Isabelle | Dangerous Perfection: Athletes and Eating Disorders

Often athletes prioritize any and all rehab/recovery after a physical illness, but mental illness has a different dialogue in sports. Athletes are commonly known for perseverance through pain, through uncomfortable circumstances, and told they have to be “tough” in order to be a good athlete. It is because of this culture that there is little room in the conversation and maintenance of their mental health.

What's Your Secret?

What is most important to me, and has become apparent in my journey, is that we must value the person over their performance, and that your value as an athlete never comes from what you look like, or the number on the scale. 

So much of my identity has always been tied to being an athlete. Attaching self worth to performance is something every athlete struggles with. As a newly competitive swimmer, I quickly realized that I looked different than many other female athletes in the pool. When I was a pre-teen, I didn’t yet understand that all of our bodies were changing as we grew through adolescence and puberty. I immediately felt as if I wasn’t enough. My body wasn’t “perfect” enough to be an athlete. I felt like a fraud in the pool, I began to think it didn’t matter if I swam fast or not, because I would never be a “real” athlete with how my body looked. Immediately this thought process caused me to severely restrict my food intake, to the point of extreme starvation.

My body began to change into what I believed was the “ideal” body for a swimmer like me. People began to praise me. Adults would ask me my “secret” and comment on how much of a “swimmer” I looked like now. I craved this validation, it fueled my continual starvation. I started to restrict more, my self-worth quickly tied to how my body looked. 

What many adults and people around me didn’t understand was that, as a barely 14 year old, I didn’t need to be trying to change my body. I didn’t need constant diet culture reminders around me, telling me I had to have the smallest boldness to be the fastest swimmer. Those who praised me didn’t realize the detrimental effects of a restriction, binge, purge cycle as a competitive athlete. In order to maintain my somehow “better” body, I soon found myself with no menstrual cycle, constantly cold and tired, and always thinking about my next meal. Looking back, I understand how my lack of eating was the root of more and more health issues. However, 14 year old Isabelle had been consumed with what diet culture wanted to sell. 

I was seeing a therapist for anxiety, but was scared to admit any struggles with eating and my body. I went to countless doctors for my amenorrhea, to which I was told I was a “healthy” weight and continually denied the fact I may be under-fueling. Oftentimes, athletes with severely disordered eating habits are overlooked because as elite athletes, there is so much pressure on us to look a certain way, eat a certain way, in order to train a certain way. This was the case for me, a growing swimmer, whose body wasn’t able to keep up due to malnutrition. With increased restriction,I began to have bits of uncontrollable binges. I blamed myself, my “lack of willpower” and demonized food. But food was never the problem.

I still remember the day the switch flipped in my brain. I was on a family cruise with my family, and wasn’t able to swim for the week. A supposedly “fun” trip, I spent most of my time in the gym at 6am,  thinking about how I was going to make up for the food I was eating. 

After reaching out for more help after that trip, my therapist asked me to describe what values I liked within myself. Not one thing came to mind. As I thought about it, I found that I only valued myself if I was fast enough, strong enough, thin enough, PERFECT enough. I had always felt so obligated to a standard of perfection; if I wasn’t a perfect student and a perfect athlete, then who was I? 

“You can’t live a full life on an empty stomach.”

Recovery has shown me what my values are. I value the fuel that food provides, allowing me to be an athlete. I value the strength that my body possesses, and what it does for me every day and in the pool. I value rest, and taking time to spend as a sister, friend, and student. I value experiences, adventure, and competition. I don’t care what I look like, what the number on the scale says, or how soft my tummy is- as long as I live in line with my values, I will always be enough. 

One of my favorite quotes in recovery is “you can’t live a full life on an empty stomach.” This is something that really has resonated with me, and I translate to many places in my life. There is something so incredible about cooking cultural food with family, going out to get ice cream with friends, or having a fun fall drink without the fear of calories. There is something so powerful about being an elite athlete, and you limit your true power, your true potential, if you start with a low battery. There is something so amazing about spending time with friends and family, but you won’t experience it to the fullest if you are constantly preoccupied with negative body image and self talk. 

I challenge every athlete to work on finding their foundational values that guide their own actions and beliefs. To challenge self-critical thoughts, and focus on what truly gives them value as a person. Your identity, your athleticism, your body, your skin color, your sexual or gender identity, does not define you as a person. You are so much more than what your body looks like, or what you eat. 

As I am attending my second year swimming at The University of Maine, I still work to remember and live my values everyday, and have so much pride as we enter a new age of diversity in swimming and sports.

I hope to use my time left as a collegiate athlete to remind athletes to live true to their own values and to recognize that you have never been defined by your appearance or ability. If you struggle with food and your body as an athlete, it is okay to ask for help.

Isabelle I.


Isabelle is a student athlete at The University of Maine, on the women’s swim and dive team. She has recovered from anorexia and is still working everyday towards recovery from bulimia. Utilizing her own experiences and her passion for student-athlete mental health, she has started a chapter of The Hidden Opponent (@tho_umaine instagram) on her college campus, a student organization focused on mental health advocacy in athletics. Currently studying biomedical engineering, she hopes to design prosthetics for athletes who need them, with plans on attending medical or physical therapy school after graduation. When she is not at school or swimming, you will find her outside enjoying the mountains, skiing, hiking, or thrifting.