for anorexia. In sports that have a higher emphasis on appearance, such as gymnastics and figure skating, 62 percent of female athletes were reported to have eating disorders. These numbers are alarming, but from personal experience I can attest that these documented cases are only a fraction of the reality.
In high school I was in field hockey, swimming, and track, but focused primarily on the two individual endurance sports (both high-risk categories). I excelled at swimming at a young age and was regionally ranked by the time I was 12, but began lagging behind when I started playing multiple sports. I distinctly remember one of my coaches telling me "You just need to practice more," as the cure-all solution.
It was a seemingly basic comment, but one that piled on to all of my other anxieties. I was obese in elementary school, something that contributed to my parents' fighting and their eventual divorce. I began losing weight in middle school by avoiding sugar and fat, and counting calories--habits that grew exponentially worse in high school. I was also a straight-A student and academic perfectionist, a characteristic that put me at risk. I never partied because I always had practice or games. I just wanted to keep improving, and I thought training and watching my diet would do the trick.
I remember starting every morning by stepping on the scale. It was my own little competition that I thought would improve my appearance and athletics. I prized myself for shrinking down to 107 lbs. For breakfast I only allowed myself a bowl of plain oatmeal and one cup of coffee; for lunch, some raw veggies, two slices of turkey, and an apple (300 calories max). I would be exhausted by the end of the day, my stomach groaning and head spinning, but once my body adjusted it seemed normal. Occasionally I would ask to eat my friends' leftovers, only to feel guilty later.
During hockey and track, I trained directly after school on an empty stomach. I would leave my hockey practices and games only to go run another two to four miles. Bear in mind that I was a midfielder, already running upwards of four miles in a game.
During winter when I went home before swim practice, I always checked the scale first. Depending on the number, I would scarf down entire bags of chips and pots of stew only to force myself to puke them up before practice.
The NCAA reported that 45 percent of swimmers surveyed felt that the revealing nature of a swimsuit created an additional stressor in the sport. I would constantly check myself in the mirror from all angles, over-analyzing every bulge and bump that my tight suit seemed to highlight, jealous of the "perfect" bodies that some of my competitors had.
My body and weight soon became a widely discussed topic. I constantly received mixed comments from everyone-- friends, family, teachers, coaches, even strangers. I was either "gorgeous and strong" or "so skinny." It messed with my head, but ultimately I remember being proud of my smaller size. And for track, I was performing too. I won races, went to states, and ran a 5:25 mile. But my body was breaking down-- literally.
Eating disorders deny your body the nutrients it needs to function properly, and as a result your body responds by slowing down to conserve energy, leading to fatigue, muscle loss, irregular heartbeats, hormonal imbalances, and numerous other health consequences. I began losing my hair in chunks and had two stress fractures in high school from over-training. That's eight to twelve weeks each time that I wasn't allowed to do anything. For someone who lives to compete and was afraid to gain a pound, this was devastating. I also stopped having my period. That's when my parents stepped in and forced me to see a doctor.
I was diagnosed only as "high risk," because I lied answering a majority of the questions. "Have you ever forced yourself to purge?" "No." "How many calories do you eat in a day?" "Over three thousand".
Denial with eating disorders is extremely common for athletes, who often deny physical pain and injuries in order to continue competing (been there, tons of times). Ever heard of "No pain, no gain"? I would chant that to myself as I ran on stress fractures and pulled muscles, popping everything from ibuprofen to oxycodone before competition. My parents made me quit swimming for a while until I gained weight. Swimming used to be the one thing that got me through each day. Being forced to quit was miserable.
But during this time, I learned about the female athlete triad, which includes three distinct, interrelated health concerns: eating disorder, amenorrhea (irregular or no menstruation), and osteoporosis (low bone density from lack of nutrients and over-exercise). 25% of female athletes have at least one of these symptoms, but I had all three, and even bragged to my friends that I never got my period.
While initial improvement occurs for many athletes with eating disorders, they don't last long. Turns out, not having your period negatively affects your athletic performance and bone growth. One study found female athletes with ovarian suppression performed 9.8% worse than their peers with normal menstrual cycles. Amenorrhea also directly causes an irreversible reduction in Bone Mineral Density, a serious concern considering 90% of our bone growth occurs before we turn 18, putting us at a higher risk for stress fractures, osteopenia, and osteoporosis. With five stress fractures and counting, it pains me to know I will forever live with the consequences of my unhealthy past.
I started gaining weight the end of my senior year and into college, but still had relapses. I remember my freshman year when I joined Oberlin track and everyone asked me if I ran the 400m. Their faces were shocked when I told them I ran distance, because "I didn't look like it." I was too big for their category, and it made me feel awful. I had another stress fracture that year, and that's when I quit track to pick up lacrosse.
When I switched to focusing on field hockey and lacrosse, two team sports, that's when I officially became healthier. I had to shower naked with my teammates every day, and their supportive words and emphasis on body positivity stuck with me. My coaches no longer forgot about or ignored me if I didn't perform as well. The individual pressures were gone, and It was the first time I felt beautiful and proud of my body for all of its athletic strength.
I'm proud to say that I now weigh around the 140s (I don't step on scales), and can almost bench my weight and squat well over it. I still have days when I overly criticize my body--things like this don't just go away. But it's nothing like it was before. I'm determined to keep healthy so I can compete and be an athlete for the rest of my life. I'm done with the damn boot.