In this series of articles, I speak with current and past female athletes to learn about their experience in their body. The goal is to promote diverse body types in sport and raise awareness of the female athlete experience.
In this article, I got to speak with NCAA runner for the University of Vermont, Lily Porth. It was wonderful to catch up and hear how Lily is using what she has learned to promote balance and health in her sport.
Hannah: Lily! It’s so good to see your face.
Lily: Yeah. I miss you.
H: I miss you.
L: Oh my gosh. Texting is not the same.
H: Oh, for sure…And I’m so glad that you are willing to talk with me. So, to get us started: tell the world a little bit about Lily–your sport, your life, whatever you want to share.
L: Like, just in general? I hate talking about myself.
H: Well, tell me about how you got into your sport, what you do, where, where you do your sport–like the basics.
L: I’ve been like involved in athletics for basically my whole life. I thought I was gonna ski race in college but then decided on running because I chose the University of Vermont (UVM) for the nursing program. I was able to walk onto the team, which, I never really thought was a possibility based on how my running away in high school. But then I did and it was amazing. I was faster than I ever thought that I could be, but also [a challenge]. Because COVID was starting the spring before I went to college, everything got really messed up. The end of my senior year was wild–all over the place and unstructured. I do not do well without structure. I like organization!
L: Yeah, so then I kind of channeled [all my energy] into running and it just got very disordered. I thought that the only way to be fast was to lose weight because that’s what is in running culture–particularly collegiate running culture. My eating disorder was kind of a way to stay in control and not really think about what was going on in the world. It was a way to manage my anxiety that came with COVID and everything being all over the place.
I thought that there was no way that I could ever be good if I didn’t train super hard and restrict what I was eating. But then I had a really good freshman year, for running.
H: For what you knew, yes?
L: Result-wise. Yeah.
L: I was all-conference for cross country and then won my conference race [during outdoor track]–we didn’t have indoor that year because of COVID. But that [success] just kind of reinforced the idea that what I was doing was good.
H: Yeah. I can resonate with that. Which, yeah, it kind of sucks. So, it sounds like your eating disorder started during COVID, yes? Or was it an issue before then?
L: It was [then]. Because we very suddenly got the email from the school in March and they’re like, “Don’t come to school tomorrow.” And we’re done for the year.
H: Oh my goodness.
L: Yeah. Which… you know me, I did not like that.
H: That’s not good.
L: [At the onset of COVID,] I was like, “What am I?” My friend was like, “Yeah no school! Let’s go!” And I was like. “No. Absolutely not. Yeah, when I’m telling my story to people, I say that it started around the time of COVID.
I think it was probably a bit before that and, according to providers I’ve talked to, I was showing signs [before] that I wasn’t even aware of. I think so many eating disorder traits are normalized in society and in sport culture that I didn’t know what I was doing was disordered–especially because I was hanging out with a friend who was…very disordered at the time. [It seemed like] what I was doing was okay because she was doing it–like, “Oh, doesn’t everybody do this?”
H: That rings true of my story, too. I don’t know how long [eating disorder] stuff was happening before someone was like, “That might be a problem.”
L: Like, “No, it’s all normal.”
H: Do you remember when you first had a thought about your body?
L: I think it was probably well, actually two different things: (1) So the first time I ever thought about my body was when I was probably seven. For my whole life, everyone had been telling me, “You’re so petite. You’re so small.” Like, “You can eat whatever you want because you’re so petite.” They said, “You’re a runner, but you’re built like a dancer”–because I was doing ballet at the time.
I think I grew up with that idea: “I am small and I always have to be small because that’s what other people expect of me.” So that was the first time I conceptualized it…when I was younger than that, I [saw things about my body] but I didn’t have any judgments about it. When I was seven, I started comparing my body to other people’s and noticing different things.
[Secondly, I think of] when I was eleven and getting really into competitive gymnastics. That was when I really started comparing my body to other peoples’ –noticing the differences. In gymnastics, it was cool because, yes there’s an emphasis on being small, but you also have to be really strong. There was a lot of body diversity at the gym I trained at. I wasn’t really surrounded by very much disordered eating in that environment, but I began noticing other people’s bodies [and my body] more.
H: That makes me laugh because I think of a time [when I didn’t have any] value attached to my [body’s aesthetic]. I remember being a kindergartener and literally walking into one of those [tri-level, metal bars] that are on playgrounds. It hurt, but I remember thinking: “Wow, I’m tall.”
I spent the rest of the day in the nurse’s office because [I had a massive welt on my forehead], but [it strikes me as funny now] because then the value part comes in, and [life gets a lot trickier].
