Why the Olympics are a godsend for women with eating disorders

I viewed my ability to go days without food as a sign of strength and unwavering motivation to achieve a goal. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Molly Ludlow (C) in the Women's 800m during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on July 1, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon  Cliff Hawkins | Getty Images 

I was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 12, and I spent the next decade bouncing from one hospital or residential treatment center to the next. I’d had an unhealthy obsession with my weight since I was eight years old—intense ballet training can have that effect even on very young girls—but the ultimate trigger came when a faculty member at my pre-professional ballet school called me fat in front of about 15 people. Stunned, humiliated, and devastated, I went back to my remaining three hours of rehearsal, forced a smile, and danced as best as I could.

The moment I got home, I locked the bedroom door and cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I immediately formed a plan to fix this clear, unacceptable imperfection. First, I cut my daily calories in half. A month later, I thought, “why stop there?” and I reduced my intake to 500 calories per day.

A few months later, I was hospitalized for the first time. I never expected that these hospitalizations would become a matter of routine, but they continued throughout high school, college, and my first year living and working in New York City.

Recovery has been a long, slow process—and I credit, in some part, the Olympics. While I had my family, friends, and a dedicated therapist who never gave up on me, 2008’s Olympic Games played a role in helping me redefine “disciplined.”

I was weak and depleted, and the strong athletes in the Olympics were a revelation for me

Sometimes it’s the little things that mark a turning point in our recovery and challenge our idea of what a beautiful body looks like. During the summer of 2008, I was home from college and interning at a fashion corporation. This particular internship was absolutely not the best choice for someone struggling with an eating disorder. As I browsed our “lookbooks,” I automatically compared myself to the models on the pages. I felt jealous of their stick-thin bodies and wondered why I couldn’t have the self-control to be as skinny as these women.

But help came in an unexpected form. You see, 2008 was a Summer Olympics year. I came home each night and settled onto the couch with my mom to watch the competitions. Like many other viewers, I was in complete awe of the strength displayed by the women who competed in swimming, soccer, track, and tennis. And because I was so obsessed with my weight, I noticed their bodies more than I ever had before. The women in these sports weren’t stick-thin—if they had been, they wouldn’t be able to perform the incredible skills necessary to succeed in their events. Their strong, beautiful bodies challenged my assumption that I needed to be underweight to be beautiful.

It slowly dawned on me that I would rather weigh more and be physically strong than simply have the dubious achievement of “skinny.”

As the summer progressed, I followed pretty much the same routine each day: I watched the contests with my mom, and gradually my idea of beautiful shifted away from the “ballet” definition and more towards the “athlete” definition. I can’t say that I instantly stopped aspiring to look like the models in the lookbooks—but the Olympic athletes were absolutely beautiful to me because they were strong, successful, and arguably some of the most highly motivated people in the world. It slowly dawned on me that I would rather weigh more and be physically strong than simply have the dubious achievement of “skinny.”

Like many people with anorexia, I spent years viewing my ability to go days without food as a sign of strength and unwavering motivation to achieve a goal. I couldn’t have been more wrong—the Olympic athletes on my TV screen were the epitome of strong, motivated, successful, and powerful women. Eating disorders are deceptive: they lead us to believe we’re in control, despite the fact that the illness actually controls us.

I began to appreciate the beauty of ordinary health and fitness

Emma Coburn in the Women’s 3000m Steeplechase during the 2016 U.S. Olympic

Emma Coburn in the Women’s 3000m Steeplechase during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials on July 7. Andy Lyons | Getty Images

In the 2016 edition of ESPN’s “Body Issue,” Olympic runner Emma Coburn provided an important analogy that I hope all women will embrace:

“I’ve never been self-conscious about my body. I never really thought much about it. It’s just kind of the vessel that lets me do the things I like to do. It never dawned on me to think about it beyond that.”

Sure, the vast majority of us don’t have the exceptional fitness necessary to compete in the Olympics—but that doesn’t diminish the beauty of an ordinary healthy body. We’re strong and capable and, as Coburn expressed perfectly, our bodies are our vessels. They carry us; they let us do what we need to do.

I’ve finally learned to think of my body as a vessel, too. I don’t exercise to lose weight anymore—I do it because I genuinely love exercising and it makes me a physically and mentally healthy person. After years of being weakened by my eating disorder, I also appreciate the more basic things my healthy body allows me to do, such as explore my new city on foot for hours, carry my groceries home, and climb my apartment stairs without becoming exhausted. All of these things once required a Herculean effort. Today, I’m able to easily carry out my daily errands, work, and tasks—and I’m still left with plenty of energy to spare. My body is my vessel. It’s definitely not an object that I need to “fix” in order to meet society’s standards of beauty.

I still struggle with my body image at times—and that’s one of the reasons that I absolutely can’t wait for each Olympics event. After a few days of watching these strong, successful women, I once again remember that true beauty and power come from motivation, work ethic, and mental and physical strength. I’m so proud of the amazing athletes who represent our country—and I’m eternally grateful that they embrace their bodies and inspire other women to do the same.

Caitlin Flynn
Caitlin Flynn
Caitlin is a freelance writer who recently traded New York City for the misty air and superior coffee of Seattle. She is a Gemini, a former ballerina, a fast walker, and a proponent of the Oxford comma. Her passions include feminism, Thai food, reading, and Netflix.

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