In all of the hype about the 2016 Rio Olympics kickoff, with the opening ceremony well-underway, and anticipatory excitement swarming the crowds of loyal supportive sports-enthusiasts, an interesting headline stood out among the sturdy parade of athletic persona: “U.S. Women’s Swim Team on Body Image, Eating Disorders and Supporting Each Other.” Among the community of female athletes, USA’s Olympic Gold Medalist Misty Hyman decided to share her past struggles with an eating disorder publicly for the first time. The article reads, “As a young girl, Misty Hyman thought that athleticism equated to attractiveness. She believed being strong was beautiful…”
I too, shared these beliefs with Misty once upon a time. Growing up a competitive swimmer, ballet dancer, distance runner, soccer and basketball player, I can relate to the confusing thought processes that often raced through this Olympian’s head. “….When I [Misty] was a teen, it was very hard to separate those ideas of what femininity is, what beauty is, and what my identity was in relation to that as an athlete.”
It takes a special bundle of courage to be able to publicly confess about a struggle that is so connected to one’s sense of self (and in this case, a career.) But in doing so, the gorgeous understanding of self-value blossomed for all to see. By embracing her sensitivity, not only about herself but about her inner feelings and all the surrounding influences, a community of support was born. Among this new group of followers and fellow victims, there stands one agreeable consensus: growing up a female in today’s society is hard.
A whole lot of strength is required to open up in the spotlight about a painful past, but this course of action develops out of positive reflection in response to being sensitive to our feelings. Strength is capable of appearing in all shapes and sizes, even hiding behind drapes of sensitivity. In fact, I believe that at times, sensitivity does indeed provoke strength. Emotions and vivid memories can often come into play, creating a powerful empathetic drive which prompts actions that we normally would not extend on a daily basis. Sometimes, we may face the challenge of exemplifying our strongest character when called to serve as a backbone for others—especially on behalf of a loved one, or perhaps for an important cause close to our hearts. Right out of the blue, we suddenly receive a burst of courage from sensitive care and benevolence that allows us to withstand treacherous rain and winds, because we envision ourselves teaming up in a collaborative effort. We hold on to the preconceived notion that when we march though hardships together, the next hiccup tends to seem much more manageable.
I have experienced this type of collaborative strength, as well as the boost of adrenaline and superhuman power to fight for someone I deeply love. While I was battling my internal controlling alter-egos, my family and friends served as my fellow soldiers. Sometimes I felt as if they were fighting harder than me, when in reality I was the only one with the sole power of committing to a critical life-saving change. Now that I can clearly see the perseverance and elaborate efforts involved in a successful climb to recovery, I’m also able to recognize that inner strength which was always present, although very susceptible to suppression by a lingering insecurity.
The time finally came when I could spot my soul, caught battling beneath the trenches. If it had been anyone else trapped in battle, I would have charged in immediately for rescue under the sounds of gunfire. But in my attempts to be self-less in every situation, I would prefer to suffer myself than watch another person have to endure the torture. In sparing my own well-being, however, I wasn’t considering the possibility that in order to help others efficiently, I had to be chasing after my own best health as well. In those moments of inner warfare, I was ultimately experiencing a separation of self. Yet, as a result of this separation while in a state of reprieve, my heart ached with compassion for that strong girl I once knew. Utilizing this empathetic energy to save a lost soul, I somehow found the willful strength to dive into combat. With that same sudden jolt of power and determination that dominates when fighting for a loved one, I sought after that little girl who was frantically running against the pack.
Today, I use this same compelling drive to spare others the pain. The more strength I gain, the more I lean on this stronghold as a form of accountability. When I am placed in a position of advocacy, mentorship, or condolence in any shape or form surrounding the realm of eating disorders, my survivor strength rises to the surface. It is when this strength is silent, or when outside pressures dent my invisible shield, that the voices (to which I used to bow down,) attempt to creep back in. I have reached a position where I have gratefully been able to install storm shutters on my susceptible ears, and join forces and voices with those who were rooting for me from the very beginning.
Just as I sit here and write in this very moment, fully capable of acknowledging vast strides and acquired strong willpower, I was also able to recognize similar strength development and noticeable improvements even only 3 months following my diagnosis…
“…I have so much more energy now…feel so much better now, and stronger too. I have been using my toning ball a lot, and with eating, have gained more muscle. Sometimes I can’t even believe why I would ever want to put myself through this in the first place. Now I am working my hardest to stay healthy and improve my athletics…” (Journal continued from March 2004.)
