Be the Voice You Want to Hear in Eating Disorder Recovery

#NEDAWEEK (National Eating Disorder Awareness Week)

The theme of NEDA Week 2021 is: Every Body Has a Seat at the Table

Trigger warning: This post contains a discussion of eating disorders, both my personal experience and a dialogue on the existence of eating disorders in the wider endurance community. Please consider whether this post may be upsetting to you or others before reading or sharing.

I was 16 and at a summer training camp, and the girl sitting next to me at dinner kept pinching her thigh between her fingers before every bite. The nervous twitch caught my eye and for the rest of the meal, I couldn’t stop sneaking glances. I could hardly believe it: was I not the only one imagining the food on my plate heading straight for my legs?

Before that, I had never imagined anyone else shared my distorted view of reality. I objectified girls around me and categorized them into two groups based on whether I thought they were skinny enough. Me, I fell in the middle. Not yet skinny enough, but getting closer.

That was a time when “disordered eating” wasn’t even in my vocabulary. To me, my eating habits seemed just like the rest of my life: rigidly structured, usually falling just short of who I wanted to be. Everything was counted: calories, steps on a staircase, hours in my training log. Everything was precise: running circles in the parking lot to record 7.0 miles exactly, in bed at 9 p.m. every night, weekends included, color-coding each day’s to-do list and checking everything off in order.

Everything that contributed to self-worth came in a numerical form: the grade on my report card, my finish place in the race, my weight on the scale.

And no matter what the numbers were, I always felt being “good enough” was just around the corner.

Three years later, I stood behind the counter, sipping a coffee while my fellow barista, an aspiring medical professional who worked at the cafe as a second job, jabbered away about a training she’d recently attended on disordered eating. Uncomfortably aware of the cream and sugar in my drink, I covertly nudged it to the side, out of sight.

“Did you know it’s not really even about weight? It’s, like, all about control,” she told me.

You don’t say, I thought.

When I finally applied the concept of “eating disorder” to myself, as a college sophomore in 2012, I did so reluctantly and shamefacedly, and I expected no support. I didn’t think my teammates or friends would really get it, since I didn’t think I looked sick enough to really have an eating disorder, and since I didn’t think anyone else would be able to relate to my struggles.

What came in the next few years proved a surprise that was both emotionally heavy and heartwarming at the same time.

First, my teammates practically fell over themselves to support me, even a male teammate who sought me out specifically to see if I wanted to talk about it.

He put it on my radar for the first time that men deal with disordered eating too, and became the first of many friends who would confess to me their own struggles in the past and present.

I began to notice other athletes being increasingly vocal about their struggles with body image, eating, and the pressure to look a certain way for their sport. It may be because I was finally looking for these voices that I started hearing them for the first time, but I think it was also that my college years fell in the time when athletes were really starting to speak out en masse about the culture of disordered eating. Since then, there have been well-known and admired athletes in all the sports I love who have shared their story, and helped shift the conversation to highlight body positivity, physical health over the number on the scale, and the importance of asking for help.

This new wave of body-positive, health-at-any-size consciousness has highlighted the importance of hearing from folks who look different from each other. It turns out eating disorders don’t exactly discriminate.

Eating disorders come with a little voice in your ear telling you, among other things, that you are all alone. No one will understand. No one will believe you. Besides, you’re not deserving of support anyway because this is your fault.

If no one is speaking up, or the only people doing so don’t look anything like you (be it difference of gender, skin color, size, overt athleticism, or even sexual orientation,) it’s way too easy to continue feeling alone. And that is hugely detrimental.

That voice kept me silent for five years, afraid I couldn’t find help. Afraid it really was my fault after all. That voice made me think I was the only one suffering. It slapped blinders over my eyes and made me think only girls could have eating disorders. It made me think only skinny people have eating disorders.

The voice began to lose its grip only when my community, both my close friends and my athletic icons, began speaking out, directly contradicting the lies of the voice of my eating disorder.

So it’s vital that we hear diverse voices saying, you are not alone! No one should feel alone in their suffering, nor in their recovery, just because they’ve never seen someone who looks like them battle and eating disorder, or triumph over one.

I have written about my experience with disordered eating twice before now on my blog. In the first post, I focused on the relationship between my eating and my sport, and the insidious nature of eating disorders generally. Last year I wrote about the progress I’ve made in recovery, and posed a tentative question: can athletes with a history of disordered eating have body composition goals that are truly healthy? Even asking the question was a huge leap forward for me.

It’s a question I don’t hear a lot of folks addressing. Athletes using their voices to promote body positivity speak a lot about loving the body you’re in. But sometimes, their bodies look an awful lot like the body I tried to achieve through starvation, and was never able to maintain. Their bodies look like they’re meant to perform the sport they excel in. And it’s challenging for me to believe that’s an accident.

No, I don’t think these athletes are simply loving the body they just happen to find themselves in. I think they took intentional action that contributed to building the body they’re in at the moment.

I’d like to contribute something to the conversation that I don’t hear said very often:

I think it’s possible for people who have recovered from eating disorders to eat and train in specific ways to change their body composition, including changing the way their body looks. I think it’s possible to do it healthily. It requires thought and planning, just as any aspect of training does. When we want to ski or run faster, we manipulate our intervals to prompt the adaptation we desire. When we want to change our body composition for a variety of purposes, well, we manipulate our training, sleeping, eating, stress, and every other relevant aspect to make the change we want.

A healthy relationship with food does mean loving the body I am in, but can, if I want it to, encompass more than that. It’s possible to love your body and still change it: gain and lose fat, gain and lose muscle, get a haircut, paint your nails.

It’s the motivation and expectation that tip these behaviors between acts of self-destruction and acts of self-love.

When I was recovering from one of my worst episodes, I latched onto the idea that I wish I could regard my body the way I do my hair: I have preferences for the way my hair looks, for many reasons, and my preferences change. Sometimes, my hair looks the way I want it to. Sometimes, it doesn’t. But I never like or dislike myself as a result of my hair.

Likewise, when I envision how I would like my hair to look, it is some form of my hair, not someone else’s hair. That is to say, when I picture my ideal hair, I picture brown and wavy hair, cut to varying lengths or possibly with a streak died blue. I know it might not look exactly like how I’ve pictured it, because it does its own thing and that’s okay.

And bodies work the same way: they change the way they look and perform, but they’re still them in essence. So yes, love what you’ve got. And know you can change it within certain bounds.

I want to be the voice saying that changing your body can be an act of self love too, just like getting a haircut can.

If you have something you want to share about eating disorders, your voice belongs at the table. Your voice belongs regardless of what your body looks like, and your voice belongs even if it’s saying something you don’t hear other people saying. If it is a message of hope and empowerment, it is a message we need. Thank you, sincerely, to every person who has spoken about their experiences. You have helped me reach a phase of recovery that, as recently as 2018, I didn’t think was possible for me. Thank you.

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