Written by CrossFit Athlete, Chandler Garlow
To my younger self… Obsessively concerned about the numbers on a scale so much so that it had to be hidden. Seemingly alone, crying on the bathroom floor binge eating sinking fast into the darkness of an eating disorder. The girl who was giving up hope on herself and a future… To her, to that former hollow shell of myself, I would tell her the best is yet to come and here is why.
Hi, my name is Chandler Garlow. I am a Christian, competitive CrossFit athlete, CrossFit coach, retired competitive and collegiate cheerleader, wife, daughter, sister, dog mom, registered nurse, and I am in recovery from an eating disorder. I say in recovery and not recovered because it’s an ongoing process and always will be.
When I was 7, I think I first realized what body image was. My friends and I, all on the same cheerleading team, used to spend hours throwing our American Girl Dolls around dreaming of one day doing those stunts ourselves. Eventually, growing tired of playing with dolls we would wander into her mom’s bathroom and grab the scale. It was a competition from the start! Each one of us climbed up onto the scale fascinated by the numbers that appeared before us looking to see who was the smallest and weighed the least...I can tell you it was never me and at that moment that’s when I realized I was bigger than my friends. For the first time, at 7 years old, I felt “big”.
I continued in the competitive cheerleading world. I was in love. I achieved a lot of new tumbling skills, won a lot of national championships, and found a passion for a sport that I could see myself doing in college. There are many positions to a cheerleading team, however, I was a back spot/base and stayed on the ground which was fine by me due to a fear of heights. In addition, there are also flyers. The much smaller girls you see getting tossed around doing all kinds of acrobatic stunts like the ones we had our American Girl dolls performing years back. The ones that I stood on the ground and watched in order to bring them safely to the ground. Standing there I couldn’t understand why I didn’t look like like those teeny tiny flyers. As I approached my senior year of high school the cheer world became pretty centered around certain teams and athletes. There were these “Cheer-lebrities” with abs that looked painted on and a physique to die for becoming the face of competitive cheerleading and I wanted to be just like them, no matter the cost. With a big cheerleading competition around the corner, I decided to go on my first diet. I remember eating very little carbohydrates. I thought that would get me to my goals, to my leaner meaner self…you know that’s what I heard on TV so it had to be true. I remember being so hungry. Between school cheerleading, competitive cheer practice, and teaching tumbling at a cheerleading gym my body was begging to be fueled but I ignored those hunger cues and kept pushing on. I remember looking at pictures from that competition and seeing a smaller self while also picking apart those pictures thinking…”maybe I could’ve cut a few more calories and looked a little leaner.”
Now let’s skip forward a few years to college cheerleading. We got weighed in before practice about every 2 weeks, I thought this was a normal thing. We had a weight limit for our flyers and I remember girls walking around spitting in cups all day in anticipation of making weight. I thought this was normal. Looking back now I feel incredibly sad thinking about that and those moments and those girls who were worrying themselves sick over weighing in a pound over the weight limit. By my junior year I felt like the biggest girl on the team. I was miserable on the inside. I felt so uncomfortable in my skin and I had formed unhealthy addictions to food and diet coke. We got new uniforms that year made from spandex and I wanted to die. I wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear. I wanted to look like my friends. One day at the beginning of practice our head coach called me over. The rest of the team was behind us, stretching, talking, warming up and I thought nothing of it.
The next words out of her mouth are still burned into my brain to this day “the amount of weight you have gained is unacceptable”. I felt like someone had just punched me in the face and I immediately started bawling. I felt like if I didn’t lose weight, I was going to be kicked off the team and that scared me because cheerleading was my life. She insisted I go see a nutritionist so off I went. After my appointment I began really being more aware of how I was fueling my body. I don’t think seeing the nutritionist was a negative experience and I did learn some things about food. I got so many compliments. I felt like my coach liked me more. I felt happy..I thought. But as that weight decreased, I wanted to continue to be smaller and smaller and then I would finally be happy.
As my eligibility to cheer came to an end with an extra semester left in college, I said goodbye to an 18-year cheerleading career and I said hello to some crazy thing called CrossFit. I looked around the room and felt like I belonged. Still looming in the depths of the back of my mind were those negative thoughts about my body. The constant need to be smaller and be less. I sat in my bathroom some days crying because I hated what was staring back at me in the mirror. I would weigh myself 5-8 times in a day, sometimes more. Obsessing over the fluctuations that happened throughout the day. Eventually, I gave the scale to my roommate and told him to hide it away, in order to give me some peace of mind at least for a while.
