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How Weightlifting Helped One College Student Overcome Her Eating Disorder

When Nika Shelby, a student at Union College, started weightlifting it wasn’t to get fit. She was fighting to save her life.

In high school, her friends knew her as a powerhouse. She was the strongest member of any team and a force to be reckoned with. But the parts of her body that gave her strength — the thick legs and strong arms that identified her as an athlete — were also her greatest enemies. Determined to attain the body that she wanted, Nika pulled away from sports and retrained her laser focus on getting skinny.

She was good at it too. She spiraled into a destructive eating disorder complete with food-free days and an Adderall prescription obtained with the intent of appetite suppression. She successfully sent her metabolism into hyperspeed and the pounds started falling off. First, what little fat she’d had disappeared. Then muscle. Then her body started eating away at whatever was left.

She knew that what she was doing wasn’t healthy. She knew that not eating = starvation, that starvation = dying, but she felt her body was starting to look great and she didn’t want to stop. Plus, people told her that she looked amazing. When they asked how she’d done it, she said, “Hard work.”

Which was true. It was hard work, but not the kind that gets you anywhere good.

If Nika knows one thing about what she wants in life, it is that she wants to be a mother. She’s known this for as long as she can remember and she never considered that it might not be possible. That is, she never considered that she might not be able to have children until her doctor told her at her annual appointment that if she didn’t get healthy she might destroy her chances of ever getting pregnant.

But getting healthy is easier than it sounds and Nika didn’t quite know where to start. She decided to go back to the place where she’d last felt strong and empowered: The gym. Specifically, she started weightlifting.

But wanting to get healthy was easier than actually doing it. Although she began to consume more, Nika still found herself obsessively counting calories while also working out more.

Soon, her lack of coaching, over exertion, and disordered eating caught up with her. She had strained muscles, bruised ribs, and even broke her foot.

Getting healthy, especially when grappling with an eating disorder, is a process. Hers was a long one.

Around the same time that Nika first walked onto the Union College weight room floor, her father joined CrossFit. CrossFit — the ‘bad boy’ of fitness phenomena — was founded in 2000 and is based around Workouts of the Day (WODs) comprised of high-intensity interval training, powerlifting, and Olympic weightlifting, along with other exercises. To say that CrossFitters are obsessive would be a massive understatement. The stereotypical Crossfit-er might be a compulsively fit over-muscled man, but large numbers of women, especially former athletes, are finding that they are more at home in a CrossFit Box than in a conventional gym.

One day, Nika’s father invited her to come along to see what the CrossFit rage was about. The coaches started her at the beginning, with a bare bar, no added weight, and the most basic exercises. But she was learning technique and control, control that would come in handy with her eating as well. Nika deleted the calorie counting apps, studied up on her form, and focused on fueling her body with what it needed to excel at weightlifting.

Today, Nika still struggles with her body. Her journey, like many women’s, hasn’t been linear. At first, walking onto a gym’s weight floor, with dozens of men looking on incredulously, was difficult. These days, she puts in her headphones, focuses on her workout, and tunes out the noise. But, even just two years later, she's also found a community as significantly more girls are lifting than ever before. "We have each others' backs," she says, and she’s quick to help girls new to lifting so that they know what she didn’t and can avoid getting hurt.

***

“We all have that place that we want to fix,” Nika says when describing her body now.

While weightlifting, CrossFit, and other sports that encourage lifting heavy, lots of reps, and pushing your body as far as it can go have promoted an alternative perception of beauty by emphasizing strength over skinniness, it's a standard that has also come with it’s own set of standards and expectations. Now, Nika feels external pressure to stay fit and super healthy. Friends comment when she eats unhealthy foods, questioning why the ‘fit girl’ would snack on M&M’s, but she tries to ignore the comments and focus on her main goal: Maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

The continued external pressure is still quite frustrating for Nika, though. If you can’t be skinny, women are now being told, be strong. If you can’t have a tiny butt, popular culture says, have the biggest butt. If you don’t have big boobs, have ripped abs. But while these new ‘alternative’ standards might seem healthier and more achievable at first glance, they promote the same unhealthy behaviors as the skinny-standard does: disordered eating, compulsive exercise, and generally destructive behavior.

Beyond everything else, as Nika has discovered, the purpose of life should be to be healthy and happy. If you find that in the gym, on the track, or in the health food section of your local supermarket, awesome. But do it for you. Don’t do it because other people are telling you that you have to, or are imposing unrealistic standards on the thing you know best in the world – your body. Do it because you want to be a better and healthier version of yourself.

And, if you happen to be on the Union College weight room floor, look out for Nika Shelby. She might be able to give you a tip or two.



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