Denying F.A.T.

L9P Community Post: Katie Smith

I was nearing the end of my freshman year at Penn State when I lost my period. Although, it would have happened much sooner had it not been for the false hormones my body was getting from birth control pills. My journey to “health” began the previous year as a New Year’s resolution to lose just ten pounds. But compulsive exercise, restrictive dieting, and the occasional purge after guilt-ridden binges turned ten pounds into twenty, thirty, and finally forty pounds. But I had just PR’ed in my second half-marathon, so by my own misguided definition, I was at my healthiest yet.

Looking back, I don’t know how I viewed myself as healthy.

The absence of a period alone is a huge warning sign that the body is suffering. And mine had every right to be. Between running, weight lifting, and indoor cycling, I was easily spending 2.5 hours at the gym a day. And the concept of a rest day? Only for the weak, I thought. Ironically, my obsession with exercise and ‘clean eating’—which to me meant mainly only fruits and vegetables and never exceeding a certain number of calories—was making me my weakest yet.

With no fat to provide energy, my body began breaking down my muscles. My hair was falling out, my mind was clouded with depression and anxiety, and my mood was bitchy, at best. I was fatigued and exhausted, but more determined than anything. Determined to be my best. College was hard and for the first time in my life I didn’t have great friends or perfect grades. I felt I had no control over my mental state; I could control the physical. Exercise and dieting made me smaller, faster, “healthier.” My running performance became a sign of improvement. So, of course I wasn’t going to stop on my own. I had to be forced.

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Developing a stress fracture forced me to stop.

My mileage dropped, but I never quit exercise entirely; that was unthinkable. My doctor diagnosed me with the Female Athlete Triad (F.A.T.). Energy deficiency from disordered eating, amenorrhea, weakening bones; it was the correct diagnosis. It fit me like a glove. But I refused to accept it. How could I? I was not an athlete. I wasn’t part of a team. I was just a normal college-aged girl trying to be as healthy as possible, just like the media stressed and society reinforced. #Nodaysoff, right?

…it was the correct diagnosis. It fit me like a glove. But I refused to accept it.

I’ve often tried to pinpoint when exactly I decided enough was enough, when I acknowledged anorexia and accepted the diagnosis of F.A.T. But, to be honest, I really don’t think there was an exact moment. My recovery has been more of a journey, kind of a two steps forward, one step backwards kind of thing. And at times, it’s felt more like one step forward, two steps backwards. But I don’t let the challenges stop me. As long as I keep going forward, I’m headed in the right direction. I’ve learned life is about balance, that healthy looks different for everyone. It certainly doesn’t look like flat six-pack abs or perfectly defined arms, not for me at least.

Because I didn’t consider myself an athlete, I didn’t think I deserved treatment.

The biggest barrier to my recovery was my denial of F.A.T. Because I didn’t consider myself an athlete, I didn’t think I deserved treatment. And there was no one to push me to seek it. I didn’t have dietitians to explain that my activity level required a caloric intake much higher than the recommended 2,000 daily amount. I didn’t have coaches or trainers to stress the importance of recovery days. And I didn’t have teammates to model healthy behaviors or splurge on post-run treats with. I was alone and miserable, and running was my distraction. It wasn’t my ‘sport’.

I found health by accepting F.A.T.

And yes, that has meant accepting body fat as well. I’ve grown to love the curves to my body and the softness of my stomach. It’s my trophy of recovery and a daily reminder that the body is just a shell and true value comes from within. And while 95% of the time I try to eat healthy (now with nourished eating and appropriate exercise) to feel my best physically and mentally, there are still times I can be found double-fisting two ice-cream cones and smiling. Happiness and health go hand in hand. You deserve both; you can have both.

If you’re reading this, or any of the other Lane 9 Project pieces, and think you may be in a similar position, please reach out for help. Nike co-founder and University of Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman said it best, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” You may be on a team, you may be a competitive runner, but you may not be. And that’s okay. Don’t let narrow definitions fool you otherwise; you are worthy of recovery.

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