Sacrificing Performance for Body Image

It started over a decade ago, when I was a junior in high school. I was a typical, depressed teenager who struggled with body image. Up until this point I had never considered myself “overweight” or “fat.” Even when I was surrounded by my much slimmer friends, I still didn’t view myself as the eyesore I do today. I had a fairly extensive workout routine that consisted of three-hour swim team practices five-six days a week. In my mind, I could eat an entire pizza or drink a two-liter of soda and not worry about the negative impact on my health. I thought I was a normal teenager. Until one day I didn’t…..

I can’t exactly remember what triggered my obsession to be thin, but I do remember how it took over my life. Anorexia was the first eating disorder I experimented with. I stopped eating breakfast, barely ate lunch, and avoided dinner as much as possible. I would go to my high school swim practice, starving, with barely any energy to finish each practice. I would sit in my car, alone, during lunchtime stressing out over the 2 grams of fat my 90-calorie granola bar had (which was all I ate for lunch on most days). If I was really struggling to get through my afternoon classes, I’d chew on gum to help curb the hunger. Dinnertime was always tricky, since there were parents to avoid. I don’t exactly recall how I managed to work around dinners. I do remember one particular occasion in which I rushed an overflowing plate of take-out chinese up to my bedroom and took my time placing each bite into my mouth only to spit each bite back out into a garbage bag moments later. I was miserable, but I was seeing results. It didn’t take long for me to drop 30lbs. And while I was satisfied with how I looked in my swimsuit at practice, I soon became disappointed with my performance results. I didn’t have the energy to train properly, I developed a shoulder injury to due my deteriorating muscles, and my event times at the swim meets were far from impressive. I became embarrassed and ashamed. Embarrassed that I went from the superstar on the swim team to mediocre. Ashamed because I knew I was destroying my body for unnecessary and selfish reasons. So I came to the decision that anorexia wasn’t the right fit for me.

Bulimia made its’ way into my life when I started college. Nothing worse for a severely depressed girl prone to eating disorders than allowing her the unlimited freedom of going to college. No more parents hovering over me. No more “open doors” like there were at home. No more being stranded at school for eight hours a day. I could go where I wanted to, when I wanted to, and do whatever I wanted to. My bulimia began as a once-in-awhile hobby, a quick fix to a regretful binge session. I didn’t do it often because I didn’t want to get caught and get stuck speaking to a counselor or, god forbid, have my parents be notified. With each year of college I gained more of that precious (and yet, dangerous) freedom, allowing my bulimic tendencies to escalate. By my senior year I was living in a single room by myself, and that’s when things went from bad to worse.

I continued to swim all through college, causing my anxiety about being on display in a swimsuit to haunt me for four more years. I was just coming off a very successful swim season from my junior year (making NCAA B cuts in the 400 IM and 800 FR Relay, as well as setting school records in the 400 IM, 200 IM, and 800 FR Relay) and was looking forward to achieving even more success during my senior year. I knew that if I wanted to continue to get faster, I needed to properly fuel my body. I needed to be healthy, both mentally and physically. But there was something about finally having a room all to myself that made binging and purging seem all that more thrilling. I went from purging a few times a month, to a few times a week, to a few times a day. I would bring meals back to my dorm room, devour them, and throw them up moments later into a garbage bag. Cheeseburgers, chicken fingers, french fries, pizza, puppy chow, popcorn, I purged it all. I purged until my throat was raw. I purged until there was nothing but bile. I purged until I felt completely empty inside. It got to the point where I was ordering large-sized pizzas for the sole purpose of throwing them up, every single slice. To dispose of the pungent aroma, I’d wait until my neighbors weren’t around, sneak out to the garbage chute down the hall, and watched as my fatal addiction fell seven-stories down. Then, I’d spray my entire room with fabric freshener, hoping to cover up the lingering stench. As far as I know, none of my neighbors knew about my bulimia, or at least they never said anything. If they had, would it have made a difference?

Needless to say, my swimming suffered. I had little motivation at practices, I was moody all the time, my throat burned while trying to breathe in between strokes, and I was constantly paranoid that everybody knew what I was doing in secret. When it came to the championship meet at the end of the season, although I did manage to perform well, my times weren’t anywhere near where I’d hoped they’d be. I knew I had so much more potential (and I still believe that I do). But there I was, destroying my body and risking my life. For what? To look good in a swimsuit? Reflecting back on it now, I understand that it wasn’t worth it, not in the slightest, and I will always regret holding myself back from discovering my true capabilities.

My idea of the ideal body image wavered in the years following. As soon as I graduated from college I was on my own again, living in a rental house with three of my former teammates who were a year behind me in school. The bulimia followed me to that small upstairs bedroom, lit solely by fading christmas lights duct-taped to the thin walls. I lived there while I “trained” for my first and second marathons. Neither of which are much to be desired (4:51 and 4:55, respectively). However, back then I wasn’t so fixated on what my finish times would be. I just wanted to survive long enough to cross those finish lines so that I could rub my overly-priced medals into my friend’s and family’s faces (I’m sorry about that everyone). Initially, I wasn’t planning on doing more than one marathon, so a goal time was never set. What I was really focusing on was my body image. Distance runners are all slim and lean, so I needed to be too. Even though my training was terrible and I wasn’t making any progress towards getting faster, I still wanted to look like a true distance runner. Hence why the impulse to purge carried over after my swimming career ended. After I finished my second marathon four minutes slower than my first, I was dumbfounded. How could I possibly be getting slower? I was convinced that my weight loss, resulting from my unhealthy habits, would magically make me a faster runner. Of course it didn’t. But back then, I didn’t know any better.

My third marathon came and went. Finishing in 4:55 again. Same old story just in a different location (now living back with my parents). Again, I found myself alone majority of the time, with only my eating disorders keeping me company. I fluctuated between anorexia and bulimia, trading off every few days. After suffering through another disappointing race, I came to the conclusion that I had hit my peak.

A year later, now living up in the twin cities with my fiance (now husband), I decided to give the marathon one last chance. I had always been open with him about my struggles with body image and eating disorders, and we came to the agreement that I would no longer allow myself to destroy my own body. So he helped me get my training on track and at last I began to see some progress. As difficult as it was for me to let go, I made it through training without falling off the wagon. Granted, my overall diet still wasn’t up to par, but I learned to appreciate my body and what it could do given the proper care. I finished that marathon with a time of 4:05.

I took two and a half years off before running my next marathon (mainly because I had a baby). This time around I was serious about qualifying for Boston. In order to do that though, I needed to get my diet under control. I stuck to a meal plan (read about it here) that I created, emphasizing clean eating six days out of the week and one day where I got to splurge. I didn’t count calories or track marcos, I just listened to my body. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but necessary if I wanted to see results. And I did see results. Each week I was getting faster. I was holding paces I never thought I could. I was dedicated and determined. I was training with a purpose. Yes, I was losing weight, but I wasn’t obsessing over it like I had so many times before. My body was transforming into the form it needed to be in to get a BQ. And on race day, when I crossed the finish line in 3:21, I didn’t care about how my body looked. All I felt was pride over how much work I put into training and how I finally learned to treat my body with respect.

—Kari

Disclaimer: If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please reach out for help. You can visit the National Eating Disorder website for more information.

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