Athletic Programs Must Open Dialogue on Eating Disorders

Editor’s Note: This article contains discussion of eating disorders.

I told myself that less was more.

As a swimmer, you always try to shave off time. Downsizing the time stamp in the pool is the mark of success for a swimmer — looking at the score board after a race and finding that I dropped time certainly made the endless hours and laps and exhaustion well worth it. But living by the doctrine of “less is more” is dangerous. It ruined my student-athlete career.

I had been a competitive swimmer since I was 10 years old. I made my way to becoming captain of my high school and club teams before college, and the growth, values, and community I found in swimming are things I still consider integral to who I am today. I continued swimming at Oberlin, racing some lifetime best swims and training harder than ever before. During my freshman year—the only year I swam at Oberlin—I was the fittest I had ever been. My body toned up, I lost some weight but gained muscle, and my performance in the pool was one of the few things I felt going for me amid my insecurity and trouble acclimating to college life. The idea of less is more started permeating into the rest of my life outside the pool—after all, if it gave me the high of self confidence in my sport, wouldn’t it work if I made it a general lifestyle?

You can only lose so much, however, before you become a shell. This way of living quickly ate at me in every way. By the time Winter Term training began, I was tired. I developed depression, I stopped taking care of myself, I got the flu and an upper respiratory infection, and I stopped eating. But I refused to believe that anything was wrong with me. When I started feeling too weak to swim my best, I told myself my body was just fatigued from the long season. I didn’t see myself disappearing.

The term “eating disorder” was always something foreign to me. When a teammate of mine approached me a couple of weeks before spring break—about a month after our season ended—she told me that she and some other swimmers were concerned about my health. She said that eating disorders were common in our sport and that if I needed anything the team was there for me. My denial was, in retrospect, terrifying. I thought I was perfectly healthy, that I was just trying to stay fit when, now looking back, working out became an unhealthy obsession, and the limitations I put on my eating became extreme.

Spring break reinforced the reality my teammate showed me, however. My mom saw me when I got home, and she immediately gasped, holding in tears after seeing how small I had become. She forced me onto the scale. I lost about a fourth of my body weight since the beginning of the school year. I wasn’t aiming to lose weight, to have my bones poke out like I was a skeleton, or to constantly look and feel gaunt and haggard. I just thought that what I was doing was normal.

It’s been three years and after forcing myself to quit competitive swimming, then enduring intensive treatment, and receiving endless support from my family, I’ve rebounded significantly. It would be inaccurate to say I’ve completely recovered; I still struggle to take care of myself some days and the obsessive, compulsive components eat at my brain on others. Rebuilding my relationship with food got me into cooking and I started to appreciate the nourishment food gives me. And working out is no longer an obsession and need for control but is now a tool for realizing that I am strong, and that there’s always room to become stronger.

Mental health is something most students at Oberlin grapple with, but while I feel like it’s normal to discuss my struggles with depression and OCD openly, I’ve always been reluctant to reveal my history of disordered eating — the stigma and taboo nature we carry around eating disorders has made me reluctant to open up. But I see people around me engage in behaviors that led me to my eating disorders — whether folks say they haven’t eaten anything but a granola bar all day or if they comment on their dissatisfaction with their bodies. Although it may be paranoia on my part, I fear that a culture of silence about disordered eating will only lead more individuals to fall into it.

The Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association found that 15 percent of women between the ages of 17 and 24 have eating disorders and that 20 percent of college students said they have or previously have had eating disorders. Awareness and dialogue are critical in preventing and combatting eating disorders. Although I was in denial when my teammate approached me with concerns about my weight loss, I reflect upon that moment now and see that it forced me to confront my unhealthy realities.

In light of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee’s mental health initiative and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week approaching the week after next, I encourage students — both athlete and non-athletes — to welcome discussion about eating disorders and mental health more generally. I encourage this community to support individuals struggling with body image and health and to approach friends, teammates, and peers if they indicate early signs of disordered eating. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline to seek help, and NEDA’s website has information about treatment facilities all over the U.S. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

Most of all, remember that your body does not define your worth. You are loved. You are precious. You have the world to hold you up. Less is not more.