Content warning: This article deals with topics of eating disorders, disordered eating, and issues with body image.
Editor’s note: Some athletes interviewed have been given pseudonyms in order to protect their privacy.
Carla’s obsession with her body started in middle school.
It was “beyond the average middle school self-consciousness,” she says. A fixation on the thin bodies of celebrities translated to obsessive dieting, food restriction, and exercise. By high school, she was also a successful track and field athlete. While her physical health and well-being suffered from her disordered eating habits, her parents and coaches did not express concern—losing 30 pounds in six months was not a red flag, but rather an indication of athletic prowess.
“Girls I had always lagged a second or two behind were now behind me,” she says. “The encouragement and praise I got every time I won encouraged me to skip meals more because maybe if I was even skinnier, I could not only win local [competitions], but regional or even state.”
Her success on the track qualified her to compete for Columbia’s Division I track program. The pressure to be thin persisted when she competed with the Light Blue; she continued skipping meals to maintain what she considered a “competitive weight.” Only now, over a decade after leaving the track team at Columbia, does she recognize her behavior as disordered eating. “It’s just the name of the game,” she says. “This is not a Columbia problem or an Ivy League problem—this is a cross country and track problem.”
Athletes, especially at the collegiate level, are more susceptible to develop eating disorders than their non-athlete counterparts. According to the National Eating Disorders Association website, 35 percent of female athletes and 10 percent of male athletes are at risk for anorexia nervosa. The statistics for bulimia nervosa are even higher, with 58 percent of female athletes and 38 percent of male athletes at risk. There are no reported statistics for Columbia’s athletics community.
In the lived experiences of many track and field athletes, including those at Columbia, running comes with an unhealthy culture that prioritizes a light weight and strong physically fit appearance. Connected to this harmful mindset is an expectation of what runners should be and look like.
“Lighter equals faster,” Linnaea Kavulich, a junior on Columbia’s cross country team, says.
“It’s easy to be faster if you’re not carrying the extra weight,” Madison, an alumna from the team, says.
According to Sofia Camacho, a junior distance runner, this “very toxic mindset” develops as early as middle school for runners and continues into the professional athletics world. “It made its way into our team culture and the overall running community struggles with that,” she says.
Olivia, a track and field alumna, agreed with this sentiment. In her competitive high school track program, she recalls that “girls knew how to stick their fingers down their throats from 12 years up.” But she still feels that Columbia track and field’s disordered eating culture was far more serious, having found herself surrounded by behaviors such as skipping meals, working out excessively, and cutting caloric consumption.
“When I was in high school, it was all based on how girls saw themselves. At Columbia, people picked up bad habits because of how others viewed them: their teammates, coaches, the competition,” she says.
At Columbia, the culture that pressures runners about their physical appearances is not imposed by direct and malicious actions but implicitly understood as part of the sport. “The coaches are never, like, ‘You should lose weight,’ but it almost seems like there’s some kind of implicit [understanding] that you want to be as light as possible,” Kavulich says.
Columbia Athletics declined to comment on its current programs to prevent and treat athletes with eating disorders.
Madison described a period when she weighed herself every day in her dorm room. She imposed limits on her weight during track season; if she was above her “limit,” she would not eat “any carbs, dairy, meat, the heavy stuff” until she reached her target. “It was easy to see that the people who were always winning were the ones who were the lightest.”
The pressure Madison felt to be as small as possible was rooted in anxiety about being the ideal runner for Columbia’s team. “I don’t think anyone ever called me overweight, but I thought I was letting myself and my team down for not having the ideal body that could perform well.”
The pressure to become the ideal runner and a strong motivation to achieve are some of several factors that place track athletes at a higher risk of developing disordered eating habits. According to Paula Quatromoni, who has worked as a registered dietician for 35 years and is the department chair of health sciences at Boston University, “[disordered eating is] heightened, conditioned, and expected in the sport environment, especially for collegiate athletes.”