[When did you see more of that]? Did more issues with body image issues start cropping up in high school?
L: Yes, definitely. I was spending more time around people who were talking about stuff like that. And I think high school in general is a pretty disordered place. I mean, I wasn’t super conscious but toward the end of high school–definitely sophomore and junior year as I got more into running, I was aware that my body looked really different than a lot of people’s around me. I remember looking in the mirror and judging my body, wishing parts of my body were smaller or stronger.
H: So, how is your relationship with your body shifted?
L: [That shift has been] so drastic–what I came into college thinking and believing–versus now. I mean, obviously, it’s still hard. There are bad body image days. [A few days ago], I had my psychiatrist ask how I was doing with my body image. I was like, “Right now, it’s fine. But ask me in like ten minutes and it might be different.
H: For real. Yes!
L: Yeah, cuz I could have one thought or see one thing… and especially on runs. I could go into a run with really good body image and finish it with horrible body image.
But in general, I feel like, at the beginning of college, I didn’t have much awareness at all because [I was] so deep in my eating disorder. My perception of my body was completely disordered and distorted. There are race pictures of me [from that time] that I don’t like to look at.
H: Mmm, right.
L: And it’s sad because I do still remember some of the thoughts that I was having about my body back then…it was just so skewed.
H: That kind of thing boggles my mind. I’ve had the same experience.
L: It’s wild, yeah. So I guess that was kind of coming into college. I would look around and compare myself to other people and still think, “Oh my God. I’m bigger than everybody out here.” It was definitely not true and obviously doesn’t matter, but at the time, it was everything. [I was always thinking]: “I gotta get smaller.”
My first time doing treatment [in the summer of 2021], I was never over that. I didn’t work on my body image at all and things definitely got better, [but] my perception of what was “doing well” was really skewed because things were so bad for so long that I’m like, “a little bit better is like the world.” So that’s kind of where I was at after treatment. Last summer. Then it was definitely challenging wearing my uniform for the first time–looking and feeling different in it–and outgrowing some of my clothes.
Everything kind of deteriorated so quickly after I got back from treatment that year, I honestly don’t think my body image and perception of myself changed that much, but then after being injured that I tried to ignore everything that was happening and put it out of my head because it was so much to process that anyway. I was able to see my body change more acutely because that’s just what happens when you have to take six months off of running, your body’s gonna change.
That was when I [felt] like I didn’t have any worth because I didn’t look like a runner anymore. I didn’t look like an athlete and [I felt] like I wasn’t productive. All these were values that I associated with my body, the way I looked, and [what is perceived] in society.
H: Yeah, certainly!
L: I’m working on not pulling or drawing anything from the way that [others] look, but there is so much value place on the way that our bodies look–“Oh, you look toned” or “You look strong.” You can’t tell how strong someone is just by looking at them. Their appearance doesn’t’ mean they’re strong beyond the way our society defines strength, and that’s not really true strength at all.”.
There are a lot of values I associated with my body. Going through treatment this summer and having my body change even more as well as coming back to campus, it’s been hard comparing the way I look especially because like I’m still gaining back my like strength. My running isn’t necessarily feeling that great yet, and that has an influence on the way I perceive myself.
H: I hated it at the time, but taking the long period off of movement was so important [in my recovery] because it’s a necessary reset. And, it’s still hard to not say, “I like my body because it ran today” or “because it went fast today.” There has to be a separation and that is really tricky.
L: Right, and I feel like it’s okay to appreciate the fact that my body was able to run–regardless of how it felt– but also be able to appreciate my body on days that I couldn’t run or didn’t run. Not appreciating my body more on the days I run [versus] days I don’t run.
H: Yes, that’s key.
L: There are body image struggles at times depending on my mood, how run, etc. But for the most part, I’m focusing more on function than appearance. I don’t care how I look as long as I’m feeling good about my running, which is still a little bit problematic, but I’m working on that; working on putting emphasis more on function than appearance.
H: I love how, when you and I were roommates for a while in treatment, we wrote on the mirror in our room. I hadn’t done that before and it was so cool to write and post up [positive affirmations]. I have a lot of similar things on my mirror at home now. It’s helpful!
L: Oh my gosh, I like don’t have a mirror yet for my room at school…I need at least a face mirror so I’m not hogging the bathroom with my amazing music. I’m gonna write things because right now, I have all my Gratitudes [from EDCare] on the wall. But oh my gosh, that makes me so happy that you’re still doing that.
H: I have some of your gratitudes posted up there and your letter!
L: Actually I have yours taped up too! It’s fun.
H: So other than putting reminders [on walls and mirrors] for yourself, what does being actively in recovery look like as a student-athlete?
