I’ve struggled with body satisfaction my entire life. I don’t just want to be skinnier, I want to be leaner, more defined, more like an… “athlete”. But last fall, I was hit by a car and I find myself wondering, is the body I have, not the body the insecure part of me craves, responsible for my return to sport?
Since I was little, the word “athlete” activated images of beautiful toned-muscled people in my mind. That has been my subconscious understanding of what an athlete is. I wish I could say it was all about their performances and abilities, and that’s certainly a huge part of it, but it’s not the whole story for me. When I search a famous athlete’s Instagram account, male or female, I don’t just look for pictures of them competing, I look at their bodies. How lean and defined are they? Most of all, do they have abs?
This would probably be okay if it was truly noted without judgment, but it’s the farthest thing from that. It’s not the same as noticing that someone has cool sunglasses or they have good technique. It’s more personal. I take in that information about how they look and then, like it or not, I compare them to myself.
A lot of the time, I don’t have what I notice they have. I don’t have abs.
I don’t think I am alone in this. There are plenty of healthy athletes who wish they looked different. For me, it’s easy to see someone else and think “why would they want to change? They look perfect the way they are.”
But I always want to change things. This searing thought haunts me: “if I looked like this, I’d be happier.” Someone with any sense would tell me that’s not true, that happiness comes from accepting and loving yourself the way you are. I couldn’t agree more, but knowing that doesn’t make me accept myself all the time.
Before I raise any huge red flags, I would say I am not in a place of dangerous self-abhorrence. I am pretty content with myself and compared to some points during high school, I have come light years in accepting who I am. I can say with full confidence that I am a good athlete with my body exactly how it is.
But for about a year in high school, I ate as little as I could bear. I spent all my waking energy figuring out how to lose weight, while not letting anyone notice I was eating less. I don’t think I kept it as hidden as I thought I did, but I was so lost in my own self-destructive mission, I didn’t see anything else. I didn’t even see that I was tired all the time, slow, and unfocused in training. I probably was a lot less enjoyable to be around too because I was so unhappy. I didn’t see that either.
I have evolved from this challenging time in my life, but that doesn’t mean every moment I am overwhelmed with self-love. Most days, I wish I could change something about myself. Now, these are fleeting thoughts instead of an all-consuming obsession with changing myself.
In this state of relative self-acceptance, I had a realization that dumbfounded me. I realized that I don’t appreciate my health. Even though I eat a healthy amount and take care of myself, I have no real gratitude towards my body.
Let me explain my discovery.
On November 1st, I was crossing a street and was hit by a car at what the police estimate was approximately 25mph. The result was two torn knee ligaments, a fractured tibia plateau, and a skull fracture. I suffered a traumatic brain injury. When that problem was sufficiently managed, I underwent knee surgery. I have completed hundreds of hours of rehab. I lost a ski season. I’ve endured a variety of different forms of pain, and have learned more than I want to know about insurance and the medical billing system. I have seen enough doctors to last a lifetime and still go to physical therapy several times a week and do more therapy on my own daily. The whole experience has been traumatic and exhausting.
Now let me tell you some of the positives. First and foremost, I have no permanent injuries. Some of the injuries are going to take a while to heal completely, such as the neck and back pain I have been dealing with due to the whiplash which caused my spinal cord to sprain. And some of the injuries were incredibly severe, such as the large hemorrhages (bleeding and bruising) in my brain. But nonetheless, there’s nothing at this point that I have to accept as a lifelong consequence from this accident. I’ve had doctors of different specialties examine my various injuries and the resounding response is, “It’s incredible you aren’t more injured from this”.
To bring this story full circle, my realization is that I might not have been as lucky if I wasn’t healthy. I take health for granted. I can’t help but wonder, “what would have happened if I had been as unhealthy as I was that year in high school when I was significantly underweight?” Would I have had worse injuries? Would I have been capable of healing? And even more mind boggling, would I have lived?
It’s hypothetical to compare my injuries from this car accident to the injuries I would have sustained if I had been in similar health to my high school low-point. I considered finding a doctor who could provide a quote for this piece to provide evidence to this realization, but I don’t think it is necessary.
The point is, it would be less advantageous to be hit by a car in worse health than in better health. I don’t think anyone will deny me that, even though I make it without a medical license of my own.
There are many physical ramifications of eating disorders such as frail bones and a decreased immune system. Basically, every system in the body is negatively affected; the nervous, muscular/skeletal, endocrine, digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, hematopoietic (blood), etc. I share this not because I think everyone should optimize their health to prepare for the hazards of crosswalks. That would be a bit apocalyptic.
I share this story because it is an attempt to offer another perspective on how we view ourselves. I don’t expect anyone to read this and to live the rest of their life free from body image issues. I do hope it is a reminder that being healthy is something to be grateful for. As I move forward with my rehab and recovery, I recognize that my body is something to protect and care for. It is something of irreplaceable value.
Like I said in the title of this article, I don’t have a six pack, but a car hit me and I survived.
Halvorsen is 22 years old and a member of the U.S. Ski Team. She is based in Anchorage, Alaska where she trains with the APU Elite Team.