I still remember the first time I heard the term, “Female Athlete Triad,” now termed “Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport” (RED-S) to be more inclusive of males. I was fifteen and had just been diagnosed with two stress fractures in my left leg. My doctor asked me how my eating habits were. Very confused, my mom and I both looked at each other and answered in unison that my eating habits were great. I was the biggest eater in the family. I left the appointment almost offended that he thought I had an eating disorder. I knew what eating disorders were, but I thought they happened to people much older than I was. I knew I had a thin build, but I never thought I looked like those I’d known with eating disorders. I later realized that this conversation was one of the most important conversations I would have as a teenager.
I was always very curious when it came to medical issues and injuries, so I hopped on my computer when I got home to learn more about this “Female Athlete Triad” thing. It didn’t take me long to realize how serious this issue was. While I was not experiencing disordered eating, I did fit the other categories. I was very active, I was underweight, and I was experiencing amenorrhea. I knew that my body was growing and changing and that I really needed to take care of it. I took a long, hard look at my eating and exercise habits and made some changes to ensure that I didn’t continue to follow the path toward developing a full-blown eating disorder.
When my stress fractures healed and I returned to my sports — gymnastics and soccer at the time — I saw things through a different lens. I started to see signs of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating among my teammates. In gymnastics, our bodies were constantly on display in our leotards, which were basically swimming suits. It was not uncommon to hear chatter about how “terrible” someone looked on a particular day, how much weight someone wanted to lose, or even whispers about someone purging. These issues were compounded by the fact that our coach would tell certain girls that they could afford to lose five pounds, that it would improve their performance. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do. So like so many of us do, I just kept my mouth shut.
As I transitioned to collegiate athletics, I ended up in another sport with a high incidence of eating disorders — cross-country and track & field. Again, I found myself among teammates who very clearly were engaging in disordered eating and other concerning behaviors. And again, I didn’t know what to do, so I stayed quiet. I wanted to tell someone, but I was fearful of betraying my friends and that they would be treated differently if others knew they were struggling. I was also worried about what this might do to our friendship. I did finally muster up the courage to talk to my coach about what I was seeing. He assured me that the best thing I could do was to be honest with my teammates about my concerns. He told me that opening up this line of communication and encouraging my teammates to talk about what they were going through might very well make a difference. I was nervous, but he convinced me that even the slightest chance that a conversation might lead to one of my teammates seeking help made it worth the risk I was taking. He reminded me that the sooner these sorts of issues are addressed, the better, and that the sooner someone gets help, the better. I chose to believe him, and I’m so glad I did. I found that sharing my concerns and shedding light on the issues I was seeing did make a difference among my teammates.
As I got further into my running career and also further into my pre-med studies, I realized that I had developed a passion for trying to understand disordered eating and for helping those struggling, and I was done staying quiet. I tried to be the best example I can be — never engaging in body-bashing, practicing balance and flexibility in the way I fuel my body and train — while also labeling myself as someone people could come to talk to about their struggles. I’ve never claimed to be an expert, but what I did and still claim to be is a role model, an ear, an ally, and an advocate. The world of collegiate athletics is a breeding ground for eating disorders. Change begins with speaking up about eating disorders. Change begins with providing support instead of staying quiet and letting the issues continue to fester.
by Courtney Rose Frerichs
Courtney is a 2016 Olympian and NCAA record holder in the 3K Steeplechase. She has a B.S. in Chemistry from UMKC and is a graduate student in the Community Health Education program at University of New Mexico. She’s an eating disorder community ally & advocate.
When I was 13 years old, I remember crying about my body for the first time. I noticed fat under my chin and that it made itself visible when I smiled or laughed or did anything other than staying completely still, facing straight ahead, like a mannequin. I remember saying to myself, “I have to stop eating.” It was almost automatic — my decision that because I had some extra “squish”on my face, that meant I was fat, disgusting, and needed to fix it fast. It was a feeling of true desperation. Even as a very little girl, I was very conscious of the fact that skinny was beautiful and that I needed to do everything I could to get there. I had no idea that these thoughts would manifest themselves into such harmful behaviors as I grew older, but they did.