The difficulty of managing daily workouts and practices is compounded by the stressful and competitive academic atmosphere that already exists at Columbia. According to Marissa, an alumna, “It’s a tough lesson to learn when you come to Columbia. You have to sacrifice that extra hour of studying to make it work. If you still are too rushed for time, you can always skip a meal.”
All Columbia athletes must complete a pre-participation physical exam before practicing and competing in their respective sports. As the Athletics Department’s first benchmark for athletes’ well-being, the physical is supposed to ensure that athletes are in good enough physical health to participate in their sports. But once the season begins, there is less proactive outreach to prevent athletes from developing disordered eating habits. According to Kavulich, the only opportunity for support systems to intervene is “if you’re getting too light and the coaches notice.”
Randi, another alumna, remembers that even informal wellness checks were uncommon. While on the track team, she recounts weeks-long periods of restrictive and unhealthy eating without receiving any outside intervention. Neither her coaches nor her teammates discussed her disordered eating with her or reported her condition to health officials.
“It really comes down to how accountable your teammates are,” Randi says. “We’ve all seen some real, real red flags, but you just ignore them because it doesn’t feel like it’s your place.”
Even athletes who manage a healthy relationship with eating are confronted with the challenge of feeling overexposed in their uniforms. Racerbacks—tank-top style performance shirts—are standard for men’s and women’s runners, but women runners typically choose between two main options for bottoms: spandex shorts or “buns”—bikini-brief style bottoms that derive their name from their revealing high cut. Within Columbia Athletics, female track athletes almost exclusively wear buns for competitions. Both Kavulich and Camacho tell stories of reaching for the more modest shorts option and being told by coaches and teammates that “everyone wears buns.”
“I remember going into the office and I got to pick my uniform for the first time,” Camacho says. “I went in to get my uniform late and I grabbed shorts and a tank top, then one of the coaches said, ‘Oh, that’s usually for sprinters or guys. You, the cross country girls, usually wear these.’”
This phenomenon is not common across all collegiate track teams. Kavulich, who previously ran track at Portland State University, wore spandex shorts to compete; only at Columbia did she begin to wear buns. “On this team, it’s for sure that you wear the buns—it’s a thing,” she says.
The role of uniforms—especially when they are revealing—can affect the way that athletes engage with their sport and their bodies. Camacho is not hesitant to address whether the uniforms impact body image culture: “Oh, my God, definitely,” she says. Without thinking twice, Camacho expresses how much she hates the uniforms, especially because their revealing nature can make athletes who are already insecure feel even more so. “It’s always interesting to put [the buns] on because you want to feel good on race day and then sometimes just putting on the uniform does the opposite.”
Randi discussed the lengths she took to make herself more comfortable in the buns. “I did squats—an unhealthy amount of squats—so I could make myself feel like a person in them. You know you’re being photographed and you know that people at a meet are watching you, so it’s mortifying if you think that your body is not at its best.” She added that she and other runners also contoured their legs before meets. “Nothing too excessive,” she says. They apply “a bit of concealer here, some bronzer there” to make their legs look leaner in the uniform.
Columbia Athletics lacks strong safeguards to prevent runners from developing disordered eating habits. While athletes can potentially receive support if they seek it out themselves, members of the women’s track team describe feeling deterred from seeking help. Olivia claims that it was the possibility of losing the short amount of time she had to compete that prevented her from seeking care for her disordered eating and pushing it off until a time when competition was not imminent. “I know they would have believed me and took these claims seriously. However, when you’re at your peak, you don’t want to get healthy if that means you’d have to stop competing or practicing,” she says. “There’s always the nagging thought of, ‘maybe I should wait until the summer to get some kind of help.’”
In lieu of formal intervention, teammates rely on their informal support networks to encourage each other to manage healthy relationships with their eating and body image. “We do, as a team, try to tackle this issue together,” Camacho says. “If we notice someone struggling then, you know, we’ll go over to them and touch base or make sure, that kind of thing. Just checking in on each other and making sure that everyone’s staying healthy.”
