Fight for lean or fight for life? Fitness competitions and eating disorders…
I won’t rebound after this competition. I will stay on track for the next three weeks. No more binge-purge after competition either. That’s done.
(Random exerpt from a journal entry three years ago).
I’ve wanted to write about this for a while.
The truth is a lot of my memories from that time are blurry (thankful for journal entries). It was a time in my life where I was very lost and ill.
But I hope my PERSONAL experiences shed light on a dark side of the fitness industry.
Fitness competitions and eating disorders
Yesterday my best friend, who also happens to be a dedicated dietician, messaged me with a conversation on her Facebook page. One of her FB friends asked in her status how to help with “binge-eating DISORDER post fitness competition”. Most of the comments shocked me. Suggestions to read books to heal, hire another fitness coach, even suggestions to simply “eat cleaner.”
Very few comments encouraged this young woman to seek professional help. Suggestions that binge-eating disorder is, in fact, a SERIOUS mental health issue.
Before the competition
Three years ago, to the day TODAY, I stepped on stage in a sparkly bikini for my first (and thankfully only) bikini competition. I posted photos of me smiling, tanned up and seemingly excited.
(FYI I’m the one with the hideous tan)
Before the tans, clear shoes and posing, I had struggled with eating disorder behaviours on and off for years.
Without getting into the gritty details my behaviours were all over the place but very well disguised.
When my eating disorder was in the driver’s seat I became a chaotic machine fueled on control.
Eating disorders HAVE NO LOOK.
However, the they have been portrayed in a way where we assume you must be all bones to “fit the bill.”
This helped me hide for the most part. Until it didn’t.
What else helped me hide? Obsessive fixation on clean eating (“I’m just super healthy!”), Vegetarianism (for a long time me it was an excuse to cut out certain foods), and my fitness competition.
I had just moved to Alberta, miles away from the people and place I loved, and my clean eating obsession and over exercising lead to binges and in a few instances, purges. It was taking over my life, I wouldn’t go out to eat, I weighed all my food and worked out at least twice a day.
But my body doesn’t look “good enough” I’m not “lean enough.”.
A few friends of mine competed. I admired their physiques and knew I could, at the very least, stick to a strict regime. THIS will help fix my eating “issues”
This, in my mind, would get me closer to the “ideal fit body.”
It helped hide my eating disorder. Until it didn’t
Weighing lettuce, skinny teas, fat burners and diuretics
Being lean and “fit” was my new goal. You know fit is the new skinny? That was likely my mantra.
I hired a competition coach. This person asked me NOTHING about my history, background with training/dieting, my current diet etc. He asked for photos of myself and that’s it.
Looking back I’m sad and overwhelmed with how naïve I was. But I honestly thought this was just “how it was” and all part of the process. I trusted. Blindly. This person would help me get the body that would help me to FINALLY feel worthy.
Throughout the competition prep I sent him photos, occasionally meeting in person, and received generic diets and workouts to “slim down my waist” (deadlifts and squats – which I love- I was told would thicken me and make me look, and I quote, “even more blocky”).
I was extreme of course. Weighed lettuce, tracked every condiment, had to drink at least 4L of water a day and wouldn’t go a gram of oats off. I was doing high-intensity interval cardio in the morning, steady state in the evening, and weight training in the afternoon.
I was proud because I didn’t binge. I rarely took my once a week cheat meal (eventually removed from my plan) because I wouldn’t risk it.
I was told to take skinny teas (AKA a laxative) so I abused those, abused diuretics, drank about 4 cups of coffee a day with fat burners and pre-workout. All part of the plan though right?
A week before I took the stage, this coach, being the encourager he was, told me I was “too skinny”. Not the look I needed to succeed. Although in my mind, I wasn’t LEAN ENOUGH.
Through all the madness, I was congratulated (“I wish I had your dedication…”) and encouraged. And shared most of my journey, obviously just the highlights.
Would I be congratulated on my weight loss, (unhealthy) physique etc. if people KNEW what was really going on?
My personal relationships suffered. My work suffered. I was selfish.
I was irritable, fatigued, depressed and completely obsessed with food. All signs of starvation.
Competing is extreme. For the most part, it includes long periods of starvation.
It is completely ABNORMAL. Sadly, I see it becoming more and more normalized.
People assuming that the extremes are normal. They don’t see the whole picture. But want to be part of it.
Girls (and guys) thinking that THIS is the answer to their struggle with self-worth. This is the answer to their disordered eating. This will give me a sense of identity. This will make me worthy.
When really, it blows those issues up big time.
Post-competition is a phase where many participants will “rebound” aka they gain weight rapidly in a short period. You’re done the competition and may not have a plan in place for after. Binge-eating occurs and along with it comes self-loathing.
The story that followed
I was determined to fight any rebound. What happened was I deepened into my restrictive behaviours.
I lost more body fat for the next year and a half until eventually, my body started to shut down. Liver and heart complications, injuries, insomnia, extreme anxiety and panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Until finally I decided to seek help.
The story after that includes a year and a half of professional help. I (terrifyingly) opened up about being in treatment. Psychiatrists, psychologists, dieticians. Days deep into bulimia. Days where I wanted to end my life. Many days spent in a hospital.
This turned to days where I started to see the light of day again. Days spent writing. Days eating with my family without worry. Days where I could socialize without paralyzing food anxiety.
Days where I not only wanted to LIVE again but I wanted to THRIVE.
Fitness was not the answer to my problems. Competing was not the answer.
Today, I want exercise to add to my life, not detract from it. It has been a LONG process to add exercise back into my life in a way that serves my body AND mind.
I’m not saying that everyone who competes has an eating disorder, will develop one or will end up in my shoes. But I can say, if you have or had any issues with food or exercise it cannot be cured with a competition.
You can disguise it any way you want, but it will rear its ugly head. Trust me, the aftermath is uglier each time.
The ROOT of the issue cannot be cured with a book, clean eating or more cardio.
Competitions can bring about disordered eating (which may turn to and WILL definitely aggravate an existing eating disorder of any kind), extreme food obsessions and ultimately take you further away from what you’re truly seeking (some self-love and a healed relationship with body).
The amazingly insightful book Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth puts this into perspective…
“Real change happens bit by bit. It takes great effort to become effortless at anything. There are no quick fixes.
…the very notion that hatred leads to love and that torture leads to relaxation is absolutely insane, we hypnotize ourselves into believing that the end justifies the means. We treat ourselves and the rest of the world as if deprivation, punishment, and shame lead to change.
We treat our bodies as if they are the enemy and the only acceptable outcome is annihilation. Our deeply ingrained belief is that hatred and torture work. And although I’ve never met anyone—not one person—for whom warring with their bodies led to long-lasting change, we continue to believe that with a little more self-disgust, we’ll prevail.
But the truth is that kindness, not hatred, is the answer. The shape of your body obeys the shape of your beliefs about love, value, and possibility. To change your body, you must first understand that which is shaping it. Not fight it. Not force it. Not deprive it. Not shame it.”
Do you have a similar experience? I’d love to hear from you. Send me a message.
xo Collette Marie