To provide some brief context, growing up I was quite the competitive athlete. By no means did I wish to cause my body harm through all of my intense training and restrictive efforts. But even so, as a part of my treatment to rapidly put on weight, all of my beloved sports were taken away. At the time, this seriously felt like the end of the world. With very little social outlets and hobbies other than my treasured athletics, sports were what kept me going; they were literally my pride and joy, though frankly I had forgotten what true joy felt like. Thus, it was concluded that reasonable return to the playing field was to serve as my main motivator for intentionally putting back on the pounds. My reward resided in the ability to engage in my physical activities again, and to continue to follow the ambition to be the best athlete I could be. I consider my situation very lucky, in a sense that this motivational tool worked magnificently and kept me on track towards the main goal of achieving a healthy weight. I’m not saying that there were not slips, trips and falls, but in a nutshell, this mental approach worked wonders along with my professional psychological and nutritional help. It gave me a reason to keep fighting; a vision even in my dark empty shadow. Once it clicked in my deprived little brain that all of this was necessary in order for me to essentially gain back my life, I was even more willing to cooperate. Though the future still appeared fuzzy, I knew what I was running after, and had acquired a team to help me get there. After convincing that demonic voice that this was the case, I began to make leaps and bounds that I didn’t even think were possible.
Undoubtedly, I will always hold a love for fitness, and now will always admire a strong and capable physique over dainty domains. Each and every person on this earth is unique; each has their own mold to fill and their own role to play. You simply cannot compare yourself to anyone else out there, due to an influx of other predisposing factors which make an individual, an individual. Things like genetics, hormones, bone structure, personality, seasonal circumstances, body type, etc., are vital parts of the playing field, and along with life’s changes, your own physical and emotional needs also change accordingly. Yet through all of this, I have discovered that for me specifically, working to maintain both an inner and outer strength helps hold me accountable to my promise in recovery. When I willingly take on those positions as a role model, mentor, educator, or advocate, I am reminded of the promise I made to myself, God and my family—the promise that there is absolutely no going back. This devotion and pledge of faithfulness are accompanied by a rising feeling of empowerment, self-confidence, and self-efficacy; and the strength keeps on building.
I have always been inspired by strong women; women who are confident, passionate, and determined to devoutly serve others and make a lasting difference on this earth; women who are strong enough to juggle their own needs plus the needs of others; to follow their dreams and remain true to who they really are. I find myself in a much safer place when seeking after this type of strength, both physically and emotionally, rather than trying to fight to fit society’s strict and “skinny” standards.
From an outwardly perspective, my eyes are now trained to see beauty in a sleek physique of musculature; whereas before, my distorted narrow focus was set on maintaining an elicited emaciated frame. From this new perspective, I believe that visible strength speaks ‘functional’ and ‘healthy’, or at least fighting to get there. With my own instilled inner-athlete persona, strength is something I desired from day one, but allowed myself to give up for some time while pleasurably engaging in the “Game of Thin,” even years after receiving professional help. I knew my physical state wasn’t realistically substantial long-term, but my tedious efforts to stay slim were “working” in my mind at the time…might as well enjoy it while it lasted, I reasoned.
In high school and even for a while in college, my eyes began to convince my brain that being thin was pretty. I had begun to identify myself with this new smaller figure, and let the comments of others and my own convincing conscience trick my brain into truly believing and dwelling in the idea of being favorably at an advantage compared to the majority who were currently fighting the popular overweight/weight-loss battle. I thought I was lucky… somehow I had missed that weight-gain train and was bound and determined to never board that frightening freight. I embraced being “tiny”, and though I may have appeared fit and healthy, I had dropped to the point where I was beginning to fear muscle. I refrained from strength training, scared that it would bring on unwanted bulk—a prime example of my poor body image at the time. Even as I began to pursue work in the fitness industry, I was reluctant to engage in any activity that would alter the misconceived outward appearance over which I had developed an idolized sense of control. I thought lifting weights would impede my distance running performance—a sport which I had stereotyped all of the admirable “skinny” athletes excelling in, and proudly identified myself with. For a while, I continued to live in my own little false reality…thankfully, a dear friend, being bluntly honest, opened my eyes to the painful truth: I was worshipping the label of thinness.
Although this physical and mental state I’m referring to was years after my initial diagnosis and most severe phase of sufferings, I was still trying to hang on to that small nagging piece of me from years ago. I was still classifying that painful glimpse of my life as part of my present identity. Though no one other than my close family and best friend knew the truth about my past, everyone associated me with the petite title, contrary to my elementary school days. I had therefore created a new norm for myself—the “thin” norm. What would people think if things suddenly reversed? How would they react if I suddenly woke up fat? How would I feel? What would happen to my own sense of self-identity if I actually committed to a different lifestyle? I had been referred to as “tiny” for years now, and accepted this as an accurate description…this was my new strategically-set and satisfied self. Or was it? I was happy with myself. Or was I? In this moment of utter confusion, I realized that in an attempt to hold on to the parts which I believed to make me, me, I had lost myself. A common occurrence when entering new stages of life, I came face-to-face with the fearful possibility of perhaps making a daunting lifestyle change.
