Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating and eating disorders.
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I always thought it made sense to obsess over how my body looked. It just seemed irresponsible not to.
To be an elite athlete is to strive for perfection— toward an ideal standard of performance and a standard idea of excellence. It is an athlete’s duty to take care of their body: to make it stronger, to tame its pain, to sculpt its shape, to keep it safe. I always felt a little offended when people commented on my weight, because I took myself seriously and expected others to as well. To be my own harshest critic was to protect myself. I wanted my body to be solely my business, but the nature of sport meant that business was always open to criticism.
And so I thought that after I retired, any body image issues would naturally resolve itself. No more public to please, no more pressure to manage, no more residual shame to harbor.
But the sobering reality is that it doesn’t just go away.
When I was competing, feeling like I was never thin enough seemed productive, rational and motivational. And when I finally reached a respectable weight by the end of each season, I felt vindicated and rewarded. Having “unrealistic body expectations” never scared me, because my entire athletic career was built on meeting those expectations. “Unrealistic” was the standard that pushed me, even as it began to taunt me.
It’s hard for me to talk about my struggles even now, because I’m still working through them. How can it be hard to decide what I want to eat? It’s the most basic human function there is. Why should I complain, when I have the freedom and privilege to eat whatever I want? Being perennially dissatisfied with my body is normal — right? Because someday I’ll like it enough — right? And when l do follow through, and eat the way I “should” be eating, I will feel good about myself — right?
Around 42-65% of retired athletes struggle with disordered eating. Many of us accept our relationships with body or food during sport for the sake of our sport — but once we retire, we are forced to face old and dangerous assumptions.
As a rhythmic gymnast, I was never told outright that I looked fat. Unlike many of my peers, I was never verbally abused, weighed and measured twice a day, scolded for drinking water, accused of eating more than I should, reprimanded in front of my teammates or publicly shamed. I am forever grateful to my coaches and to my parents for supporting me in the healthiest way they could.
But I still lived in the culture, within its unspoken imperatives. I was surrounded by horror stories I was never the victim of, but always a witness to. I used to think it was unfair of me to describe my struggles with body image as anything other than ordinary, especially when compared to issues like anorexia, binging, purging or diuretic use. But comparison kills compassion — it hinders the ability to take a kinder and wider perspective.
It is true that an athlete cannot eat whatever they want whenever they want. But a culture of restriction misses the point. Nutrition is not just a science — it’s an art. Genetics, puberty, biological metabolism and cultural upbringing all play a part. True and proper nutrition requires every person to learn the fundamentals, and then adapt it for themselves. In the end, it’s about knowing what you need, and knowing how to care for your specific body.
Body image is inherently tied to how we eat, and how we feel about how we eat — something I’m slowly starting to heal for myself. Last year, I started working with a sports nutritionist. Ironically, only once I left sport. She specializes in helping retired athletes recover from the disordered eating patterns they’ve adopted over the years, as we constitute a much larger niche than most would think.
Eating shouldn’t be a moral reflection. But it’s too easy for “I overate today, I was so bad” to become internalized as “I overate today, that makes me a bad person.” Dieting has become a convoluted shorthand for character, with self-flagellation as a fashionable state of being. As 12-year-olds, my teammates and I would constantly flaunt how supposedly fat we all were as a toxic way to fish for compliments. When we eventually did go through puberty, the game suddenly became too real.
Girls in rhythmic gymnastics become seniors at age 15, but the ballerina’s body type — thin, flat-chested and long-legged — is idealized at every age. Though the issue of body image is exacerbated in our sport, it’s certainly not exclusive to us.
Because in any culture, being young and being female will always solicit certain expectations—just as being an athlete and no longer being one will elicit inevitable comparisons. The best we can do is tune out the noise that surrounds us, and recognize the norms that have shaped us. I’m still finding peace with my body every day, and that’s okay.
Laura Zeng ‘25 is writing a bi-monthly column, “Ask an Olympian,” on her opinions and life experiences. Send her questions at firstname.lastname@example.org