Letting Go of Disordered Eating and Poor Body Image from the Elite Athlete Perspective
Today on the blog, we have another member from our tribe, Kendra Emanuel. She has a history of being an elite athlete and is sharing her personal experience with how that influenced her journey with disordered eating and poor body image and how she healed from both.
It is an unfortunate reality that being an elite athlete, especially a distance runner, brings about a whole host of food issues,eating and body disorder problems. The crux of this begins with the created “elite athlete” body image and the only way to be successful is to look the part. I don’t know if the ideal of the “perfect athlete’s body” is created by coaches, athletes, media or spectators, but it is incorrect and very harmful. It is especially harmful to a young female athlete, who often identifies themselves as a distance runner at the same time they are navigating their changing body and menstrual cycles. Every athlete will be touched by some sort of body image issue and try to control his or her body with food and diet at some point in their career.
As a distance runner, I felt the known factor to being successful was to be thin. Luckily, in high school I was completely unaware of this and with the guidance of my coach and family, this was never an issue. Once in college though, competing on a division 1 team and being a top freshman, these ideals were thrown at me. Being naturally thin, I was immediately targeted as “having an eating disorder”, “that I would never last” and all the sorts. I was surrounded by female athletes with disordered eating and negative body image, yet it was me who had the problem. Over time, it really started to affect me in a number of ways. I began thinking I must have to really worry about what I eat, I could not gain any weight, and my worth was determined by how fast I was. So, before long those disordered eating and negative body image patterns were being ingrained in me by being completely immersed in this culture. It was such a relief every time I was home, away from this and back to how things were before. Food, eating and my body were not the constant worry and thought. It’s exhausting and time consuming to be constantly worried about what you eat, how your training is going and the connection between the two.
Soon after starting grad school in a new place and in a new distance running program, things worsened. Disordered eating was almost encouraged. Negative body issues were placed on athletes and there was a responsibility to be thin. Being in this environment and avoiding these things is near impossible and yet again this is was a problem I carried myself. At the same time I experienced a college career ending injury that left me out for months. With no more time to compete for my university, holding on to beliefs of continuing to train and compete, these disordered eating and body image ideals were at its strongest hold on me. Being in the environment of competing athletes while injured was a burden to me and these ideals burrowed deeper. After a few years battling injury I began to give up on my athletic dreams but the disordered views of food and eating remained. It’s all based on control. Control of what you eat to control the size of your body to control the outcome of your training and performances.
As much as I did not want to let these patterns and ideals have a hold on me it was very difficult. When surrounded by and identified with a certain diet culture it takes a very strong person to combat the effects. The mindset of an elite athlete is that of perfection and control. As an athlete you strive for perfection and do everything in your control to be perfect. Unfortunately a main source of control is on food, diet and the equation under eating = less weight = faster times. Not only is this destructive to your body, it is destructive to your mental and emotional wellbeing. It is not healthy to be completely obsessed with what you are eating, but it is the constant thoughts of trying to be the best athlete you can be that pushes these thought patterns. As soon as you see one athlete looking the part, playing the part and getting results,many will follow. A part of it begins with wanting to fuel your body correctly and keep out any junk, but it is a slippery slope from there and a desire to eat healthy and fuel properly can soon turn into controlled and undereating.
I have not been an elite athlete for close to 10 years now, I gave up training like one 5 years ago, and yet it has taken me the last 8 years or more to be able to shed the mindset of an athlete, the control over food and the worth placed on body weight and size. Just as with any journey away from disordered eating patterns to intuitive eating, there is progress and setbacks. Thanks to hours of research in an attempt to heal my own gut and hormonal issues (caused by years of a controlling athlete eating mindset) and deciding to begin nutritional therapy courses of my own I was slowly able to shed these thoughts and patterns of control. I began to think of food and eating in a much different way than I had for many years. Meals, food and eating were more of an afterthought, in a good way, and not the main focus of each day. I ate for pleasure, for relationships and honored my cravings, which I had not done since my preteen years. It was liberating but also scary to be giving up that control and accepting that I was no longer an athlete. It was the desire to start a family and the worry of infertility, that lead me to consuming more traditional foods. This was my saving grace. The emphasis on sacred foods, healthy fats, animal products and a focus on organic and toxin free produce just felt so right to me. I happily began to shift my focus to these foods with the hope of getting pregnant. Luckily I got pregnant quickly, had a smooth pregnancy, delivery, healthy baby and quick recovery. I can honestly say this is thanks to losing the control, following my bodies guide as to what to eat and embracing a traditional foods diet.
I am not trying to say I have the best relationship yet with food or that I have perfect body image but now more than ever I do not let food, eating or my size and weight have control over me. There are much more important things to me. My food is my medicine and my fuel. As a breastfeeding mom to a busy toddler, nourishing myself to nourish my son is the most important. And I far from have any strict, nutritionist way of eating. I eat what I want. I eat for enjoyment and I eat to heal, both my body and my mind. It is possible to rid yourself of the ideals, let go of the control and eat for a completely different reason than you have in the past.
Thank you so much Kendra for sharing your journey and perspective on this important topic! Be sure to come back for Kendra’s second guest article on July 10th.