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Female athletes and food – a sometimes strained relationship

For a lot of female athletes, their relationship with food is a strained one in the best of times. I can’t give you an exact percentage of how many of my fellow players used food to either reward or punish themselves. But I can give you the exact percentage with which I used food to decide whether I had been good (no, not as a player–just in an unspecific, arbitrary way), trained long/ hard/intensely enough, deserved a reward after a win or needed to punish myself after a loss: 100%. I knew that I was not alone because many of the girls talked about food the same way I did–as something that could hurt me, make me fat (my 45-year-old self still grapples with that, who do you know on the pro tour who was/is “fat”!?!?), and was used to exert control over an environment in which I felt I really had no control over a whole lot of things. 


I didn’t make a conscious choice to control food obsessively. I never thought, “Oh well, I feel really helpless in my transition from a junior player being at home in a safe support system of friends and helpful coaches to traveling full time as a pro not having a clue what I had gotten myself into, so let’s cut down on food”. I remember, however, two male coaches in true mindless fashion telling me that I still had baby fat and that I would be a lot better if I lost another 2-3 pounds. Mind you, I wasn’t even chubby, I was merely not as cut as some of the girls who had trained a lot longer at a higher level than me. Two years later, I was dealing with full-blown anorexia and was hospitalized twice. 

Why am I telling you this? Because I know that I would have gone crazy during a time like the one we’re living through right now, when you can’t play/train/run/lift as much as you want to in order to “keep the weight off”. I know what it feels like when your brain tells you that you’ll get fat if you don’t work off whatever you just ate, and I know that many female athletes feel that way. I can’t imagine how bad the pressure to look a certain way is now, with so much social media in our faces 24/7, and completely random people telling you that you’re disgusting/flabby/godzilla/fat, and goodness knows what else trolls throw at our athletes. At least social media wasn’t a thing when I played. 


I want to share with those of you who can relate to all of this one of the tools I used to finally heal from my eating disorder. Yes, I’m happy to report that I’m actually pretty much good with food again. I still have a few days here and there where I’m a little insecure about my body and feel some guilt about eating crap, but I have the tools that I learned a long time ago. Reframe your thoughts from how food can hurt you into how it will help you perform. I know, I know, I can see you saying, “Oh, I’m using this with my players already”. Hear me out. I don’t mean how will food help you perform on the tennis court, the field, the pool, the gym or wherever you do your thing. The first thing my therapist I finally started working with asked me was what brought me joy. What in my life really lifted me up, what was I looking forward to when I was away from home on tour? I immediately answered that I missed my friends and their unconditional support–my best friend had nothing to do with tennis and the rest of my friends were tennis players but we never talked about tennis, ironically. The next question my therapist asked was what I valued about my relationship with my friends, and I answered that they didn’t care if I came back from a tournament having won or lost any matches. In other words, unconditional love. The next question was why I thought they supported me in this way. “Because I’m fun, I make them laugh, I care about them”, were a few of the things I could come up with (it’s really hard to come up with loveable things about yourself when asked that directly!). You might see where this is going. When we can’t love ourselves, just the way we are with all flaws and quirks, when we don’t deem ourselves valuable enough to fuel our bodies with good and enough food, we need to find someone or something that we can show up for. In my therapist’s words, “We’ll work on reframing your destructive thoughts about food into affirming thoughts so that you use food to allow your body to show up for your friends and enjoy being with them. You are of no use to them in the hospital. You can’t make them laugh from there.” 



Of course, this was not just one conversation, this was work over months. But every time I struggled with food, the question I asked myself was, “What does this food allow me to do?”. For me, it was to stay healthy and stay connected to my friends. Gradually, my therapist and I moved the conversation in my head to the fact that I still loved tennis (just not the surrounding pressures) and that I could only play tennis if I weigh enough and I’m strong enough. Whether you use your friends as I did or parents, siblings, partners or pets as the anchor for which you can show up, find someone or something that makes it worth putting that piece of food into your mouth. Make it not a judgment of what you have or haven’t done that day. Make it about what allows you to live life with what is important to you.

This is what worked for me and it still does. The things that are important to me have changed, of course, but knowing that food in itself is not the enemy, rather my perspective on it is, has helped me get a grip on what potentially could have been life-threatening. 

Try to pull up an image of what it is that you value very much in your life the next time you feel guilty, scared or ashamed of what you’re wanting to eat. Realize that this food is what keeps your body going and thus allows you to experience joy (yes, even if it’s junk food every now and then–then heck, go ahead and eat it mindfully and slowly). Your guilt or fear will not go away overnight, but keep at it, and it will diminish. 

Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, we need all the help we can get to remind us of the good things in life. Food can be one of them. Lastly, delete, block and unfollow anyone on social media who makes you feel unloved, even if they’re friends or family. Nobody has the right to make you feel bad and you don’t have to give them a presence in your life. 

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Email Meike at meike.babel@gmail.com

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