TW: eating disorders, body dysmorphia
For female athletes, there are always challenges. Am I performing my best, can I keep up with my team, are we being compared to the men's team? Add in your time of month and suddenly you’re working three times as hard to get through practice.
I’m writing this piece to share what I wish I would have done or known about when I was racing long-distance running competitively. I think more women, and ESPECIALLY girls, should be educated early on about their health and bodies. We’ve all been told the horror stories but what about when nothing seems wrong - and you just aren’t listening to your body?
When you’re a 15 year old girl, there are a lot of adjustments. If you were like me, you might be starting High School, trying to figure out what sports team, choir, debate team, or club you should try-out for to put on your resume for college so you could get a scholarship to escape the teeny tiny town that knows all your business. Four years away but the time starts now to work your way up & pay your dues so you can leave High School having all these achievements to show off for colleges - whether you enjoyed any of it or not.
My thing was running. I still love running, and do the occasional race, but I haven’t been able to get back up my mileage in fear of getting injured as bad as I did way back when. My body type in High School was very much a stereotypical long-distance runner - tall and lanky with zero curves at all. Everyone was insecure but at the time I felt insecure for not being feminine enough. I grew up in a very body-positive household with a powerhouse mom who taught me that it’s not about being skinny or thin like the pressures of 2010’s High School had, it’s about being healthy. I will forever be grateful for my mom that instilled that somewhat progressive for the time attitude. My mom, also a runner, knew all of my friends and saw the way some of their moms told them “to use fake sugar in your coffee so you don’t gain weight” or “don’t eat those chips so you don’t blow up like a balloon”. Whatever body pressure was put on girls at that time - it was hard to feel enough.
So add this already toxic atmosphere to girls + women’s sports and you get a lot of pressure, stress, and difficult situations. In running, you’re praised for how thin you are. So me, having the body type that was most celebrated by the sport, felt that had to be my worth. This led to over-exercising and undereating (unintentionally) based on the lack of information and education I was taught during that time. I would lose my period for weeks, months, my period would stop and start, I would get my period early, get my period late - overall just a mess. So many ruined pairs of cute underwear and so much frustration. When I did get my period, I threw in a tampon for way too long & tried to push through the cramping, pain, and accidental bleeding - the quicker I could get through my period that week, the better. The more I’d be able to get back into feeling normal and ready to work on my 5k times. I couldn’t EVER feel slower or weaker than the boys team - who we did group practice with and overlapped with pretty often. We hid our tampons & pushed through the pain to avoid criticism and embarrassment.
To make matters worse, I had an especially competitive teammate my Sophomore year that I was competing spots for. She made every comment to get in my head about “how I peaked last year” and “most girls hit their lowest 5k time at this point and never improve after that”. That led to more mileage, more exhaustion, and ignoring my body's cry for help. As long as you are still drinking enough water, eating 3 meals (no matter the size & breakdown) it wasn’t a problem to me. Looking back - it was a big problem.
My Junior year going into Senior (the College scouting year for sports), I found out I had shin splints. Every runner’s nightmare but not the end of the world. Take a few days off & lower your mileage. I had just finished a running camp where I ran 50 miles in 1 week, a challenge most of us tried to reach every summer. I followed that week with a 130 miles relay marathon with a team from my school - an event I looked forward to every summer (insane, I know). Long-story, short, I ended up practically snapping my tibia bone crossing the finish line which was followed by 2 years of intense physical therapy, water jogging (yes, that dumb-looking foam belt activity), and no heavy mileage running.
After that injury, however, my period became regular. I allowed my body to gain the natural puberty weight it was supposed to gain. That then followed with a lot of body & confidence work to realize that I wasn’t getting out of shape, I was getting healthy. Reflecting on that time of my life is a little scary - I was considered very healthy, strong, powerful even - but my body was far from those things. Everything on the surface looked “great”: fit, fast, able to run in insane conditions and still improve my time. Underneath all of that, I was pushing myself too hard, comparing my body size, weight, and strength to all the wrong things. The worst part is - everyone missed it. Doctors said I was in a “healthy” place with the BMI scale (which we all know is BS), coaches said my time was improving, even my powerhouse mom thought these people were reassuring and I was fine.
I was too uneducated and embarrassed to say I was losing my period. It had become irregular and I didn’t feel I knew who or how to talk about it. I felt that made me weak and I’d get flagged for not being strong enough and lose my spot on the team - a concept I think a lot of girls and women feel when they compete on sports teams. Not only do they have this crazy idea of what body types should be, but they also deal with putting their sport first and their body health second. College teams have another level of pressure with scholarships and visibility that only makes body image and health worse. I wasn’t taking any vitamins, supplements - at the time I wouldn’t have even known where to start with that.
Educating girls about supplements, vitamins, proteins, levels - that was all for the boys. So how do we change that? We can’t tell every coach, every teacher, every school, every sports team or program to suddenly have a very informative & accurate women’s health class before every intro to sports. That’s a goal that we can one day reach, but the immediate action is we can empower ourselves with knowledge, community, and stories to prevent future generations from ignoring their health. We can give education access to women’s health - that’s been ignored for far too long. Let’s empower each other and make a space for people to tell their stories.
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Opinions, content, and any information expressed in this article are intended to be general in nature and do not constitute medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice from your professional healthcare provider.