In the Name of Authenticity

Before I begin writing my next topic, I just want to thank everyone who checked out my first post! Wow- I never could have imagined the love and support that came from me sharing my first post. Thank you!

Ok, before I get in too far, I feel the need to leave a trigger warning. I’m about to dive into another vulnerable and fragile topic: body image and disordered eating. If you are at all uncomfortable with the topics surrounding eating disorders and body image, please do not feel inclined to read this if you are not in a space to deal with these subjects. There is no shame in that, trust me.

In the Name of Authenticity

A coach of mine recently emphasized the importance of authenticity, both for our team and ourselves as individuals. It’s something I’ve struggled with my entire life, being truly authentic. I’ve hid parts of myself to be more accepting, to appear like I have it all together. From the clothes I buy to the things I do and the posts I make on instagram, I can look back and see how my actions were to make myself more physically appealing, more like-able, more easy to hang out with, instead of promote a true, happy version of myself.

But the thing is, we live in a society where we aren’t encouraged to be truly authentic. Especially as women, we have double standards thrown at us around every corner. It’s outdated to be insecure, but every ad on our social media is geared towards the promotion of products that claim to better your acne, hair, skin, mood, your relationship, your body shape. We wear “health” devices on our wrists marketed to boost our fitness, but they also constantly count calories, remind you have haven’t met your goal yet, and then compare those values to our friends (if you have an Apple watch, I’m not coming for you, just pointing out that the concept can lead to unhealthy thoughts). Also- you don’t like the way your body looks? Here’s ten spot-reducing workouts and an article on the Keto diet. It’s all part of a toxic culture that sneakily promotes a dissatisfaction with your authentic self.

And as an athlete, but also just as a woman in general, these subliminal messages add a whole different set of standards that make it extremely difficult to navigate who you want to be and how to confidently display your authentic self. We are fed and then recycle negative thought patterns that enforce the need to constantly treat yourself as a project that needs a relentless perfecting.

” I want to have ice cream tonight but practice wasn’t that hard so I don’t deserve it”

“I’m trying to sweat more so that I get thinner during practice”

” *orders salad* ugh yeah I need to start eating better, I’ve been doing so terribly lately and you can really tell. I’m out of shape.”

“The less I eat at team meal, the better I’ll look on the court. I don’t want to be bloated on TV ”

“I probably shouldn’t order the pasta, I’m injured and haven’t been practicing enough to deserve that”

“My coach told me I should lose weight to be better on the court- I probably should skip the half and half in my coffee or the cream cheese on my bagel” (I’d like to make the disclaimer that this did not happen at the UW- this example was at a different program)

” I worked out like 4x yesterday just to meet my calorie burning goal”

” *insert person’s name* just burned more calories than me….. I need to work harder”

“I’m not going to eat a lot before going out tonight, I’ll look better and won’t have to drink as much”

” I swear I’m not going to gain the freshman 15″

” *sighs in the mirror* I think I’m gaining the freshmen 15″

“I didn’t fill my rings today on my Apple watch, so I feel bad eating/drinking *insert totally normal food choice*”

” * drinks glass of wine* I earned this, our workout was so hard today and I worked it off”

“I slept in today so I don’t need to eat breakfast”

” Coffee counts as breakfast, right?”

“I feel so gross, I ate so much today. It’s going to take me a while to work this off”

“I hate these spandex because they make my muffin top 10x worse, but I don’t want to move up to an XL”

” I need to skip meals and workout more before our weigh in this week” (disclaimer, UW doesn’t do weigh ins)

Do any of these thoughts/actions sound familiar to you? I know they do for me. Over my career, I’ve heard stories from other Pac-12 schools, teammates that transferred from a different program, and group-chats of NCAA athletes sharing their experiences in programs across the nation. Even worse, I know that these negative thought patterns infiltrate the lives of young middle and high school girls- athletes or not. Now, the point of this is not to stand on my high and mighty horse and say hey- shame on you if you think this way, you’re broken, unhealthy, and brainwashed by society. Absolutely not. In fact I really do love myself and my body, but I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t struggle, and have historically struggled, with really damaging thought patterns that didn’t do me any favors.

