I’ve read several blog posts (here and here are a couple) recently from former bikini/figure competitors who confess to having struggled with eating disorders and used competitions as a way to enable and justify what was really at its core an eating disorder mentality. I find that I also personally know several current and former competitors who have a history of some form of either diagnosed or undiagnosed eating disorder.
This ties into my reasons for deciding not to do another show so soon. In my Why I’m Anti-Fitspiration post, I talked about my own struggles with disordered eating. In high school, I went through a very difficult period, and in order to feel like I had some kind of control, I became extremely rigid about my eating, working out, and weight. As a result, I was under 100 lbs when I graduated high school. Once I went to college, I ended up struggling with binge eating and gained about 25 lbs. Interestingly enough, I remember reading somewhere that many former anorexics pass through a stage of bulimia/binge eating as part of their ultimate recovery.
I’ve had to teach myself other ways to cope with stress besides turning to food. Like everyone else, I still occasionally succumb to a bout of emotional eating, but overall, I am in a much better place than I used to be. However, I stay vigilant and guard my mental state pretty closely in order to avoid backsliding into the dark places I’ve experienced in the past, particularly given my struggles with perfectionism.
I noticed a change in my mindset starting with prejudging at my most recent show. From show day through the couple of weeks after the competition, I found myself increasingly anxious and preoccupied with my physical appearance. Even though I was very lean, I couldn’t stop obsessing about how I looked in comparison to the other girls I went up against. I didn’t feel good enough – my perfectionist tendencies exploded. I felt like an impostor who wasn’t even worthy to step on stage with those other gorgeous, incredible women. I realized that I felt worse about my body at 11% body fat for the show than I did at 16% body fat before I started prep. I seriously considered compromising some of my personal values for the sake of achieving a “better” body. I started rethinking my position on being an all-natural athlete and also started researching local plastic surgeons. There was a kind of desperation simmering beneath the surface of my consciousness, and it scared me.
In addition to the mental garbage I was caught up in, I felt like crap physically. I would get light-headed when doing even low-moderate intensity cardio, felt lethargic all of the time, and was no longer enjoying my workouts because of how I felt physically. Competing can be a very positive experience and can be a great motivator to help you achieve a difficult goal. However, the place I was in after the AZ show made me realize that doing a second show a few weeks later wasn’t worth it and would only exacerbate the downward spiral I was already caught up in. And just to be clear, my feelings at the show and after are in no way a reflection on my coach. The process of competing itself, which was my choice, is what caused these feelings and thoughts to resurface.
I saw where competing in the AZ show had taken me and drew my line in the sand. Am I anti-competing? Absolutely not. But there are certain things that I will not do for the sake of a competition. Some of those things including severe calorie restriction and excessive cardio (which are a recipe for long-term metabolic damage). Luckily, I had an amazing coach who did not resort to either of these things to get me competition ready. However, there are mental limits as well. When competing becomes a source of insecurity instead of confidence, something that feeds my pathological perfectionism instead of unconditional self-acceptance, and causes me to feel that most or all of my value as a person is tied up in physical appearance or a body fat percentage, I know that I have gone too far.
Does this mean I will never compete again? Not necessarily. In fact, I am thinking of competing again later this year (Octoberish). But first, I need to spend some time getting my head right. If I do choose to compete again, I want to make sure it is for the right reasons and that I am prepared, both physically and mentally, to undergo the competition process again.