My Athletic Body Concealed A Crushing Eating Disorder

The first time I made myself throw up was an experiment. Sophomore year of high school, a girl in my class described to me how she'd tried to but couldn't. I could do that, I thought. That afternoon in my bathroom, I proved that I could. I'll stop throwing up after a few times, I told myself as days went by. I’ll stop after four times, or five, or seven, or nine, I thought, until I lost count. I'll admit I felt a certain pride in myself, in the beginning. Suddenly, I had something that set me apart — something serious and secret and, it seemed to me, grown-up.

Better yet, the new me could surrender to the incomparable comfort of bingeing without weight gain, since food now left my body as quickly as it entered. I hid out with a six-pack of jumbo cookies, and seven minutes later they were gone. I dumped spoonful after spoonful of dry, yellow cake mix into my mouth, alone in the kitchen late at night. I didn’t wear the evidence and disposed of packaging discreetly — and since I lived with three teenage brothers, I escaped the blame for food gone missing by default.

I made the varsity boat of my rowing club not long after I started throwing up. After that, my body was no longer just a body. It was the body of a rower who would lose her seat in the boat if she hit 130 pounds. It was also the body of a girl who had just discovered that she could consume limitless quantities of food without gaining weight, as long as she threw them up. Before long, “could” ended and “had to” began, and I added binging/purging (“b/p,” as eating-disorder blogs taught me to call it) to my list of extracurriculars. Reeling from 4:45 a.m. practice, I ate peanut butter and raisins on bread until my stomach churned and I emptied its contents and flushed them away. At home after school, before afternoon practice, I inhaled slices of leftover birthday cake only to eject them before another 2,000-meter time test on the erg. I was exhausted, I was ravenous, and I was embarrassed. I was 5'10" and 129.9 pounds.

I was exhausted, I was ravenous, and I was embarrassed. I was 5'10" and 129.9 pounds

I competed at Nationals my junior year, not because I was a wunderkind but because I was tall, showed up, and did what I had to do to make weight. The night before one race, the other teammate teetering on the brink of the weight limit and I picked at plain grilled chicken at our team pasta dinner. The next morning, before stepping on the scales, we jogged laps by the racecourse to wring the last few drops of water out of our bodies. At Nationals, my boat placed third. I got into college; you can guess which athletic victory was the subject of my college essay.

I don’t blame the sport, or my coaches, who encouraged me to run and eat bananas but never to stick my fingers down my throat. But, yes, there’s something fucked-up about urging a teen girl barely at a minimum healthy weight for her age (problematic though the BMI measurement may be) to lose or even maintain weight.

It’s a message many female athletes receive, often from a young age. MMA fighter Ronda Rousey has described how she became bulimic over years of striving desperately for the “right body” and trying to qualify for her weight division. Even athletes in sports that don’t have set weight limits face crushing pressure to look a certain way. At age 20, ballerina Misty Copeland was told by her company’s artistic staff that she needed to “lengthen” her body (code for “lose weight”); she says she started bingeing on food in secret as a “perverse form of rebellion (and comfort).” In 2012, the United States Tennis Association refused to pay for then-16-year-old tennis player Taylor Townsend to compete in the 2012 U.S. Open Junior tournament because of its concerns about the 170-pound athlete’s weight — despite the fact that she was the world’s top-ranked junior girl.

I understand rowing’s lightweight limit; it creates a fair fight on the water. But, it became one more way that my body was not mine. Instead, it was for lightweight rowing, for my classmates’ scrutiny, for the skintight jeans my mother bought me because they were the “right” thing to wear. Thighs were for performance, arms were for tank tops, my mouth was for saying I was fine and eating when I wasn’t and throwing up after.

If I hadn’t binged, I might have made weight without purging. But, some kids had drugs, and I had my binges, endorphins crashing through my nervous system as I choked down sugar and starch. Within two months of graduating, and with my last crew practice behind me, I gained 15 pounds. I took my new curves and my old eating disorder with me to college. I wasn’t skinny anymore, and no one would have looked at me and thought “at risk.” At school, no longer an athlete but a late-night-pizza-eating paper-writer like everyone else — normal at last! — I wanted better friends than b/p, and so I started calling every episode The Last Time. It was a vow I made to myself each time I was bowed over the toilet bowl, stomach acid stinging my throat, a headache blooming, chunks of food bobbing serenely below me.

When every time was The Last Time, though, every next time was failure. I wondered why I couldn’t cope with stress like a normal fucking person who stops putting food in her mouth when she’s full — why I had chosen overeating and not reading or knitting or punching things as my release. But, when I ate, I couldn’t stop, and nothing else mattered. Bingeing was my pressure valve, purging my damage control. I told very few people.

Bingeing was my pressure valve, purging my damage control

One afternoon, four years in and more desperate than usual, I sat searching online for some sign of an off-ramp. I clicked on a site dedicated to meditation. There, I thought. I’ll start there. The next morning, I took six deep breaths with my eyes closed, scanning my body for some wellspring of redemption I’d overlooked. I did the same the next morning, and the morning after that, and within days the breaths had become my talisman against whatever chaos I might find when I opened my eyes and looked at the day. After that, when I threw up, I'd think back to the morning of and try to remember if I'd breathed. Often, I hadn't.

My early days of recovery were lived on a tightrope. If I didn't look down, if I didn't acknowledge that I was “battling bulimia” — even now I feel the danger in naming it — then maybe it wouldn't be real. Maybe if I ignored my ability to insert my right index and middle fingers into my mouth and hit the back of my throat just so, still as easy for me as pushing a button, I’d forget I had it. But, now that the possibility of making myself throw up is carved into my brain, it will never not exist. It may have started as an experiment, but it culminated in a pattern over which I lost control.

I’m far from alone in the struggle to coexist peacefully with food, or with the physical space I take up. We demand so many things from bodies, female bodies above all: thinness, symmetry, athleticism, great sex. I don’t ascribe any magical powers to my six morning breaths — five years later, they are as routine to me as brushing my teeth — but breathing with awareness, even for a moment, locates me in my body and reminds me that it’s mine. I can organize the demands on it, and I have a say in how it moves through the world. I know better now than to call any one time The Last Time, but I know too that bending over a toilet bowl is not how I want to move. I breathe in the urge and exhale. I call this release.

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