Running on empty: eating disorders and women athletes

When I was in high school, I used to eat breakfast and then run up to the woods behind the Chan Centre at UBC. There, at the top of the stairs leading down to Tower Beach, I would force myself to throw up.

When I think back on these mornings, I can vividly remember the taste of half-digested Eggo waffles and the horrible sensation of my fingernails scratching the back of my throat.  I clearly see myself: knees bent, back hunched, my pony tail hanging over my face; I see how sometimes I would spit up into my hair.

I feel my heart racing, a mix of desperation and fear. How my chest would constrict and ache from the exertion of trying to purge what little food I had left in my stomach.

I remember how after I would run home.

In university, this routine changed. Instead of throwing up mid-run, I would binge and purge prior to leaving the house. In the quiet of an empty apartment, I would consume large quantities of ice cream, cereal, cake (if we had any), yogurt, and diet coke. Then, hunched over the toilet, I would puke. And cry.

Cry. And puke.

Then I would wash my face. Blow my nose, dry my tears, and check to see if any blood vessels had broken under my eyes and along the tops of my cheeks.

I would put on make-up before running. Smooth concealer over my skin and try to forget that the last thirty minutes had ever happened.

(Because every time was always The Last Time.)

Running after purging is scary.

Everything in my body would scream out that what I was doing was wrong. My legs were rubber, my head a haze; my digestive tract a battlefield.

The spastic lurch of my heart, as if it might actually punch its way out of my chest; as it might at any moment stop.


The long hours it would take for it to finally return to a normal, constant beat.

I am sharing all of this today because I am training for a marathon.

I am sharing all of this today because sometimes it is hard not to have an eating disorder.

(These two things are not mutually exclusive.)

Sometimes it is hard to be kind to myself.

Sometimes I run very long distances on little to no food, and then ignore recovery meals.

Sometimes it’s just really hard.

But sometimes it’s not.

And most of the time now when I run long distances, I am fueling my body correctly, and eating and drinking post-run, and also eating proper dinners, and breakfasts and all of these good things.

And while I want to love this, and jump up and down and proudly proclaim “I HAVE DONE IT!” – I can’t.

Because even though I am doing all of these good things, and so much of me is so happy to do all of these good things, there is still a small part of me that is telling me that they are bad, and therefore I am bad for doing them.

We don’t ever talk about athletes and eating disorders.

I think there are many reasons for this, and all of them come down to communication.

The first? We rarely ever talk about women athletes.

Sure, we’ll marvel at Serena’s domination, and yes, there’s always an Olympian du-jour when every two years or so our collective attention is briefly diverted to amateur athletics. But for the most part, our sports discourse is dominated by men. By the Lebrons and the Jeters and the Crosbys – by the men who are the untouchables of their leagues. And honestly, based on how progressive the conversations we have about these sports and their players are (hint: not progressive at all) and how slow their respective professional associations are in responding to the massive ills plaguing their leagues (molasses going uphill on a winter day), I am going to go ahead and assume it will be a cold day in hell when we broach the topic of eating disorders in the NFL.

Second, we rarely talk about eating disorders.

And I mean really talk.

Sure, we wax eloquent all of the time about how SO! MANY! women have problems with their bodies, and about how girls begin starving themselves as young as five. Every spring, a European fashion week will “pass legislation” (what does that even mean?) prohibiting models with BMIs under 18 from walking in their shows.

And of course THE MEDIA. The media, the media, the media.

We talk about the media all of the time: what an evil force it is in our daily lives. How it warps our social consciousness, perverts our expectations and demands the impossible of ourselves, our aesthetics and our desires.

And none of this is wrong.

But what really kills me is that none of these things actually says anything.

None of this really means anything.

It does not even begin to scratch the surface of what it’s like to live with an eating disorder. It does not articulate how devastating it is to be anorexic or bulimic, and it certainly does nothing about finding ways to help.

It pays lip service to a problem, but then just stops.

So that people listening can think, “Oh. That’s so sad.” And then just go on, living their lives.

Every time I hear things like, “In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa,” or “4% of women will have bulimia in their lifetime,” I just hear facts, unchangeable and constant. It’s like I am almost expecting the reporter to finish off by saying, “and that’s all I have to say about that.”

And if we’ve resigned ourselves to this reality, then what really is the point in talking about the specifics and particulars of the diseases? Why go through all of the trouble of making people uncomfortable?

Unfortunately, the immense shame and stigma shouldered by many individuals who have eating disorders only adds to the silence.

I am only now capable of talking freely about my struggles because I no longer have the energy to hide from them. I also hope that by being transparent about my experience, others too will feel comfortable doing the same. The more we speak honestly and openly, the less the stigma, and the deeper the understanding by the wider populace.

Unfortunately, getting to this place is very hard.

For years I did everything I could to keep my anorexia and bulimia a secret and hide it from friends and family. I know a lot of it had to do with my perfectionism and my anxiety, but my fear was also born out of the fact that I didn’t think anyone would be able to help.

I didn’t think anyone would be able to understand.

And this was not unfounded. Because eating disorders are so misunderstood and so little talked about, you get really enlightened people who immediately dismiss you and your attempts at articulating what it’s like to live with one, who say things like “just eat a sandwich!” or “but you’re skinny already” or “I don’t understand how you can live like that.”

Which, amazingly enough, doesn’t help.

It just makes the whole situation one huge negative feedback loop.

Finally, I think we have such a hard time talking about eating disorders and athletes is because of our weird inability to divorce the idea of exercise from weight loss.

Which really narrows our scope when it comes to how we look and talk about both exercise, and us the people who are doing the exercising.

Because if we’re not lifting weights to get strong, or running to train for a race, what are we doing?