Unfortunately, because the most serious downfall occurred as I approached the onset of puberty, I did in fact stunt my growth and physical development. As I mentioned previously, I had always been abnormally tall for my age, yet maxed out around 5ft 3 in 6th grade. Today I hover around 5ft 4.5in., sporting my disproportionally large hands and feet in relation to the rest of my smaller-than-average structure. I still have broad swimmer’s shoulders, which look extra bony in emaciated form, but can also create a stocky appearance with my muscular legs if both are filled out to their capacity. I’m somewhat of a hybrid physical cross between a ballet dancer, gymnast, swimmer, yogi and soccer player—flexible beyond normal limits, graceful yet sturdy underneath. I may speak as if I’m attempting to scrutinize every physical flaw available, but my intention is not in any form to criticize my makeup; my purpose here is to demonstrate full body knowledge and awareness, and to reveal a new level of self-comfort and acceptance. The healthy muscle which I once feared is now something I value, cherish, and am constantly working to shape and grow. I absolutely adore my body, and with the understanding of what takes place inside it physiologically, I am much more merciful in accepting the frequent changes that occur from within. I have come to find that to be at peace with yourself is such a beautiful discovery.
From my continuing education and personal experiences, one thing I have learned is that our bodies don’t make mistakes…we are the ones who deceivingly fall into making poor choices, which are often disguised as perfect solutions. All these years, my body was trying to save me—I was the one incidentally fighting against its natural mechanisms for survival. My body is now my friend, and I want us to work together as a team striving to become our best, despite our little history of a mess-up. I now find muscle to be absolutely gorgeous, and would much rather be a female who is strong and filled out than fragilely frail. My frame will always be smaller on average because I halted my adult development prematurely. But even so, I love my body now…each and every part of it—especially when I feel strong and capable, functionally fit, and am supporting beautiful muscle tone within my new, comfortable skin. With so much more developing knowledge about what goes on beneath the exogenous layer, I’m now willing to cut my body some slack, endorsing restful breaks and brief hiatuses from exercise when needed. I listen now when my body starts waving white flags or tries to tell me to slow down. I make conscious efforts to stop and breathe, consider my surroundings, and honor my body’s needs and responses in the given moment. After everything we have been through together, I feel it’s the least I can do— that little trooper only has my best interest in mind—always.
Thankfully, I did conquer that initial fear to make a change, and a change for the better. But it wasn’t a giant leap into the unknown—I simply do not have the spontaneous personality type for that. Yet, I will say with sincerity, that any step towards positive lifestyle modification is worth it, no matter how small. Each step serves as a strong foothold for the next, and the higher you climb, the more your strength and determination increase. My personal small steps later on in recovery dealt specifically with nutrition and intentionally feeding at more regular intervals. This served as my small goal and starting point, which then led to experimenting with the science behind macronutrient ratios throughout a given day (something I would not recommend to someone just new to recovery as it requires detailed food recording and nutrient documentation, which can potentially serve as triggers to old obsessive behaviors.) Surprisingly, this curious tactic had the complete opposite and favorable effect in my particular case, because it helped me ensure that I was feeding my body enough to keep up with all of the high athletic demands day in and day out. Next was the decision to begin strength training, which gradually progressed to even sacrificing running workouts in return for muscle gains. For me, these steps worked, basically because they complemented my Exercise Science brain and enthusiasm for fitness. I was finally learning all the nitty gritty details I wished I knew about fitness and nutrition back in my determined 7th grade ignorance. This approach taught me to fuel my body appropriately for the activities I wanted to engage in, and with encouragement from strong idols on social media, I began to develop a new picture in my mind which viewed “strong” to be “the new skinny.” Just as I had to physically retrain my body to embrace strength, I had to retrain my glossy eyes. Healing both vision and perspective is definitely key in moving along with stable recovery, yet both simply require decently allotted time.
The older I get, the more situations I encounter where I must step in and serve as the acknowledged and designated strong one. Some situations I’m ready and feel prepared for, while others feel more like a shove. Yet both circumstances are opportunities to continue to build upon this newly acquired invincibility and become even stronger. Each relapse is a shot at a second chance; each mistake is an opportunity to learn; each fall is a challenge to test my ability to pull myself back up.
From the words of Misty Hyman, referring back to the pressures surrounding eating disorder behavior, Misty remarks, “What I discovered when I gave myself permission [to let go of an obsessive diet/weight-controlling lifestyle]… I realized that people still liked me, that I could still perform on the job, that I was still a productive human being, that I could still have a lot of fun, that I could still have this really rich and fulfilling life.”
I am no longer afraid of strength, or the responsibilities of possessing such a trait. I would say that strength and I are now allies, partnering to create a contagious movement of empowerment. Demonstrated and dispersed by my own friends and family, strength now joyfully beats within my heart, and fills my vessels with courage. I believe that we all have a willing little soldier pumping waves of confidence beneath our own frames of false beliefs. Let him out so he can lift you up. Allow the strong laughter and life back into your soul. Let your sense of self return to it’s nest. Let strength and dignity be your gorgeous clothing.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”
U.S. Women’s Swim Team on Body Image, Eating Disorders and Supporting Each Other. Nicole Auerbach, USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/rio-2016/2016/08/03/us-womens-swim-team-body-image-eating-disorders-and-supporting-each-other/88048534/