But experts like Quatromoni stress that these informal mechanisms are insufficient to prevent at-risk athletes from developing unhealthy practices.
“If we’re truly hoping for someone with an eating disorder to recover, we can’t let it go on for five years,” she says. “So intervening sooner than later, the person has got a better chance of recovery.”
As clinically-diagnosable mental health conditions, eating disorders require proper diagnosis and professional care. Quatromoni defines eating disorders as “maladaptive or unhealthy coping mechanisms” which anyone living in a high-stress environment is at risk of developing. Columbia athletes are at a heightened risk due to high-intensity pressure from their sports.
Quatromoni advocates for an oversight model that relies on the Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport diagnosis, which is not mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I protocol that governs Columbia Athletics. The system relies on trained professionals measuring athletes’ well-being from a holistic health approach. “We’re using data like how many stress fractures [the athlete has] and other data that suggest overuse and nutritional depletion,” she says. “We can look at scans for bone density. We can look at blood levels of markers of nutritional status. Certainly, we’re looking at food intake and adequate intake, but we’re also looking at their mindset.”
Quatromoni’s model sorts athletes into three categories of health based on their eating and activity habits: “Green light,” which clears the athlete to participate in their sport; “yellow light,” indicating minor concerns about an athlete’s health; and “red light,” which requires the athlete to take a break from their sport to receive intervention and treatment.
Problems on the divisional level perpetually outweigh athletes’ individual efforts to improve the eating and body image cultures within their sports. Real progress, athletes say, would come from the University, which directly manages athletes’ training and competitions.
According to experts, proactive awareness systems are built from the ground up, steadily creating the infrastructure that provides support for athletes who may be dealing with these issues. At Boston University, Quatromoni established a referral system for at-risk athletes, a fully funded nutrition center, and monthly meetings with a multidisciplinary team to monitor athletes within the program for any concerns or early symptoms. “Once you start to build trust, people realize, ‘Oh, this is the person I need to see,’ or ‘Oh, let me bring my teammate who’s also struggling,’” Quatromoni explains. “It really grew as we started our collaborative work on the campus and what we have now is a result of that.”
Quatromoni’s success proves that building the infrastructure to better care for athletes is possible. Columbia’s track program is far from unique in its culture of disordered eating, and its current opt-in systems allow athletes who self-identify and those with severe visible cases to get help. But according to Quatromoni, waiting for visibly identifiable symptoms before diagnosis is not a strong enough prevention. “You can’t always see it [eating disorders] with your naked eye, so if we were going to build a practice where we’re going to intervene and treat and recognize and lower risk and improve people’s health and performance, we need to go about it more systematically,” she says.
Columbia has the resources to replicate Quatrimoni’s proactive intervention model within its own athletics department. Preemptive intervention and consistent engagement may offer athletes more support in approaching conversations about disordered eating with their teammates and coaches.
“I just think we need to remove the stigma around suffering from an [eating disorder]. We are so afraid to say that we are struggling because at the moment the consequences feel far greater to come forward and confide in a friend or a coach than it does to continue a cycle of disordered eating,” Hailey, a former team member, says. “You want to be able to be a member of the team, you want to run, but you also want to be healthy. Right now, it almost feels like you have to choose.”
Quatromoni’s mantra on reforming Athletics’ culture of disordered eating through infrastructure is “if you build it, they will come.” If taken seriously, there is the promise of a healthier future for Columbia’s track athletes. Until then, runners believe they will continue to face what feels like an unfair choice: maintain a healthy lifestyle, or continue to engage in disordered eating habits in order to participate in their sport.
“A lot of it is on us, the athletes,” Madison says. “If you’re not looking close enough, people start to fall through the cracks. It is only now that I’m no longer at Columbia that I can look back and say ‘Damn, maybe she should not have been competing.’ You only can reflect on it later, which allows dozens of athletes to suffer in silence.”
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