The competition in eating disorders: lifelong athletes’ search for fulfillment in identity

So many of us wrap our identity around the things we do, the accomplishments we achieve, and the trophies we receive — in terms of school graduation, career success, or athletic competition.  We, as animals, thrive on a healthy sense of competition, as it keeps us motivated and pushing forward towards our goals.  Athletes, in particular, know this sense of purpose very well.  The faster you run, the better place you will get.  The better you dive, the greater team you will join.  It can feel authentically validating to be acknowledged for your hard work and perseverance, and it can feel absolutely devastating to land in second place.  Your time and your place can solidify themes of who you are — your identity.  In addition, how you look physically (strong, solid, agile) can contribute in significant ways to your ability to achieve in ways that align with the identity you have created for yourself.

This obsession with perfection, size, and achievement can be an invitation to an eating disorder.

What happens when you retire from your sport(s)?  Or are injured and can’t compete anymore?  When your life is your sport, how do you cope?  There was an article in the Denver Post last week entitled “Body obsession fills void left by sports” which chronicled the lives of several retired athletes (and by “retired” I do not mean AARP eligible; I mean in their mid-20s).  One gymnast “who, since the age of 7 had devoted herself to gymnastics and without it felt a loss of identity”, developed bulimia as a means to have a new fixation: her body.  Sports such as gymnastics are very vigilant about body size, shape, and weight.  To succeed at the highest levels, you need to be thin and light.  For some of us for whom that does not come naturally, that might lead to restricting food or purging it in order to maintain or lose weight.

Not only do these athletes not have the expectation to look a certain way in order to support their identity, they shift their entire lives to find a new meaning for who they are….which may seem daunting and elusive.  Who am I if not a figure skater?  Whether the eating disorder was developed during the years of training and competition, or if it was adopted after retirement, these types of questions are the challenges that we must all face as we walk the path of recovery.  The eating disorder may try to mask or take away parts of who we are — and the beauty of recovery is rediscovering those parts of ourselves — but the initial confrontation of “what if there is nothing else to me?” is quite overwhelming.

The article states that “at least one-third of female college athletes has some type of eating disorder”.  Think about how big that number is!  What contributes to this?  For one thing, the competitive nature of women (and men) in sports can contribute to the feeling of needing to be “the best” — and this can also blend into social spheres.  The best athlete might also be the most popular girl on the squad, and we all know how important that might feel when making new friends in college.  You might get compliments from coaches, family members, or mentors who notice the “hard work” and support it.

It appears that life after sports can leave a void and can create a feeling of loss.  Loss of that team environment and cohesion that the athlete thrived in for so many years.   If a member gets an injury and cannot play the sport, “she may feel like an ‘outsider’ and unable to contribute to the team anymore.”  States Veronica Sykes, “I needed a new distraction, and I was able to fuel all of that angst into running — the same thing that made me good at my sport made me want to get really skinny.”  Another aspect of risk in life after being an athlete is the distance that may come between former athletes and their colleagues and coaches.  After retirement, people tend to split up and get out of touch.  This can be a dangerous time for eating disorder development, as women may be searching for their identity and feel a lack of support and community.

This is a population that needs intervention and attention, as the environment of competitive sports can lead to an expectation to be perfect in life outside of that arena.  It seems to me like a key point in self-care for retiring or active athletes is identity.  Who are you without your sport?  What parts of yourself can you nourish in a healthy way so that you don’t feel lost and separate?  How can you boost your self-esteem and self-concept in affirming and positive ways?  We all can ponder these questions and maintain awareness about the triggers of eating disorder and how to begin intervening.