Here’s a little glance into my eating disorder at its worst: I always had a BMI calculator bookmarked online, right up there with YouTube and my other favorite websites. Periodically I would type in my height and weight, making certain that I fell into the “underweight” category. I craved the satisfaction of knowing that I was, without a doubt, skinny. As I grew, I sometimes found myself in the “normal” category. When that happened, I would go into panic mode. I also used to do sit-ups before bed every single night. The number varied based on how “good” or “bad” I had been that day in terms of what I’d eaten. I used to blame every bad day, every fight with a friend, and every spat with my parents on me being fat. In my mind, it was clear — if I was skinnier, I would be happier, smarter, more attractive, and just better in every sense of the word.
When I was a freshman in high school, I started seeing a therapist. At some point, she told me, “These thoughts aren’t normal. You’re healthy. You’re beautiful.” That was the day she revealed to me that I had body dysmorphic disorder. Finally, after years of thinking that everything I was doing was in the name of health, I realized that I had a problem. Nothing was the same from then on. With time, I started to realize that my body was beautiful. I started to become more aware of all the amazing things my body could do. I felt and still sometimes feel sadness about how much hate I felt for my body — this beautiful creation I have been given and have the pleasure to live in every day — but I know that it’s all just a part of my journey.
I wish I could tell you that I’m free of all those thoughts and that I’m immune to triggers that sometimes cause me to focus on what I want to change about my body. I wish I woke up every single day and said to myself, “Wow, Natalia. You’re amazing. I wouldn’t change a single thing about you.” But that isn’t how life works, and that certainly isn’t how recovering from body dysmorphic disorder works. For me, staying in recovery is a constant work in progress. Every day, I make a conscious effort to thank my body for doing the fantastic things it does for me. I tune in to all of the muscles in my body, and I remind myself that they work so hard for me when I am dancing, running, teaching swimming lessons, or simply walking up a flight of stairs. There is so much more to my existence and YOUR existence than the amount of fat that is under your skin, the size of your jeans, the amount of weight you can lift or miles you can run, or what foods you eat.
I am proud of how far I have come. I am proud that I was able to combat the illness that has tried so hard to take me down and had access to the help I needed. And I am so delighted to be a part of REbeL, an organization that makes such powerful strides in changing the way young people see themselves. I am honored to be an agent of change in this world. I want nothing more than for every child, teen, and adult to love themselves relentlessly. I know that someday, this will be a reality. I have no doubt.
by Natalia Kidder
Senior | Shawnee Mission Northwest High School
Natalia is 18 years old and ready to make a change for her sisters, her friends, her future children and anyone in the world who has ever thought they weren’t absolutely dazzling.
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Let’s talk about Bob Harper, celebrity fitness trainer and host of NBC’s weight-loss reality television show “The Biggest Loser.” He recently suffered from a heart attack. Are you asking yourself, “How could someone so healthy have a heart attack?” Well, let me stop you right there. How do we know Bob is healthy?
Because he looks healthy?
Because he’s a vegetarian?
Because he’s an authority on health & fitness and seems to really know his stuff?
Because he trains celebrities and helps people lose weight on “The Biggest Loser?”
What else do we know about him? For most of us, the answer is, “Not much.” The truth is that we simply cannot assume that Bob (or anyone else for that matter) is healthy based on these factors alone. This all-too-common logic is fundamentally flawed, revealing a perfect opportunity to teach three important lessons about health.
So what is health? According to the World Health Organization, “health is a state of complete physical, mental & social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Leading health experts believe that a healthy lifestyle is actually determined by a combination of variables such as genetics, sleep, self-care & stress levels, social support, regular movement, and a balanced, flexible approach to nutrition that honors the body’s hunger & fullness signals.
Without knowing Bob personally or his medical history, we really can’t say with any real confidence that he’s a healthy guy. But that doesn’t stop us from assuming he is based a few factors that are not truly variables associated with health and following his lead when it comes to our own health choices and judgments about others’.
The lesson here? As a society, our definition of health and our logic used to determine whether or not someone is healthy, to evaluate our own health, and to dictate our own health choices is completelyflawed. This often leads us down a fruitless road to chasing health in the form of variables not truly linked to a healthy lifestyle.
by Jessica Betts, MS, RD, LD