I’ve seen these damaging habits of body dysmorphia and disordered eating negatively affect the lives of family members, teammates, and myself. These topics are deeply personal to me, something that I’ve rarely told people I’ve dealt with. It’s a part of my authentic self, something that I want young women to read from my perspective and understand that they are 100% not alone in any of the same feelings they may share.

I want to make something clear that I’ve learned over the past few years: you do not have to have a diagnosed eating disorder to experience disordered eating or disordered self-image. Disordered eating stems from so many avenues; anxiety, depression, pain, illness, trauma, abuse, insecurity, a need for control, and so much more. The point of this post is to not condemn anyone for their struggles, I instead want to share my story with this topic and allow others to know that they are not alone. Your feelings and experiences around these sensitive topics are valid, no matter what they are. These things are messy and you do not have to fit into the perfect “eating disorder” box to experience the havoc it can wreck on your mental and physical health.

My eyes were opened to the ugliness of an eating disorder when, in my senior year of high school, I got a call from my mom after school, her shaky voice saying that my middle sister was admitted to children’s hospital for being clinically diagnosed as anorexic. My parents had battled to keep her out of the hospital, but the destructive, unrelenting grip of anorexia had already turned my sister’s life upside down. My entire family is built tall and thin, but my sister was extremely unhealthy at this time- to the point where her menstrual cycle stopped, her heart rate reached treacherously low values, and her fear of food caused panic attacks at mealtime. To be exact, her heart rate slowed to 32bpm due the starvation- beats away from stopping. The worst part being that we didn’t even know how bad my sister’s health had become until it was dangerously close to serious bodily harm. Anorexia can easily be hidden under a mask of oversized sweaters and excuses such as “I’m fine, I’m not hungry, I’m just tired, I’m just stressed about school,” and perhaps that is why disordered eating is so normalized in our society. Eventually, she was released from the hospital, but the mental recovery from an eating disorder is a long, winding, uphill battle. A battle shown no compassion by the society we live in today that constantly promotes fad diets, spot-targeting workouts that don’t work, and impossible-to-reach standards on a pedestal.

My sister’s story is a thousand times more complicated than what I’ve shared in the short paragraph above. Her journey to healing has been long, but it has shown her true strength and perseverance when it comes to healing her mind and body. It is hers to share, and I hope one day she chooses to do it justice and share it fully, as I think its a powerful testimony for any woman or girl to hear.

A little ways down the road, my experience with body dysmorphia and disordered eating began. As a young kid, I was always told my legs were long and my frame was tall and that I’d be tall and thin forever. I was told I could be a model, that my long, slender legs were something that would (eventually) be attractive to “all the boys”. As a young kid, I was praised for being ahead of the growth chart at the doctors and for being healthy and normal and active. Obsessed with ballet and gymnastics as a young kid, I was applauded for my gracefulness and coordination. I got praise and attention for being tall, thin, and athletic, and I was proud of it! But looking back, I think this primed my mind to always find validation and beauty in being lean, athletic, and slender- that this was the best version of myself.

In high school, I was quite literally the tallest girl in school and was the second tallest person out of nearly two thousand students. I constantly felt large, not-in-charge, and like I stuck out to everyone around me. Like any young woman does as she goes through puberty, I healthily gained weight. My hips widened, my legs put on muscle, and I no longer was the “double-zero-gazelle-shaped-ballerina-lauren”, I was “6’4″-180lb-size 10-lauren,” and I was not kind to myself over the fact. It was then that I began feeling guilty after eating a lot. I began pushing myself to workout more outside of my volleyball practices. I even tried counting calories in the 11th grade to see what I could do to regain that “thin” image of myself that I always felt confident in.

