We’re four months into the year now, a time by which the majority of people have shed the shackles of their New Year’s resolutions. One common resolution that’s probably been abandoned by now is losing weight, whether it’s five pounds or 50. I’ve made countless New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve never explicitly made one about weight loss. This is interesting considering the contentious and tumultuous relationship with my body and my own weight, which for a very long time now I’ve never really talked about with anyone. Let’s see if I can explain it here.
In high school, I rowed competitively. We had practice for two to three hours a day, six days of the week. Every day before practice, we did a mile-long warm-up run, accompanied by sets of 50 to 100 squats, jumpies, sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks and everything in between. We rowed in boats on the water most days, but one day a week was set aside as our “land day.” On land days, we would row on a machine, also called an erg, and do weights, often accompanied by a timed run. In short: It was a lot of work, and we had to eat accordingly. In high school, it felt like I was hungry all the time. I had a 64-ounce water bottle that I would drink in its entirety and then refill throughout the school day. I had a big lunch, accompanied by frequent snacks throughout the day so I could fuel up for practice later on. I’d come home from practice, and I would be starving. I would eat as much as I possibly could for dinner, then later on, I’d have a snack as I did homework. I saw food as fuel, and it was — it got me where I needed to go, and sustained my body as I put it through hell. I gained a ton of weight the year I started rowing, all of it muscle: I felt great, I felt strong and I felt like I was finally happy with my body because I was putting it through the impossible, and it not only survived, but thrived.
This happiness wouldn’t last long. My senior year, I sustained a lower back injury through a combination of overuse and overcompensating for weak ankles from my years of middle school soccer. I am the first to admit that I did not handle my injury the way that I should have. I prioritized rowing through the pain over taking time to heal out of fear of being seen as weak or lazy. My back never fully healed, and I still deal with pain today. Some days are better than others, and I’ve learned to deal with it, mostly by buying a very comfortable mattress pad — turns out, your back needs support at night when you sleep! It was tough, but I left rowing behind, and since I was no longer a competitive athlete, I had to change my relationship to food as well.
I no longer needed thousands and thousands of calories at every meal, and as it happens, I wasn’t hungry for them. I adjusted to dining hall food, and having access to that food at nearly all hours. As quickly as I gained weight when I started rowing, I lost that weight when I got to college. There would be days where all I would have was a glass of cranberry juice and some fruit snacks, and others where I would have three full meals in the dining hall. Food was no longer fuel, so it had little value to me. I ate when I was hungry, and sometimes I’d just forget with my busy schedule. Yet, once I moved off campus, I realized that cooking was not only necessary, but fun. I love trying new recipes, seeing what works and what doesn’t, experimenting with spices and flavors. Most of all, I love how communal cooking is. I love cooking with my boyfriend, having friends over and cooking meals for them, just making other people happy. But unfortunately, the journey doesn’t end here, as I have confronted more obstacles on the road to happiness with my diet. It is a struggle to find a balance for myself that is healthy in every facet.
I have been lucky enough to experience rowing from multiple dimensions. A crucial part of any boat is the coxswain, a smaller person who sits either in the bow or stern of the boat. The coxswain is responsible for steering, directing practice, running drills and coaching the rowers, whether that’s giving them motivation or making corrections on their form and technique. When I got to the University of Michigan, I joined the men’s rowing team as a coxswain on a whim, just to see what it was like. If I hated it, I’d quit, and if I liked it, great. After not rowing for a whole summer, being back in a boat was thrilling. It made me realize just what I missed so much about the sport, and it gave me a second home on campus, a family and teammates who had my back. And here was where I started changing my relationship to food yet again.
Coxswains are small. It’s a part of the job description. They’re shorter than their rowers, and weigh anywhere from 90 to 130 pounds, and have to fit into the tiny seats built for them in various boats. Certain races even have weight minimums for coxswains, where they weigh in and are given bags of sand to make up for missing weight. For example, if a race’s minimum weight for coxswains is 120 pounds, a coxswain who weighs 110 will have to carry 10 pounds of sand. It’s all very technical and a part of the rules of racing, a completely normal part of the sport. It’s also a source of near constant stress for me. I am not a large person by any means, but at five-foot-six, I am the tallest female coxswain on the team. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details of my weight in this column, but let’s just say it’s something I struggle with when I’m forced to confront my weight on a near weekly basis, all while reminiscing on my time as a tan, muscular, powerful high school athlete. Recently, it seems that every calorie I eat is accompanied by an omnipresent sense of guilt: What will I weigh in at if I eat this sandwich? If I skip lunch? If I go to yoga twice this week, can I eat these jelly beans? What about water weight? How much can I sweat out?
Now, is this a healthy attitude to take? Probably not. But I’m not sure what else to do. I love to cook and I love to eat, but right now I feel guilty for enjoying it. I feel like I have to sacrifice because my athletes are sacrificing so much for the same sport. I don’t talk about this with anyone, and have never told anyone this whole story because I don’t want anyone to worry. People think I’m chill, laid back and go with the flow. I’m the coxswain who loves to cook, not obsessed with weight at all. I don’t have all the answers. I have to admit that I don’t know how to have a healthy relationship with my body, the food I eat and the sport I love. I’m so incredibly lucky to be surrounded by people who love and support me, and make sure that I’m treating myself with care and respect and want me to be healthy, because I know others don’t receive this same support. I have a long way to go before I find that place where I’m happy and healthy and confident with my weight, my body and my place on my team, but just by writing this, by processing my own emotions on the subject, I feel like I’ve taken steps in the right direction.
Caroline Llanes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.