Are we doing something bad?

Probably not.

Society tells us no. Society tells us that the more weight we are losing, the better.

But only if we are exercising? (And eating our Special K?)

For me, I find this way of looking at things to be really detrimental.

Because when we think like this, that exercise = weight loss, we are again dismissing two really important things: one that moving our bodies can be exactly just that. An activity – void of anything and everything else.

And if that is not the case, why are we celebrating, and how are we celebrating, and are we actually judging and why are we judging?

When and how do we decide that exercise for weight-loss is unhealthy vs. otherwise?

And are we so afraid of that otherwise, that we just bury our heads in the sand and find ourselves inadvertently cheering on eating disorders?

(Eating disorders disguised as exercise = weight loss.)

I don’t know.

All I know is that this is complicated stuff.

I that I truly believe that it just comes down to how badly we need better communication around this issue and how we need it fast.

We need real information, and we need real stories.

I would personally love to hear from women athletes, period. But I would also love to hear from ones who have had eating disorders, so that I can hear how they cope when they are training.

I want to know what they do when they find themselves needing to eat more because they are running more, and lifting more, and what they do to be okay with this. I am interested in knowing how they marry social expectations over what they should look like, or their own internal body image struggles, with their desire to dominate.

Their passion to win.

Because going through things alone is really hard.

No one ever talks about it.

So I’m here. Talking.

Because it’s so hard.


Published by

Vanessa Woznow

Writer, runner, ranter, reader. I write about all things.

4 thoughts on “Running on empty: eating disorders and women athletes”

  1. Social media has enabled people to share difficult subjects like the one you are addressing. And, at the same time, for others to read directly, not through reporters, what it is like to live with eating disorder. It serve both ways. So keep talking about it, Vanessa. You never know what could result, but it is worth the effort.

  2. Thank you for this post, and for these stories. I don’t consider myself an athlete by any means, but I try to eat healthily, and it’s a quiet challenge to find balance. What’s healthy enough? What’s too healthy? Am I obsessing? I want to think eating disorders are old problems I’ve beaten. I also don’t want to gain weight, which suggests…not. I don’t want to find myself in a place where old calls (skip that richness….now you’ve gone and eaten it, might as well bring that up…are you sure you want to keep that in your stomach? Really?) get louder and louder. What is enough, and what is too much? That’s the question I try to ignore, for want of answers. I like what you have to say about kindness, and about talking about this. So thank you.

  3. This was an interesting read and a bold post, might I add. Where I can’t speak from the perspective of an athlete with an eating disorder, I can speak to that of an athlete who has felt shamed for having an inclination for fitness and personal wellness. I ran competitively in both high school and college. In each of these settings, I was fortunate enough to have coaches who were as focused on love of the sport and putting your gifts to use as they were on winning. Where they were supportive, female passersby and acquaintances often weren’t.

    My first memory of being shamed for exercising was by a girl at a week-long service project I participated in during the summer I turned 14. We stayed on a college campus, and she waited until the very last day to bring up her “concern” before the whole group, in which she pointed out that I had gone running four mornings before coming to breakfast. She then gestured to me with her arm, waving up and down, as though to say, “Just look at her.”

    At this point, I’ll take a moment to describe my 14-year old physique. It’s incredibly common to see distance runners who have slight or willowy frames. Tag on muscles developed by countless miles and hill repeats, and you’re likely to find strong, slender individuals. My build was particularly gawky until 17 due to some seriously late blooming, so I was something of a human puppy. My hands and feet were fully grown but my body remained tiny. While I wasn’t particularly proportional, I had never been treated this way before. Iwas confused when she said I needed to get help for my eating disorder.

    This hasty accusation came up while reading your piece, because in the 15 years since, I have periodically been chastised for my athletic propensity and enjoyment of vegetables (people never seem to comment on my love of gelato which probably gets more attention than the plants…but people see what they want to see) As you said, people seldom buy that you’re active for the sake of enjoying the activity. And instead of seeking to understand and show grace, people seem to act from our own insecurities all too often.

    Those who participate in athletics are practiced in discipline, so I can relate to both you and The HardHeadVegan in paranoia about motivation. Because who isn’t prone to the painful blend of vanity and uncertainty?I agree that frank conversations can bring these topics to light, but I wonder how we combat this in larger settings. Evolution has trained us to compare and rate, and we are simultaneously trying to tell others that they are fine “just as they are” when they note something they don’t like about themselves. Can we strike a balance between being humans with naturally occurring insecurities and addressing our tendency to judge others to avoid looking at our own struggles? I’m certainly trying to.

    Some of my own efforts include:
    +Not wearing a watch or GPS when I train. This isn’t connected to body image so much as it is my idea of what an athlete should be. My past performances are tough to beat because I no longer train to compete in the 10k or steeplechase. For a long time, I couldn’t enjoy what I was doing because I wasn’t doing it as quickly as I used to. I had to release my hold on measuring.

    +While being polite, not overtly acknowledge others’ declarations of having a “cheat day” when they eat dessert or say that a food is “going straight to their _____.” I just let the silence sit before changing the subject. They’re likely seeking validation for their choice, and unless they ask for it directly, I’m not going to enable them. I have one aunt and two cousins who do this routinely, so I’ve gotten a lot of practice.

    +Praising qualities of the heart over those of the body. At times, I feel rude because I forget to compliment friends’ outfits or hair when they are darling or stylish. But in the end, I’d rather note their joke-telling, generosity or mad listening skills.

    Vanessa, your honesty is radiant. It can’t be easy to raise these tough subjects so near to your experience. I hope others can benefit from your reflection. I’m thankful that I get to. When you found your fem-power magazine or online support community, I’m on board to write and help!

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