After college and moving home, I began to become more and more interested in CrossFit. I loved it more than cheerleading. I am so competitive and wanted to be the best and decided I was going to do whatever it took to get there. I saw athletes all over Instagram and saw what I wanted to look like. I still didn’t quite understand how to get there but maybe then I would be happy. I decided to try a meal plan company that was widely promoted in the CrossFit community. I was motivated and excited to get started. I was finally going to love my body. As my food became less and less my workouts and how many times a day I trained increased. I only ate foods that were on the approved list of this meal plan and I absolutely would not stray. If I was put in a situation where I would have to stray, I just wouldn’t go. I weighed in every morning, took progress pictures, and felt like I was finally becoming who I wanted to be. But then, I began to lose my period. My hair started falling out. I began to have extreme mood swings all related to hunger. I couldn’t sleep.I began chewing a lot of gum and brushing my teeth and doing anything to distract myself from being hungry. At the mercy of this new program I wouldn’t go out to eat with my family or friends and if I did, I wouldn’t eat…I would eat my perfectly prepped and portioned out meal when I got home.
With all this restricting and rigidity came another issue…binging.
I would hit my “perfect” meals Monday-Friday and by Saturday I was ravenous. I would look through the pantry (at night when everyone in my house was sleeping) and sneak food upstairs in the privacy of my room. Family gatherings or CrossFit parties, I would bring my prepped meal and when no one was looking I would binge on whatever was around me and I couldn’t stop. I did this in secrecy because I didn’t want anyone to know that I was this out of control. I would eat until I was sick. I would cry and just feel so ashamed of myself. I felt like I was just drowning and couldn’t swim up to the surface to take a breath. I kept a lot of this in and no one really knew what was happening in my life.
I started feeling awful during workouts and during my 12- hour shifts as a nurse. I needed help.
Food was controlling my entire life and I felt helpless. I knew what I was doing and what I was experiencing wasn’t a normal thing so after a lot of convincing I found a nutritionist who specialized in clients with eating disorders. We had an initial consult call and I broke down.
I don’t think I got 2 whole sentences out, I just cried. I had an eating disorder. It was controlling every aspect of my life and I was in denial for a long time. She threw me a life preserver and pulled me out of that deep dark place I was in.
Our first session we did some metabolic testing. This was unbelievably useful for me to see. Concrete evidence. FACTS. I felt so much guilt that I was doing incredible damage to my body. However, I was still terrified to increase my food. It was an emotional journey but working together over a longer period of time was beneficial for my growth as a person and athlete. We were able to distinguish fact vs. fear feelings. We were able to dissect the food rules that I had come up with for myself over the years of restricting and binging.
We slowly and steadily increased my food intake. We increased my carbs, fats, and proteins. I had a lot of fear. I was so scared to eat. I shed a lot of tears over increasing the amount of food I ate. I wouldn’t buy peanut butter for probably 2 years because it triggered me so much.
The day I bought a jar of peanut butter I sent her a picture and we celebrated. We celebrated a lot and I finally felt like I was able to stay afloat. My workouts felt better than ever, I had energy to live my life, my period resumed, I felt like a normal human again. For the first time in a lengthy amount of time I had control over food. I was excited because my body does amazing things and it deserves to be taken care of.
Recovery is a weird place to be. I feel like I have done so much work and should be able to say yeah, I’m cured, I love myself, I love my body, sunshine, rainbows…etc. But I’m not. It’s an ongoing process and from my experience it is not a linear one. Some days I still have those moments. I play the comparison game with other athletes on Instagram. The list goes on and on. But this time around, I have the tools to combat those feelings. I have the strength to listen to those negative voices and accept that they are happening but also accept that they aren’t true. This body has been through a lot. It lifts thousands of pounds in a week. It works hard day in and day out to achieve the big goals I have set for myself. It spends hours coaching athletes and helping them be the best that they can be. I love my body and I love myself. I am proud of my body. Even on those days where that negativity floods in and I start to resort back to old thinking and behavioral patterns I know that I am stronger than this disorder that ran rampant and controlled my life for years.
I am bigger than my eating disorder and I am worthy of all the self-love, body positivity, and carbohydrates (lots of carbohydrates).
CrossFit has been the steady constant in my life for 6 years and even though it brought me to my rock bottom, it also saved my life. I watched a documentary about the CrossFit Games on Netflix and I decided then and there I was going to try and make it to the CrossFit Games. I was going to be healthy. I was going to go with a well fueled body and I was going to spend every opportunity I could sharing my story along the way. This year I had the privilege of competing at North America East Semifinals on a team. Another stepping stone to a dream coming true and I am grateful for every single second that I was able to do what I love on such a big stage.
While we were there, I met a teenage girl who wanted to take a picture with me and the first thing she said to me was, “you are a bad ass and your legs are awesome.” Younger Chandler was embarrassed of her legs and wanted them to disappear. She equated smaller with better. She thought maybe if she could lose just another pound or two, she would really be able to love herself. As I compete and as I grow both as a person and athlete, I can see how that adversity has developed me into who I am today. It is not about being perfect every day but every day working to be better than the last and for that reason the best is still yet to come!