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.