Eating Disorders, College Athletics, & How To *Actually* Be Strong
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I just need to get something off my chest.
I started this blog almost three years ago, as a way to share information about eating disorders because I suffered from one for years. I suffered in silence, and writing was an easy way to tell people about my deepest, darkest shames. I've written about starving myself, binging and purging, relapsing, therapy, recovering, and the people who helped me shed my eating disorder and live a happy, fulfilling life. I've also written about the people who worsened my eating disorder, who manipulated me and threatened me and bullied me. Knowing what I know now, I can't imagine ever caring about those people, or about what they think. The Sarah of a decade ago wasn't as wise or empowered as the Sarah of today. She didn't know any better, and I have an enormous amount of empathy for the younger version of me.
The empathy I have for the younger version of me is one of the largest reasons I haven't stopped talking about eating disorders, and why I'm not shy about addressing the dark underbelly of collegiate athletics (read more about that here). There is a cultural problem in University athletics that runs deeper than any one coach or program, and that problem is this: young people who are still developing and growing into their bodies are simultaneously competing at very high levels with the expectation that performance is all that matters. Health does not matter. Longevity does not matter. Injury prevention does not matter. All that matters is performance, because that makes the coaches look good, which makes the school look good, which means more revenue for the school and a bigger paycheck for the coaches. Athletes themselves are largely replaceable. I'm not saying that performance doesn't matter, that would be quite stupid. But what I am saying is that performance should never trump physical or mental health. Sadly, it often does.
I was extremely fortunate to receive a scholarship, so I didn't end up paying for either of my degrees. My scholarship was part academic and part athletic, and when I say I'm eternally grateful to my school for providing these resources, I'm not exaggerating. I would not be where I am today without those dollars, or without the professors and staff who helped me along the way. But my time as a collegiate athlete was not altogether good. I lost my period, lost weight, kept losing weight, lost hair, ruined my teeth, lost friendships, suffered from severe gastrointestinal distress, and underwent hip surgery all for what? To run a fast 10K, once?
Toward the end of my college running career, I let go of the notion that I needed to be the fastest, because my body was incapable of carrying the physical load any longer. A few of my coaches were great, and a few of them pushed me into the deepest darkest corner of my eating disorder. They were not bad, per se, but they were also not very smart.
After entering treatment for my eating disorder, the first order of business was gaining weight. I gained about 20 pounds relatively quickly, and felt like an alien in my own skin. I was in a perfectly normal weight range, but I had been conditioned for years to hate large bodies and I could only see my largeness. After almost 4 consecutive years of therapy, I no longer feel like an alien. I feel strong and capable and sexy and happy. I started running ultra marathons, curious about how far and how hard I could push myself. For the first time in my life, I didn't have a coach telling me what to do, so I just listened to my body, pushed myself then let myself rest, and figured out how to properly eat and hydrate to ensure I remained healthy. I worked with a dietitian who completely transformed my knowledge of food. I learned to trust myself and my intuition, which is another reason I won't stop advocating for college athletes or trying to destigmatize eating disorders.
Young women and men need to be guided toward trusting themselves, not manipulated or shamed. The conversation surrounding food, health, and running fast does not have to be bad or scary. It can be totally factual, but coaches are largely unqualified to dispense sound nutritional advice. I wish I had had a dietitian to consult when I was a college athlete, someone who knew hard facts and had a neutral approach to food. Instead, I was told what not to eat, how much to eat, to lose weight (but not how to lose that weight), and I praised for being "fit" when I was actually just weak and sick.
I am currently the healthiest and strongest that I've ever been, and I'm also the heaviest. Five years ago I couldn't do a proper pushup, now I can pump out dozens. Five years ago, I couldn't imagine running 50 or 100 miles, and now my body is strong and healthy and able to climb mountains. Five years ago I was still figuring out who to trust, and how. Now I know that the only person who knows what is best for myself and my body is me.
Being a good athlete does not require starvation or extreme levels of sacrifice. It does require consistency, planning, rest, motivation, support, and a burning desire to be the best version of you. That's the message I want you to take away from this blog. Go be a badass, and don't let anyone-not a coach, not a teammate, not a family member, not a friend- get in your way.
P.S. Follow Dietitian Anna here, read Mary Cain's account of running under abusive coaches here, or read this Insider article about female college athletes from across the U.S. who came forward about their experiences with abusive coaches.