It was like something switched- I no longer thought of myself as tall and thin, I thought of myself as a large person that stuck out amongst the “norm”. This carried with me to college. For the most part, my confidence grew once I was outside of high school and was finally on the volleyball team of my dreams. My freshman year, I was thrown into a rigorous athletic schedule- playing volleyball nearly 20 hours a week and lifting on top of that. I got physically and mentally stronger- but the numbers on the scale never quite changed like I hoped they would. I never looked in the mirror and loved the way I looked. I would see pictures of myself on the court and I just didn’t like what I saw. I was highly critical of myself, and depending on the day I could convince myself my muffin top was getting too big while my butt was too small, my legs weren’t toned enough for a volleyball player’s, and the fat on my arms was incredibly un-athletic and unappealing. I once noticed a stretch mark on my stomach and freaked out that I had unknowingly gained an absurd amount of weight. Many days, I was convinced I no longer fit the perfect, tall, slender, athletic volleyball player image that I so looked up to as a young kid.

My mentality towards my body took a turn for the worse, when, during my health crisis after mono and IUD, I lost a decent amount of weight- but not in a healthy way. I was following a pattern of restricting food when I felt nauseous or not hungry, then binging on any carb in sight when I finally worked up an appetite, then feeling bloated and gross. I was not fueling in a way that was sustainable, I wasn’t eating for health or nutrients, and as a result, my body changed physically…… and I liked it. Knowing how my sister’s struggles with anorexia impacted her life, and my family’s, I felt so dirty and guilty that I actually secretly enjoyed waking up in the morning and seeing a new, slightly thinner version of myself. I could start to see the abs that I wished for ever since high school. A dark side of myself looked forward to waking up to Lauren’s “morning skinny,” as it offered some twisted positives to the reality that my eating schedule was so messed up. In my head I had this thought that later caused me immense guilt, “well, you’re obviously unhealthy and your hair is falling out and your mental health is going through the ringer, but at least you’re looking thinner”. I had put so much value on looking athletic and tall and thin that I used the fact that my appetite wasn’t getting better as a justification for treating my body and my mind in an unhealthy way.

These actions were validated by important people in my life. On the first day of pre-season in 2019, I was told it was apparent that I had been working hard all summer to get in shape. Now, I had been working hard all summer, and I was in shape, but the physical change was not due to me working out- it was due to a very high functioning form of disordered eating because of my health and anxiety issues. Multiple donors, at our first scrimmage, told me that I was looking “great out there”, that I had “leaned up” and was “moving fast”. A family member of mine noticed the change and commented on it, asking if I had lost weight. I finally saw pictures of myself that I didn’t criticize and I began to wonder how easy it would be to keep seeing pounds go away with the habits I was creating. I had learned to function on an intake that might fuel a 4th grader and I developed this love-hate relationship with it.

I was not happy during this time– please don’t get the wrong idea! I’m not trying to promote this lifestyle, saying that it made me happy to be this unhealthy with a few less pounds on the scale. The point that I am trying to make here is the fact that at my unhealthiest time, at my lowest point, I zoned in on the way my body looked in the mirror instead of how my body was functioning and what it needed to make me feel better.

Luckily, in time, my eating schedule and appetite has healed tremendously. Most days, I can eat what my body needs without forcing it. But still, in the most recent months, especially during quarantine when I hadn’t been working out regularly, I’ve found myself repeating negative thoughts when it comes to the fear of losing that “thinner” image of myself that people praised a year ago. This is where the one redeeming factor of hair loss has saved me- I knew that I needed enough sustenance in my diet to help regrow my hair, and that was my overall top priority. It kept me pushing through my lack of appetite and it kept me from feeling guilty about changing my body when I finally had days where I ate 3 full meals and snacks in between. And the more days I had like that, the more those negative thoughts about my body image slowly pushed away from my brain. I learned to focus on the nutrients I was consuming with each meal and feeling grateful that I could nourish my body in specific ways. The more I realized that when you eat, you’re not just fueling your muscles, but also your hormones, your cells, your mind, and your gut, the less I worried about what I looked like after eating a full, intentional meal. I began feeling thankful that I could eat more food again, because it allowed me to begin to change the way I deal with fatigue, stress, acne, and so much more.

This journey however has uncovered some sad truths that I see in so many amazing young women in my life. We often give our bodies very little grace and compassion. We treat our bodies as projects, instead of the complete, unique infrastructure that they are. Even at the highest level of collegiate volleyball, I found myself, and others around me, falling into the path of body dysmorphia and disordered eating.

