A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman named Lisa Clift at a mutual friend’s house. Over the course of the evening we discussed our lives, and when I shared my passion for mental health and healing body image issues, I was refreshed by her openness surrounding her own history with eating disorders. When she and I connected on Facebook a little while later, I was shocked to see that she was a bikini competitor. Not because of the way she looked or didn’t look (we had been in sweaters, after all), but because to me the idea of being recovered and being a bikini competitor at the same time seemed impossible! How could she be so focused on her body, and still be healthy? You see, for me, recovery has been about relaxing my workout routine, not weighing myself, not counting calories, and focusing on balance and moderation…which to me seemed like the antithesis of what being a bikini competitor entailed. I was immediately intrigued, and wanted to hear more about her experiences. Last week we had a candid conversation about her personal history with food, body image, and the world of bikini competitions. I was delighted to discover that many of my preconceived notions about competing were wrong, and she offered some insight into gaining freedom from body shame, and creating a healthy relationship with ourselves and with food.
NOTE: Neither Lisa nor I encourage competing during recovery. Should you choose to begin participating in bikini competitions, make sure you are fully recovered, and seek nutritional guidance from a trained professional.
Me: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me! I know that my community will be interested to learn more about competing, and your history with ED.
Lisa: You’re welcome! If this can help anyone, I’m happy to do it.
Me: That’s amazing. So let’s just jump right in–how did you get started in Bikini Competitions?
Lisa: Well, I had a friend who competed and she was always telling me that I should do one. After I graduated from college, I took a year off and finally had the time, so I thought…why not?! I’ll just do one to check it off my bucket list, but I ended up falling in love with the sport.
Me: I have to admit, I know almost nothing about that world. What is it like?
Lisa: It’s actually a lot of fun. Of course it’s hard work too, but you get really close to the other girls on your team, so it’s like spending a lot of time working out with your friends.
Me: Oh, interesting. I always imagined it would be kind of catty and competitive. It’s not like that?
Lisa: Not at all! It feels almost like being in a sorority sometimes. We train hard, and we want to win, but that’s not more important than supporting each other. The support is what gets us through it. In fact there are several other girls I compete with that have a history with eating disorders. For many of us it’s a way to empower ourselves around our bodies–it’s not about control, or deprivation, it’s about being as strong and healthy as possible. The fact that we’re all in it together helps us stay on track, both in terms of getting ready for the competition, and with keeping healthy habits in place.
Me: I’m so happy to hear that! Support from other women has always been a huge help for me as well. So, I have to ask: how do you manage to be so food and body conscious without falling back into unhealthy patterns?
Lisa: I think the biggest thing that helps in this area is that the goal and focus are so different than they were when I was suffering from my eating disorder. Before, all I wanted to be was bone thin, and just obsessed over every single calorie. I didn’t care about being healthy, I just cared about being thin. Now that my perception has changed, my goals are to be strong and healthy with a body that reflects those qualities. I see food as fuel that will help me achieve these goals. I think what really helped also, was learning more about nutrition and how it affects the body. Most people look at me and think I must starve myself to get into competition shape and are surprised to learn that I eat a lot!
Me: That’s what I thought too!
Lisa: I actually eat a lot, because I’m getting so much exercise. I seriously eat a pound of chicken a day! [laughs] I also eat a ton of vegetables, sweet potatoes, lean protein…I don’t go hungry at all, trust me.
Me: Wow. OK, that’s not what I expected either! Shows you how much I know. Do you struggle at all after the show? For me that was always the hardest part about dieting. As soon as I met my goal I would relax a little, and then eating one “forbidden” food could turn into a full-on binge so easily.
Lisa: Oh yeah. Post competition is the one place where I struggle, because I just want to eat all the foods I didn’t get to have during my prep. One cheat meal can easily turn into a cheat day or even a week, and it can be a struggle to get back to having balance with food again. I have to be really aware of my triggers during this time because this is when old thinking and behaviors start coming out again. During this time I will still meal prep because I’ve found that having that structure helps me stay on track and not binge. Also if I can’t control myself with a certain food I will not keep it in my apartment. After years of working on myself I had finally been able to keep peanut butter in my apartment and been okay with just having a tablespoon here and there, but after my last show I had to get rid of it because it became a trigger again and I couldn’t control it.
Me: Oh my goodness, I can relate to that completely! I still don’t keep peanut butter in my apartment for that very reason. Do you feel pressure to maintain your body in a particular way after a show? I know when I was modeling, I felt like if people saw me look one way in a photograph, I had to look that way all the time. It wasn’t attainable, and I constantly felt like a failure.
Lisa: I get that, but seriously we only look like we do in competition for about a day! It’s not realistic at all, and it’s not something we can maintain all the time. So, yeah believe me when I say that I don’t walk around looking like that every day.
Me: That brings me to my next question–how do you feel about your body now vs. how you felt about it when you were struggling with ED?
Lisa: When I was struggling with my eating disorder I pretty much hated myself and my body. I was chasing my idea of perfection at the time, obviously an unattainable goal. Even though I was so underweight, I always felt so fat. So fat that I didn’t think I was good enough to be seen in public, so I stopped doing things with friends, and stayed in my house all the time. I pretty much had no self-esteem whatsoever. Now I see myself very differently. Working out and lifting has made me feel strong, not just physically, but emotionally. Seriously the gym became my therapy because it was the first place where I loved how I felt and how I felt about myself! I wasn’t focused on how my body looked, but on what it was capable of doing. Gradually my self-esteem grew, and I felt more positively about myself. Also, taking classes in mindfulness helped me show love, kindness, and compassion to myself and accept myself even with any self-perceived flaws. Now I see myself as strong, capable, determined, worthy of love and compassion, and perfectly imperfect.
Me: That is wonderful!! I absolutely love hearing that. I used to flake out on friends all the time because I felt like I was too fat to be seen in public. It’s so crushing to go through that. I’m glad we can both show people it’s possible to move past that!
Lisa: One hundred percent!
Me: What would you say to individuals who are still in that place?
Lisa: There’s a lot of things I want to say…I think everyone’s journey to recovery is so unique and different, but I can share the three things that helped me the most.
The first thing is to show yourself compassion. I’m a total perfectionist and I can be so terribly hard on myself, and make myself feel bad if I don’t meet my expectations. Allowing myself to make mistakes, getting rid of the pressure to try and be “perfect”, appreciating myself for what I am… that mindset of showing kindness to myself has really helped me heal and continue to grow.
The second is to find support in someone you care about and can be open with. I was SO resistant to change and getting help. I didn’t want to hear anything from anyone, I just wanted to continue my self-destructing downward spiral. I had zero desire or motivation to ever get better because I honestly didn’t even think I had a problem. Eventually I had someone in my life who opened my mind to the possibility of getting better. He didn’t pressure me to change, but to just let him know when I was struggling with an urge to binge/purge or starve myself. This was the first person I just couldn’t lie to about my eating disorder, and because I couldn’t lie and I didn’t want to let him down, I just didn’t do it. Gradually those destructive behaviors became less and less. When I think about it, he was kind of like my sponsor.
The third thing I would say is to keep an open mind. If you never let in any new information or perspectives, the system remains a closed loop, and change will be impossible. Even though I didn’t want to hear anything from my family, there were still one or two people whose feedback I would at least consider. That was my first baby step towards recovery. One of those people was the guy I talked about, and the other person was my nutritio