In 2012, I moved from my childhood home in Warrensburg, Missouri to the dorms on the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) campus. I’d been a cross-country runner in high school, and I signed on to run for UMKC’s cross-country and track team. Moving and taking on the challenge of college-level classes was stressful enough, but add onto that the start of my first experience as a collegiate athlete – it was a perfect storm.
The start of the cross-country season rocked my world. I was running more than I ever had in high school. A lot more. I was on the Division I stage, which meant that I was a small fish in a HUGE pond. I knew I had to amp up my game to keep up with my teammates.
During our first semester, my teammates and I did everything together – we lived together, trained together, and went to class together. We became very close. However, with six highly stressed and competitive girls spending so much time together, something was bound to give. Part-way into the year, we all began monitoring what the other ate, avoiding the dessert table, and skipping lunch altogether. We weren’t just too busy to eat – a common excuse. There were underlying reasons for our newly formed habits.
My teammates and I held each other accountable for becoming the next all-American class. But it wasn’t just us putting pressure on ourselves. There were pressures all around us – from our coaches taking us to the grocery store and telling us what to and what not to eat in order to achieve success, to being bombarded with images and stories of the sinewy, rock star athletes who came before us. We were told, in not so many words, to excel by any means necessary.
The numbers on our scale dropped, and one by one, my friends started losing their menstrual cycles. And then orthopedic walking boots and braces became a fashion statement. I didn’t know at the time, but I do now, that we were all experiencing what’s known as the Female Athlete Triad. This syndrome is a combination of three conditions: disordered eating, abnormal absence of a menstrual cycle, and depletion of bone density. Long-term side effects are severe – heart problems, osteoporosis and fractures, infertility, anxiety, depression, etc. We were slowly but surely destroying our health.
After the cross-country season ended, we all had a couple of weeks off and went back home. This time off was a pivotal point in my college experience, and ultimately my life. If I had continued engaging in the disordered behaviors that ruled my life during my first semester in college, I would have developed an even more severe problem. Looking back, I am so thankful for this pause. It was taking this time to step back that allowed my friends and me to recognize that we were headed down a dangerous path and to return to a healthy mindset.
To whoever is reading this, here is my call to action: be thoughtfully aware of all the influences on your health and body image. It is easy to get wrapped up in your behaviors and to not realize the magnitude of the actions. Simple behaviors – like skipping a meal now and then –may seem so normal, so innocent, but you may find yourself slowly walking – or running – down a treacherous path. I would never have guessed I would be one to suffer from an eating disorder, but I found that with the perfect combination of environmental and psychological factors, I was not immune to this dreadful mental illness. And no one is. Pay attention to your own behaviors and those of your peers. Be honest with yourself, and don’t be afraid to question your friends’ actions. Take a step back or intervene if necessary. Doing this can save you. It saved me.
By Brooke Guiot