Among student athletes, there’s a fine line between being mindful of your health and becoming obsessed with it.
“Take care of your body,” motivational speaker Jim Rohn writes. “It is the only place you have to live.”
Despite the changes wrought by puberty, aging and disease, the body is singularly constant. To some extent, we feel we should be able to control the functions, size and abilities of our body. It is somehow both us and beyond us — ours but not always ours to control.
Athletes, whose identities are often directly tied to the capacities of their bodies, experience particularly powerful and complex mind-body relationships. In sports where a specific bodily aesthetic is tied to an athlete’s ability to perform — gymnastics, for instance, or wrestling — participants are much more likely to suffer from poor body image and dysfunctional eating.
I was a competitive Irish dancer for 10 years, and while I never had an eating disorder, I understand what it is like to desperately want your body to be able to do something. There’s a sense of frustration I think most athletes have experienced — anger, not at yourself exactly, but at your body’s refusal to cooperate with your ambition. I see how that exasperation, under certain circumstances, could twist the commitment to a sport into an all-consuming quest for the unattainable.
The general, non-student-athlete population of college students is already at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. Transitional periods are recognized as especially vulnerable times for the development of disordered eating. For most students, the freedoms and rhythms of college present a radical difference from the prescribed routines they have lived within for the first 18 years of life. In an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers, students may feel their eating habits are the one aspect of their lives over which they have control. A desire to fit in — combined with fears about the mythical “Freshman Fifteen” — can also contribute to an emerging eating disorder. Among student athletes, these concerns intersect with the pressures of staying competitive in their sport.
People who suffer from anorexia nervosa do not eat a healthy quantity of food due to a serious psychological fear of gaining weight. They often rapidly lose weight and do not maintain sufficient body fat. Anorexia can also lead to other serious medical issues, including osteoporosis, cardiac arrest and even death.
People with bulimia nervosa attempt to reduce calorie absorption by throwing up or abusing laxatives, and some sufferers may binge — eating excess amounts of food — before purging. People who frequently binge on food and do not purge have binge eating disorder.
Though 30 years of made-for-TV movies argue otherwise, young, thin, wealthy white teenagers are not the only sufferers. A person of any age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, weight and socioeconomic status can have an eating disorder.
A 2009 study found about 18 percent of students reported behaviors associated with an eating disorder in 2005 and 2007. A 1999 study found one-third of NCAA Division I female student athletes reported behavior that categorize them as at risk for anorexia.
While most colleges and universities have resources for students struggling with eating disorders, these programs are not always well-publicized.
“I was an orientation leader,” McMahon said. “A lot of people are scared about, ‘How will I eat in the dining halls?’ and the Freshman Fifteen and other food- and body-oriented things.”
Though representatives of M-Dining speak to incoming students about dietary restrictions during orientation, eating disorders are not covered.
“It’s not a priority of the University to talk about those things,” said McMahon. She thinks this oversight may be due to time constraints, because orientation is only two days. Additionally, the complexity of these issues makes them hard to address in a short presentation.
LSA junior Celia Gold trains at Ann Arbor’s Wolverine Strength and Conditioning — a gym that specializes in CrossFit, a high-intensity fitness program. Gold said being an athlete has always been a big part of her identity. Beginning in elementary school, she participated in softball, soccer and basketball, and she stuck with lacrosse and cheerleading through high school. But as her passion for sports blossomed, so did her self-consciousness.
“I tried Weight Watchers when I was 12,” she explained. “As a girl, I was always self-conscious about my body and all I cared about was being skinny.”
Her high school coaches weren’t particularly helpful in promoting a healthy attitude toward exercise and nutrition.
“In high school, especially in cheerleading and lacrosse, I don’t feel there was ever an emphasis on it (nutrition),” she said. “I wish I knew then what I know now about food and fuel.”
Gold’s relationship with her body suddenly changed during her junior year of high school, when she started CrossFit.
“I would really restrict calories,” explained Gold. “My mom knew how obsessed with working out I was and she started doing CrossFit and brought me into that. That was the first time I saw working out as a performance thing and not an aesthetic thing.”
Gold didn’t just enjoy CrossFit and weightlifting, she also showed exceptional talent for both. Four years later, her hometown coach from CrossFit RedZone in Newtown, Conn., is still training her. Gold regularly enters both the CrossFit Games and weightlifting competitions, most recently for Team USA at the 2018 Pan American Junior Championships in Colombia.
“For me, I feel like CrossFit was the first time I admired what my body could do versus what it looked like. That was really huge for me,” explained Gold.
Gold, emphasized the importance of fellowship when it comes to promoting healthy eating habits among young student-athletes.
“It’s cool to have a community of strong girls emerging from the CrossFit and weightlifting world,” she said.
It is a generous and admirable thing to devote yourself wholly to an athletic pursuit the way Gold does, to spend your days pushing outward the boundaries of your abilities. The challenge — one that Gold, like many athletes, once struggled with — lies in preventing that dedication from turning into something darker. How easily tenacity can sour, morphing into a compulsive desire for complete dominance over one’s body.
The high prevalence of eating disorders and poor body image among student-athletes is not the kind of problem that can be traced to a single source of malevolence or systemic dysfunction. It is far more complicated than that — a Gordian knot of societal expectations, genetic predisposition, ambition and intimate social influences.
Some solutions are obvious. Coaches, for example, should be better educated to promote a healthy attitude toward exercise and nutrition and better equipped to intervene when one of their athletes presents signs of an eating disorder. But much of the issue feels frustratingly nebulous, its many layers presenting a unique challenge.
Perhaps the first stop-gap measure to creating a culture where eating disorders are less common is to begin meeting our own bodies with kindness, in the hope that it strengthens our resolve to treat others’ bodies with an unconditional respect. This is no easy task for anyone, of course, and for athletes it is especially tricky. It is difficult enough to locate the division between healthy zeal and sickness; it is quite another to resist crossing it when your culture, coaches, teammates and personal goals all seem to suggest you might benefit from doing so. But before the glory and after the disappointments, there must be a middle ground: fervor without agony, gusto tempered by self-empathy.
The poet Mary Oliver writes, “As for the body, it is solid and strong and curious and full of detail: it wants to polish itself; it wants to love another body; it is the only vessel in the world that can hold, in a mix of power and sweetness: words, song, gesture, passion, ideas, ingenuity, devotion, merriment, vanity, and virtue.”