Often, the way we think about and treat ourselves falls into an unhealthy pattern that condemns women for having extremely versatile bodies that respond in physical ways to stress, hydration, sleep, hormones, and much, much more.

No matter your health issues or activity level, your body deserves to be well fed and to be loved when you feel full.

You deserve to be healthy and you deserve to enjoy foods that bring you joy.

You deserve that glass of wine no matter how hard you worked out today, or if you’re injured or not.

Your body deserves grace when you look in the mirror and see bloating, or fatigue, or weight gain, because it’s responding to being well fed, a productive day, or it’s telling you to be healthier in the future.

Your body deserves to not be compared to others- be that your peers, models, magazine covers, etc. You absolutely cannot be the healthiest, best version of yourself, when you’re trying to become the unhealthy image of someone else.

And so, to wrap this up, I want to share some things that have helped me re-wire the way in which I view my body. I’m not preaching here, I certainly don’t follow these to a T. But when I do have a bad day or have an unkind thought towards the image in the mirror, I find it helpful to think of these:

  1. My dad told me this when I was much younger, but it has stuck with me since then. “Insecurity is of the devil”. Anything that makes you feel like you are not enough, that you aren’t pretty or worthy or valuable is of something bad, something evil. Insecurity sucks happiness out of our lives, it is the antagonist of confidence. This applies to any area of our lives- whenever we have those sinking feelings of unworthiness and insecurity, remember, nothing good can come from those thoughts.
  2. Following suit, comparison holds no value except to bring you down. As cliche as it sounds, I can never be anyone but myself. I can only focus on making myself healthier and happier, but I cannot reach the standards of someone else’s body image.
  3. My body, and yours, is a unique infrastructure that enables us to do so many amazing things. Think of all the stressful things in your life and how your body has allowed you to not only endure them, but also grow and learn from them. Life is hard. Being an athlete is hard. Being a teenager (was) hard, being an adult (now) is hard. I deal with stress, anxiety, hormones, physical exertion, and academics all because my body is alive and functioning. If I can learn to love my body on the outside, I can learn to help it function at a higher level on the inside by eating and fueling it in the best ways possible. My health (and yours) is the most important thing above all-not the reflection on the outside.

This is a part of my authentic self. It’s not a pretty part, but I believe it’s one that so many girls in my life need to hear. I can’t pretend reforming the way you approach food and it’s impacts on your body is easy. I can’t pretend it’s easy every day to look in the mirror and push out every negative thought I have. It’s such a breeze for me to write this all out and say what I SHOULD do, or what YOU should do, when in reality, these are habits that will take years to fix, and may never change completely. My sister, who’s fight against an eating disorder demonstrated incredible levels of strength and perseverance, still struggles with fearing food. It’s ok to have negative thoughts. It’s ok to feel unsatisfied. But what’s not ok is falling into the lies that tell you your worth is solely based on what is found in the mirror. You do not need to meet a standard that takes in no consideration your nutritional needs, your hormonal needs, your genetics, and your mental/emotional health needs.

As I wrote this post out, thinking in my head, “if I could go back in years and talk to my 15/16 year old self and my sister, or if I could talk to every young, impressionable girl feeling like they aren’t enough, what would I say?”

I would say so much. I would hug my younger sister and tell her she’s beautiful and that starving herself will never bring the happiness that the world around us promised it would. I would tell my younger self to snap out of it and see how amazing my body truly was- that it got me to the place I am now, playing volleyball and studying at my dream school. I would tell every person that I witness going through negative thoughts about themselves that we often cannot trust ourselves to see our own beauty for what it truly and authentically is. I want every girl that comes to a UW volleyball game to see strong, healthy, confident women on the court, and be inspired by them, not because of the way they look but because they promote a healthy outlook on being a powerhouse athlete and a well-nourished, confident woman at the same time. And I want every person who decides to read this to know that if you are having feelings, or are carrying out habits of disordered eating and body dysmorphia that it’s ok. You’re not alone, and it’s never too late to improve your mindset and heal your body.

Please- use my instagram handle (@_laurensanders_) to DM me for resources/information on how to begin recovery if needed- no judgment or questions asked.

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