L: I don’t think people realize that being in recovery [includes] so much maintenance.
H: Oh my gosh. Yes.
L: It’s not as like, “Oh you go to treatment and then you’re good.” So, I feel like recovery looks like [weekly] therapy and dietitian appointments, and meal planning–especially as a nursing student.
In the past, my eating disorder would [convince me], “We don’t have time to eat.” Or not planning ahead would be an excuse for restricting, but now, it’s like: “I’m going to pack my lunch the night before so that I have lunch to bring to clinical.” I am proactive about fueling and eating–[even] when [others] aren’t. [Recently], I was in a lecture; nobody around me was eating snacks and I had like five snacks. I [have to] reassure and remind [myself] that bodies are different, It is freaking hard.
H: And, so impressive, Lily!
L: And my ego is having a lot of issues.
L: –because it’s hard to make choices at practice that are a hundred percent based on what my body needs rather than being like, “Oh, [my teammate’s] doing another rep, so I’m also gonna do another rep.”
H: The idea that you “should.” I’m definitely familiar with that.
L: Yeah, and like feeling like people are judging me for that. So maybe it’s not necessarily ego as much as it is [worrying that other people] are looking at me being like, “Is she really good enough to be on this team?” or “She’s not putting in the work.”
H: That can be really frustrating. I feel like I worry a lot about being out of control. In the past, I was never the person that didn’t run if there was even the slightest chance my body could survive it. Now, I’m learning how to go in the opposite direction. But that’s part of like what they taught us [at EDCare], right? It’s the whole pendulum-swinging thing–it needs to swing both where sometimes you do more and sometimes you do less.
L: Right, and not focusing on just one day. I feel like that’s been helpful. Recently, I had literally the worst workout in my entire life and the way that I got through it was by telling myself, “Okay, I’m not having as great of a day today. There are a lot of factors that I think might have contributed to this–factors that influence everyone differently…Today doesn’t say anything about tomorrow.”
H: I love that. It’s true! And I always tell myself, “Okay, I got the bad one out of the way. The tough workouts are what make the good races and workouts feel even better! So that means you got the crappy one done.
L: Right. Yay!
H: Okay, now, I have a lightning round of questions for you. Are you ready?
H: First question: would you rather play tag or capture the flag?
L: Capture the flag. I love capture the flag.
H: It is super fun. I wish there were adult leagues for it.
L: Me too. I was actually talking about that with some of my teammates. We should do capture the flag one day a week for practice!
H: That’d be so fun! Okay, second question. What is your ideal weather for outdoor movement?
L: Fifty-five degrees and sunny, with a gentle breeze.
H: Very specific. I like it.
L: Yes, yes.
H: Do you have a confidence outfit that you like running in?
L: I don’t have a “confidence outfit,” but I do have a “confidence sports bra.”
H: Okay, I like that. I have one of those too.
L: Yes. It’s the only sports bar that I race in.
H: [Next question]: What hits the spot after a hard workout or run?
L: Oh man. Is it a workout in the summer or the winter?
H: (laughing) Dude, I don’t know. Tell me both!
L: Okay, for the summer: a popsicle. But not just like one on the stick. [I mean] the ice ones that come in the like–
H: The little pouch, that you squeeze?
L: Yes, the clear pouch that you buy unfrozen.
H: Those remind me of childhood.
L: Yeah. And then for the winter… Okay, this is not a food thing but: a hot shower. [It’s perfect] after a cold run.
H: That is one of the best feelings ever. It’s especially good when I have food cooking while I’m in the shower–something warm to look forward to afterward.
L: Oh my gosh. Yes. Or sometimes I keep muffins and stuff in the freezer and I like heating one of those up.
H: I was particularly curious about your response because every single person I’d talked with so far said their favorite post-workout thing is chocolate milk.
L: I love chocolate milk, but like when I’m thinking immediately after a workout, I’m thinking: popsicle–something to cool me down.
H: Drinking chocolate milk. It depends. It depends.
H: (pensively) I do like it…
L: (also pensively) I do like it, too….
H: Okay, the last question I have for you is more in-depth. If you could give a message to little, middle school Lily, what would you tell her?
L: Oh man. [I’d tell her]: “Make decisions based on what your authentic self wants; don’t be swayed, persuaded, or distracted by other people’s decisions and choices. And then, comparison. Not just body comparison, either. Everybody’s life is so different, and there’s no point in comparing to somebody else because that says nothing about you or your abilities or who you are.
H: Yeah. Oh gosh. That’s so wise, and I hope you truly take that stuff to heart because I see so many incredible things for your future!
L: Awe, thank you.
H: Thanks for talking with me!