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Erin Tharp: The Battle for Control

Originally published a year ago on Exposition

Food is fuel. That’s what I was told and told myself my entire athletic career, it is made to help me perform to my best abilities. Food was never something that I stressed about, tracked, or controlled.. that is, until the world shut down and I was left alone with my thoughts. “Should I really finish everything on my plate?” was the first restrictive thought that popped into my head in March 2020, and from there, it snowballed. With my sports life on pause for the pandemic, I knew I wasn’t training as hard anymore or burning as many calories, things I hadn’t even known how to track until quarantine, so all I could figure was that I shouldn’t eat as much…right? Could I eat at all? What should I allow myself to have today? No bread, no sugar… each week I added more foods to restrict, and slowly but surely, I was left with grape nuts and carrots —a combination I will never be able to justify. Soon, the power I had over food became the same high that I felt playing sports, complete control over something, and a willpower to go further, restrict harder than I ever had before. Every day was a new challenge to eat as little as possible, just as I was challenged in the pool every day at practice. I pushed my brain to forget the growling stomach the same way I willed myself to forget the extreme pain my legs would feel during a hard training. The success I felt if I could get my clothes to fit just a little baggier was the same success I felt after winning a game.

Though losing weight was a byproduct of this new lifestyle that I was happy about, it was not the reason for it. As the world fell apart around me, my complete control over this one thing gave me a high I had never felt before. It gave me power as I sat powerless watching people get sick, every day a new unknown, but I had power over food and that was all that mattered. After a year of control, reality came crashing down as all of the sudden we were back in the pool, training and I was pulled in two directions. How do I play my sport at top-level performance (or even any performance level) with a diet of grape nuts and a 2lb bag of carrots a day?

August 2020 marked a moment I will never forget. I went in for my annual physical for pre-season training, during the height of the pandemic, and I was told that I needed to gain weight and increase my resting pulse by 20 bpm or I would be pulled from training. I was terrified, water polo was the thing I loved, but competing with that love was my terror at the thought of letting go of the control of the one constant I had created for myself. As the coming weeks drowned on and I went in for my weekly EKGs and weighs ins, I was miserable. Saddened if I hadn’t gained weight, meaning I was farther from getting back to competing, but also terrified that if I gained weight, I would lose my control. I was scared of what my new body would look like and could feel the control slip through my fingers. I stayed in this dark period for months, even having to wear a 24-hour heart rate monitor for 30 days to make sure my pulse didn’t get low enough that my heart would stop in my sleep. I felt everyone around me scared and frustrated begging me to eat, but I couldn’t release the control. My parents hugged my new bony body and my friends worried every time they would see me go on extra runs on off days, trying to burn off any of the extra food the nutritionist was making me eat. My brain would say, “Just eat Erin, it will make everything so much easier, you will perform so much better in the pool” but my eating disordered brain would chime in louder saying, “Control this Erin, you don’t have to eat, everyone that tells you that you have an issue is lying, look at all the girls that are even skinnier than you.”

Trying to get better while also fighting the whole process was made even harder as I compared my body to everyone around me. By January 2021, 5 months into the process of recovery, I had accepted that I had an issue but couldn’t accept the weight gain that came with recovery. As women, we compare ourselves to everyone around us, always wanting to be skinnier and prettier, never being happy with who we are in the present moment. That is exactly how my eating disorder was. I was never satisfied with the body I was in, I was stuck in a never-ending cycle thinking I would be happier when I could restrict more or finally get rid of one more stomach roll. In reality, I was happiest before I ever thought about food or my body, and yet, I was fearful my body would look different, my rolls would come back, and I would take up more space. I spent countless hours, crying in the mirror grabbing my stomach saddened by the image reflecting back at me, not knowing who this new obsessed person was, but also horrified by the body I was living in. During the whole process though, I felt like I was never bad enough, never skinny enough, never sick enough to deserve to get better yet, I hadn’t earned recovery, I hadn’t earned food freedom. I would lie to the nutritionist about the food I was eating, knowing I was pushing myself further from being able to compete again, seeing the numbers I could lift in the weight room go down, but not caring because restriction was more important, control was more important.

Finally, I began to realize I had no control, my eating disorder was controlling me. I wish I could say that that was the moment I allowed myself to eat without shame and love my body unapologetically, but that is not true. There is no switch that flips or an easy reset button to hit, every day is a battle to overcome the fear and choose to fuel my body because that is what it deserves rather than give in to my disordered thoughts. Over time those thoughts faded, my hunger cues became stronger, calorie labels were forgotten and the extra workouts lessened. I started to trust myself and my body again. I still had fears, lots and lots of them, but I knew deep down that I needed to make these changes because it was the only way I would find happiness and joy in my life again. The feeling of joy is so much better than the fear of what I look like in the mirror, control is actually regained when I stop letting my eating disordered brain control me. Eating was the only way to free myself from the constant, painful, daily, hourly, minute-by-minute battle between me and my fear of weight gain, my weight loss fear, my hunger, my fullness, my success in my sport, my control. I am going back to just being Erin, the strong, powerful, beautiful athlete and human that I was before the disordered thoughts began, back when I was happy with who I was.

Now it is February 2022 and I still struggle, I still have fears, I still eat nuts by the handful as I still see them as my one “safe food,” but I have come to understand that I am more than my body and I deserve to take up space. I still feel the need to control my food when I feel like I can’t control anything else around me, but I also understand that I will never be able to have full control over anything in life. The feelings of strength and power that I have in the water are unmatched to the feelings I now reflect on in the darkest moments of my disorder. I am beautiful, I am strong, and I deserve to eat, my body deserves fuel and is powerful and beautiful no matter what it looks like.

As women, we deserve to unapologetically love our bodies no matter what they look like and remove our self-worth from comparing our food to “What I Eat in a Day” videos. We as athletes are strong, and powerful and need to eat to fuel the amazing things our bodies do for us. Food is Fuel. In life, we can never control everything that happens, and that is okay. We must accept the fact that life is like a mountain range, full of peaks and valleys, and our sport is full of wonderful trials and tribulations, but food shouldn’t be a coping mechanism during those hard times. Our bodies will look as they are supposed to look and our strength comes from power, not restriction.

A final thought… Mother Nature is arguably considered the strongest, most beautiful, powerful woman in the world, but nobody ever called her thin.


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