Joint CEO of Women’s Sport Trust, Hapkido Master and budding powerlifter Tammy Parlour gives a searingly honest account of her own experience with anorexia and bulimia, and how falling in love with powerlifting has helped her to express her own strength
Last year I qualified for the 2016 English Powerlifting Championships as a ‘Masters’ athlete, but I’m currently 200g heavier than I need to be in order to be eligible to compete in my weight category.
For the past 35 years I have dedicated myself exclusively to Hapkido, a Korean martial art. I’m a Master with my own school and remain committed to my art and students. But recently I let myself broaden my sporting interests and found that I simply love lifting heavy things. I get immense joy from feeling my shoulders work when I bench-press; my long limbs put me at a disadvantage when squatting but they make up for it on the deadlift. Within Hapkido my focus is primarily on others’ development. Powerlifting, on the other hand, is all about me – being strong – being in my body – and I love it. Sport can show us what we’re capable of and the extraordinary things our bodies can do.
There are some sports that classify competitors in order to match people against others of their own size. I am categorised by my gender (female), my age (currently approaching 46), and my weight (under debate). It is generally considered an advantage to be the largest individual in a weight category. Many athletes will work hard to lose weight through restrictive diets or dehydration prior to a morning weigh-in to meet the required weight class.
Back in November, in my first competition, I lifted in the under 72kg class. High demand for places in the regional competitions has meant that I haven’t been able to compete since – but my scores make me eligible for the 2016 English Championships in August.
I tend to keep an eye on my weight, but lately I noticed that I am weighing heavier than I was last year. It’s not much, but on some days it’s enough to slightly put me over the 72kg cut-off.
Sport allows us to view a women’s body differently. It was one of the things I found so appealing about the London Olympics. I loved seeing female athletes and women’s sport properly for the first time, and relished how the public seemed to accept women of all different shapes and sizes. It wasn’t about how women looked, it was about how they performed. I saw tall, powerful, strong women being appreciated for what they were capable of and that was intoxicating. For those few weeks I didn’t feel ‘other’. Society has all sorts of issues with strong women – particular if you’re gay, as it often gets blurred with homophobia. But for a few weeks there were strong women everywhere pushing against those gender stereotypes.
I recognised the character traits of many of those high-performing women – the drive, the perfectionism, the ability to tolerate discomfort. I’m a powerful, strong, driven women, too, and I like to be in control. At its best that’s enabled me to excel at a sport, build a business, launch a charity; but sometimes it can also come out sideways. Those psychological traits that have been the bedrock of many female athletes’ Olympic success, in me, came out in the form of anorexia when I was 19.
What pushed me over that edge? I’ve pondered this for more than 20 years and am yet to come up with a definitive answer. Was it that I got noticed and congratulated for that first bit of (unintentional) weight loss? Was it that I was struggling with being an immigrant or the precariousness of being from a family that suffered multiple bankruptcies? Was it about being a closeted lesbian living and studying in the American Bible belt? Was it that I was about to lose my right to remain in America and would be separated from my family for good? Perhaps it was all these things – perhaps it was none of them. Anorexia doesn’t have a single diagnosis; I suspect all these things were at play and more. Acceptance and body image may have fanned the flames at the start – but then it became nothing about those things.
I was never hospitalised or directly confronted by any loved ones, nor did I ever receive any treatment. But I lost enough weight to stop having periods and started gaining/losing hair in all the wrong places. I became quite proficient at hiding eating and avoiding mealtimes. Even today, I can remember the caloric content of almost every food. For the most part, I knew I was ill. I was also acutely aware that the only person who could save me from this disease was myself. After two years, I fought myself out of anorexia, but not well enough, flip-flopping over to the sister disease – bulimia. When I was anorexic I had control of everything; there was comfort in that, there was order. As a bulimic I felt totally and utterly out of control, my life was crumbling and I was desperate.
Relief from self-hatred and life in general happened at two points: (1) mid-binge when I was so immersed that it was impossible to think of anything else, and (2) after the pack of laxatives had done their job and there was hope that the cycle might not need to be repeated again. It wasn’t until age 24 that I finally broke free from both illnesses. That said, I believe eating disorders are no different to any other addiction – which means that I will always be ‘in recovery’ and know that I have developed some psychological skills and habits that enable me to be a survivor.
I started martial arts when I was 13. I was a Hapkido black belt before my eating disorders, through them and afterwards. It had no direct hand in my illness or relief from it, although it has been a reassuring structure in my life for as long as I can remember. Powerlifting is a new friend, though. It brings me a new joy in the strength of my body. But as I look down at the scales I can see that I am 200g over my weight category. What am I meant to do with that?
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – only 30 to 40 per cent of people ever fully recover. I’m grateful to be part of that minority, and as co-founder of the Women’s Sport Trust am utterly committed to the belief that sportswomen should not be expected to conform to stereotypes of beauty or femininity.
Sports that tend to place an emphasis on an athlete’s diet, appearance, size, and/or weight requirements offer a unique challenge. Female athletes can be pulled in two very real and different directions. When the pressures of competition are added to society’s emphasis on thinness, the risks increase for athletes to develop disordered eating.
Surviving eating disorders has perhaps made me more aware than most of the influence of my environment and the people I surround myself with. I have an excellent coach who also works with the GB Paralympic Powerlifting team. I can talk openly to him about all my concerns. I trust him. And he knows how to manage my perfectionist tendencies. He gets the most from me without adding additional stress – and he knows I put high expectations on myself. He’ll be with me at the English Champs, or at my next regional event in whatever weight category I might be in. “Most competitors your height would be heavier,” he tells me. It has no judgment or expectation to it – it’s a fact.
As a recovering anorexic this weight restriction presents me with a potential risk. Will it tip me in to some of my old patterns of behaviour? Will it lead me to judge myself as less than, because I am more than on the scales? Actually no. And in some ways I surprise myself with this.
The 200g that puts me over an arbitrary weight category has significance. It’s a reminder of where I’ve come from and how I’ve survived. It also means I’m probably getting some changes in muscle structure, some strength adaptations … and that’s a good thing.
I love that I can be powerful – as women we need to let ourselves be strong.
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