A Letter to 17 year old me
Hi it's me, 6 years later, 6 years older, and hopefully a bit wiser. You probably never imagined that I would end up where I am today, and end up writing this letter to you.
At this point you've competed in 5 sports. All 5 have taught you many different lessons. All 5 have brought happiness and despair, success and injury. In your journey so far, you've been told about lots of different things. Many times, the ideas conflicted with one another, but it was hard to ask why because you just accepted it as is. You trusted the adults and mentors in your life to filter the messy world of health, nutrition, and sport.
Over the years, locker rooms filled up with so much confusion, occasionally toxicity. A few girls boasted not having periods. A few girls talked about how they need to take contraceptives because of some symptom, such as needing to gain weight to start having periods, or to lose weight. No one talked about how they felt about their ever-changing bodies. No one openly dared to mention how they felt confused and lost because their bodies were starting to look different from the athletes and models featured on magazine covers and on TV. And no one had the courage to speak to parents, mentors and coaches about it.
It was just tumbleweeds blowing across the desert-scape of female health. You thought it was kind of cool to not have a period, because it just seemed like a monthly inconvenience. Consequently, you thought you were weaker because you eventually got one.
But you then learned more about physiology, and things like eating-disorders and the female triad. Armed with your new knowledge, you thought you were protected. Despite the hip surgeries, you thought you were healthy. Using that logic, the same old habits continued: the same poor eating habits, the same mindset that you could still look like those top athletes, the same mindset that brought you down the rabbit hole of depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia.
You're now 17. You’ve lost count how many times you’ve stepped on that scale. You've been told that you've grown taller, even though you've "stopped" growing for at least a year. You've been told that you look skinny. You've been told by your mum that you're bigger than she was at the same age. You've been told that you looked like a woman.
But you didn't feel like a woman. You didn't want to. You wanted to run fast, and be strong. You wanted to look like all of those top distance runners with the nearly-bone-thin-physiques, but yet have muscle. You wanted the narrow hips and shorter stature. You wanted to go back to the physique that you had 3-4 years ago. You wanted to be something that wasn't realistic for you.
Then you go off to college and take a break from sport. It feels like relief in a way. You're not pursuing any athletic ambitions or scholarship opportunities. It's just you and whatever you decide to do. The smile on your face actually starts to match what you felt inside.
When you return to sport, you think that your mindset had changed, that you're not that competitive anymore; you're not chasing physiques. You think that you have accepted yourself.
But as that journey progresses and you start to improve, you start to remember what it feels like to run fast. You remember the physique and mindset that you had when you ran before your surgeries. And you spiral. You hear about different diet trends and thought you don't need much more fat in your diet than what whole milk provided. You know you need to train more to become stronger. Instead of using food as fuel and training as a stepping stone, your tainted mindset sends you back down the rabbit hole of depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia once more.
To my 17 year old self: if I had a time machine, I would go back in time and give you a hug.
I would let you know that it's okay that your body had changed . It's okay that you don't look the way you did 2-3 years ago. Because that's how our bodies are genetically programmed to be. The process of evolution itself takes thousands of years, but your personal evolution occurs throughout your lifetime. You change and grow from your experiences, developing your identity over time.
It will take time to understand how your body has changed and how it works, feels and moves. And once you do, it will change again. Frustrating? Yeah, I know, but that's okay, too. Chasing your dreams and ambitions at the expense of your health isn't worth if you won't be able to physically be there to experience it.
In these past few years, I've learned a lot, particularly how to appreciate the body that I have, and how to work with the anatomy and physiology I have to achieve my best performance, whether it be in sport or in life. My body is constructed different, from genetic disposition and from the surgeries, causing me to move a bit differently than many other athletes. My underlying physiology isn't the same as my male counterparts because I am a woman with a period and cycling hormones that affect my metabolism, ability to recover, and my mental acuity (and much more). Using the new knowledge and new research available, I understand that a strong and healthy athlete is a happy athlete with a potential to remain an athlete for longer.
If it weren't for relentless questioning and research, supportive coaches and friends, and self-advocacy, I honestly can't tell you where I would be today. I'd be lying if I said that I'm completely healed and in the best place I could possibly be, because I'm not. Because it will take time to heal and mental health has no quick fixes. Since learning to open up a little bit more about this subject, I realize that I am not alone. I've started to understand that it's not just one sport or group of sports with this issue.
To the many young athletes out there, from running to gymnastics to volleyball and everything in between: you are not alone.
People are starting to speak up because we are tired of hearing about how we have to do whatever it takes to get that scholarship, that podium, that gold medal, that dream...only to leave us piecing our bodies and minds back together. You don’t have to be competitive off the field. Adolescence is a weird enough time and place to be. Everyone grows and develops differently from one another, and continue to do so throughout their lives. If you're confused, ask questions and research; talk to your parents, coaches, dietitians, athletic trainers and doctors. Use the resources available to you. Support one another. Help raise each other up to reach your best, healthy potential.
Change is inevitable, and change is hard, but you will be okay.
Lastly, to everyone reading this: it's time for us to change the culture of sport.
We can show that all athletes in sport can be perform at the highest level without compromising their health for years to come.
This is the first post in the series of posts under the topic of #keeptheconversationgoing (related to the trending social media idea #FixGirlsSports), where we talk about topics that are commonly considered taboo or touchy, but are vital to every athlete's health in sport. The goal of this series is to empower rising and current leaders to work together to change the attitude and culture of sport and provide a healthy and sustainable environment for all athletes of all ages and abilities.
If you want to learn more about sex differences in sport check out these resources below: