Updated: Sep 2
Growing up in today’s society that constantly places such a large emphasis on weight and appearance is hard. Being a female athlete in a sport that often magnifies that emphasis is really hard. Which makes falling into the dangerous trap of wanting to look a certain way in order to meet those “ideal” standards way too easy. And unfortunately, way too familiar.
I grew up playing just about every sport I could get my hands (or feet) on- soccer, basketball, tennis, volleyball, you name it. But I didn’t really start running as a sport until my freshman year of high school when the track coach convinced me to come out for the team. I remember winning my first race and thinking that maybe I could actually be pretty good if I took it more seriously. So my competitive nature took over and I did just that.
As I got more into running, I began to follow the “running world” more closely. I learned that what I put into my body largely affected how I felt so I started to become fixated on my diet and not just what I ate, but also how much. I noticed that a lot of professional runners and other girls that I was competing against looked quite different than me. I began to struggle with my body image and found myself wanting to be skinnier, shorter, and look more like a “runner”- whatever that meant in my head at the time. As I said, I grew up playing a multitude of sports and always had a tall and “athletic” build, but when my body started to develop more and I began to pay more attention to what other “real runners” looked like, the more I realized I didn’t necessarily fit the type. I spent way too much time looking at myself in the mirror or in pictures, just picking my body apart. I thought that if I could grab it in my hand, it was too fat. I wondered how I was supposed to run fast if I had “fat” rolls hanging over my stomach when I sat down. But eventually it became less about wanting to run faster and more about just wanting to be “skinny”.
That freshman year of high school was when it was the worst. I gradually started to avoid eating anything that I deemed too high in fat, sugar, sodium, carbs, etc. I would say that I didn’t like sugar (to be honest I have never really liked sweets that much but come on, who doesn’t like at least a little bit of sugar??) Basically I lived off of chicken, vegetables, and fruit- but not too much. I don’t think I ever kept a log or journal of exactly what I ate, but I often counted calories in my head and tried to restrict myself to a certain amount and often tried to do things to avoid eating (even if I was hungry). I wanted to feel like I had control over my body and mind. I was “self-disciplined” to a fault. I don’t know if I would say I ever had a full-blown eating disorder (at least it was never diagnosed because I never told anyone the extent of my symptoms), but I clearly had some serious disordered eating patterns and tendencies. It even got to the point where if we were having a family dinner that I didn’t think was “healthy enough”, I’d get anxious about how I was going to get by with not eating very much without my parents noticing. I would sometimes sneak part of it into a napkin and throw it away or toss some of it to my dog under the table.
Despite these efforts, my parents and family definitely started to catch on to my tendencies especially as I started to get thinner, and they showed concern. I would usually try to just brush it off by saying I wasn’t very hungry, or that I wanted to eat “healthy” so that I could run and feel better and avoid getting headaches (I used to get really bad migraines). I quickly dismissed them when they mentioned anything about an eating disorder and denied that I was anywhere near that point. Because I did still eat. I never fully restricted myself, so I really thought I was just being “healthy”. But looking back now, it was definitely far from healthy. I was not eating nearly enough to properly fuel my body for the energy I was exerting daily. My perception of my own body became extremely distorted. I saw myself as “too fat” when in reality I couldn’t have been much over 120 pounds. And for a female athlete who is 5’8, that’s not a lot. But hey, it seemed to be working, so why would I stop? I was running decently well, winning races, and getting recruited by colleges. I wasn’t starving myself completely, and for the most part I was enjoying my high school experience. So everything was fine right? Wrong.
I can’t recall the exact turning point of when things started to get better, but what I do distinctly remember is seeing a picture of myself running a track race and feeling taken aback because I couldn’t believe it was myself.
I was almost scared of what I saw; for the first time I clearly saw how frail and weak I looked, almost like I could just break at any second. My size extra small shorts were practically falling off of me and I didn’t look anything like the strong, fit runners that I had initially wanted to look like. I just looked thin-way too thin for my body type. And I did not look healthy. Somehow it eventually just clicked in my head and I realized that I was not helping myself by doing what I considered as “eating healthy” but was actually putting myself at heightened risk for injury and a bunch of other problems because of my obsession with being thinner. When the body is energy deficient for a sustained amount of time like mine was, it basically starts eating away at itself and can quickly result in injury or in extreme cases, system failure. How I was eating was not sustainable, especially with the amount of energy I was exerting daily, and unfortunately injuries did come later down the road. Although there are many factors that can potentially contribute to an injury in running, I don’t doubt that some of mine have been delayed consequences of that extended period of energy deficiency.
Sadly, in a sport in which so much emphasis is placed on weight and appearance, eating disorders and poor body image are quite common, as are injuries. Way too often I hear stories about coaches calling their athletes fat or telling them they’d run faster if they “cut back on the peanut butter” or publicly body-shaming them in front of their teammates. So not only is their physical health compromised, but so is their mental health and self-esteem. And this isn’t just an issue in running or athletics but in our society as a whole, especially with today’s huge social media influence. A 2015 study from Common Sense Media revealed that 80% of 10 year old girls report that they have been on a diet and that over half of 6-8 year old girls report wanting thinner bodies1. This means that by the young age of 6, girls are already exposed and brainwashed by society’s standard of beauty and so in efforts achieve that standard, many of them go on diets in attempts to lose weight. At 10 years old. Thankfully I have never had a crazy coach, teammate, or family member tell me that I should lose weight, but I can definitely relate to getting caught up in that deteriorating mindset and thinking you have to eat less to look “better”. I haven been lucky enough to gradually get out of that trap, but it has definitely taken time and just like with anything, there are always ups and downs. Although this was a struggle for me throughout my adolescence, I was able to work through it and have learned some valuable lessons that I want to share in hopes that they might also help anyone else, whether struggling with similar issues or not:
If you are hungry, it’s your body telling you that you need to EAT!
Don’t neglect your body’s hunger signals. They are trying to keep you energized and properly functioning so you can do everything you want to!
2. It’s all about balance
It is important to nourish your body with nutrient-rich food so that it feels good, but it is also important to nourish your tastebuds! Eat what you feel like eating; everything in moderation.
3. Appreciate your body for everything it does for you
If you think about it, every single cell in your body is designed to take care of you! When it’s healthy, my body allows me to wake up, walk all around campus, run (a lot), hold core planks (for 8 minutes every Wednesday, thanks Coach), spend time with my friends and family, and do countless other things that make me happy. You only get one body, so take care of it (physically AND mentally) and it will take care of you!
4. Try not to compare yourself to others
This is way easier said than done, hence why I say “try”. But realize that everyone is different and that’s okay because that is how we are meant to be! What works for someone else will not necessarily work or be right for you. And remember that social media is a highlight reel, not real life. I like this quote from Steve Furtick- “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
5. Realize and accept that you can’t change what other people think about you
Other people’s thoughts about you should not change or affect your thoughts about you. Our value cannot be given to us by others, only by ourselves.
Now as a disclaimer I want to point out that I am FAR from perfect at doing these things all of the time. But keeping these things in mind has helped me get to a much healthier and happier place now than I was in those early high school years. I am so lucky to be surrounded by such supportive family, friends, and teammates that make it easier to ignore the unhealthy standards of “beauty” that today’s society is often bombarding us with. They have helped me realize that my self-worth does not come from my appearance, a picture on Instagram, a number on a scale, or a time run in a race, but rather from who I am as a person and how well I love others and myself. And that’s the good stuff- that’s what really matters most.