It’s 5:35 a.m. when my alarm goes off. I roll over, switch it off, and force myself to sit up. I hadn’t gone to sleep until almost 1 a.m., and I hadn’t slept very well. I inch my feet over to the side of the bed and turn on my lamp. As much as I want to sleep—as much as I should sleep—I get dressed. I glance down at the reading I haven’t finished yet and tell myself that it isn’t a priority at the moment. Before leaving my room, I take a long look at my body in the mirror. The hatred I feel reminds me why I am going to the gym.
When I was in high school, I swam year-round on a local club team. Every day after school, I went to the two-hour practice and worked on my goals: breaking a minute in my 100-meter butterfly and qualifying for states in my 100-meter backstroke. At these practices, my friend Jenna and I cracked inside jokes and ranted about how much homework we had that night. We often laughed so hard it became difficult to swim.
But at some point, I stopped seeing swim practice as a place where I could work on my flipturns or crack jokes with friends. I no longer remembered the exhilarating feeling of diving into the water or the satisfaction of finishing a tiring practice. Instead, the pool became a place to improve how I looked.
As a swimmer, the “best” body type consists of wide shoulders, a small waist, strong arms and legs, and a tall frame. Then there’s your standard ideal body type: small frame, thin arms and legs, and curves only in certain places. Between the girls I saw on TV during the Olympics and the girls I saw every day on Instagram or in advertisements, I felt out of place. I didn’t fit either image, and I never fully forgave myself for that. Worse, the second ideal was at odds with my desire to improve in the pool—faster swimmers have broader shoulders and bigger, muscular thighs—which made it even harder to enjoy the sport.
The summer before I came to college, I lost 10 pounds. I ate less than usual while still working out two-plus hours every day. I tried to ignore pangs of hunger, especially when I was out with friends. I was afraid that I would be offered ice cream or that we would go somewhere unhealthy to eat because I didn’t want to be impolite and turn food down. I walked around worried that my lunch had too many calories, or that I should have tried harder during practice, or that my thighs looked too big in my shorts. I hated what I saw in the mirror. My last season on the swim team should have been fun and bittersweet, but I spent it scanning the pool deck, comparing myself to every person I saw.
At college, no longer on a swim team that practiced daily, I stopped working out as much. I was also overloaded with more schoolwork than ever before. I tried my best to keep my same weight, or even to lose weight, frequently going to the pool to stay in shape. But it wasn’t the same. I was only working out three or four days per week instead of six. My diet wasn’t the same as it had been at home, where I was used to healthier options. I ended up putting on six pounds. I tried to accept that it was okay that my body was changing, but once midterm season hit, I started obsessing over my appearance, just like I did in high school.
My shoulders became less prominent, my hips widened, and my legs were no longer as lean and strong as they used to be. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I was looking at a different person. I hated the way I looked in a swimsuit, so I stopped going to the pool. I made up excuses: The hours weren’t convenient, I had too much work to do, the lanes were too crowded—but really, I couldn’t bear to see myself in anything tight-fitting and revealing. Any love and passion I still held for the sport vanished. When I looked back at pictures of myself at swim meets, I resented the girl I saw.
I began to obsess over food. How much I ate depended on how I saw myself in the mirror that day. I tried to avoid looking in the mirror at all, but almost every day I looked down and thought about my weight. My mind would often wander to my next meal. I thought of what I should eat and what I wanted to eat. I went through periods in which I would spend a couple of hours each day on my calorie counter app, looking at different combinations of food. I would try to cheat the system by feeling like I’d eaten a lot while not consuming many calories. Other days, I would eat and eat and feel like a lost cause.
Some days I woke up to go to the gym, regardless of how much sleep I got. Some people run to clear their heads or stay healthy, but I ran so that my legs would become thinner and my stomach flatter. I even ran through a foot injury; I didn’t care if I limped the rest of the day as long as I burned the extra calories in the morning. Other days, I felt so insecure that I couldn’t bring myself to go to the gym. I didn’t want to see all of the other people there and compare my body to theirs.
At this point, I feel as if I haven’t been swimming for years. I look around at the pictures in my room, where I am smiling and laughing with my teammates between races and after practice. I find a picture of me and my teammates after a race, still in our tech suits. My eyes glance right past our smiling faces and land on my small waist and thighs. I know I should miss swimming for the friends it gave me or the satisfaction of achieving a personal best, but mostly, when I look at the picture, I miss the way I looked.
Enjoy leafing through our eighth issue!