By Ashley Thompson
As a young girl, I fell in love with the world of competitive cheerleading. I got my first folding mats when I was 9 and from then on, any free time I had was spent flipping (or mostly just crashing) in the backyard. I remember being frustrated when my mom would call me in for dinner and when the sun would go down, because all I wanted to do was tumble.
Growing up, my family went to church and I remember inviting Jesus into my heart when I was 5. I genuinely felt like he had me in his hand protecting and guiding me my whole life. I remember having convictions as a kid that my friends didn’t seem to have.
Life was pretty much all about cheerleading and keeping together my “goodie two-shoes” reputation through high school.
I still remember the summer I developed my eating disorder – the summer going into 11th grade. I had been smaller than average my entire life and was not happy with the weight gain I was experiencing as a natural part of growing into my adult body.
I remember thinking I would do anything to stay small and live out my dream of cheering in college (collegiate level cheerleading is all acrobatics – flyers are typically pretty small people).
Food and exercise rapidly became an idol to me. It consumed most of my thought life. The more weight I lost, the more I craved the control I thought I had and I became very restrictive in my eating habits – every morning my first waking thought was “do I weigh less than I did last night?”
Each night after a few hours of team practice and most likely a long run, I would do all I could to go bed hungry. I remember feeling “out of control” if I caved and ate before bed.
Much of my junior year is a blur because I wasn’t very social at that point. I would decline invites to hang out with friends out of fear of food that might be there. This led to isolation and a toxic cycle of shame, which I kept hidden from anyone close to me.
Most people think of bulimia as binging and purging through vomiting, but I developed a cycle of binging, then “purging” by over-exercising. This is tricky for anyone to notice because healthy food and exercise are typically “healthy habits.”
I do remember frequently reading my Bible in high school, but not out of love and adoration for Jesus – mostly out of perceived obligation and trying to “earn God’s favor.” I would focus on “what am I supposed to do,” not really understanding God’s grace and how deep His love was for me.
In my senior year, God gave me the most amazing girlfriends who passionately loved the Lord. I joined a Bible study with them and God began to help me discern the thoughts and intentions of my heart. I knew I could hide my many issues from friends and family if I tried hard enough, but could not hide from God (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Even with my newfound fellowship and ability to understand more of scripture, I had not yet confessed my sin to anyone – not friends, not God, and not even to myself.
I held fast to my pattern of disordered eating and ended up making the college cheerleading team I had dreamed of making for years. I loved my team and my school.
Majoring in exercise science, I started my upper level courses the first semester of my freshman year. Funny enough, I learned that I had an eating disorder while sitting through a presentation in Sports Nutrition class. I checked off every symptom in my head as my professor read them off the slide.
I remember feeling horrified in my prideful heart to come to terms with the fact that I had a problem; that I was capable of wrongdoing.
It was soon after this experience that I told my mom about my problem. In a place of honest confession, I was surprised to find grace and truth. It was in this place of seeing my sin for the first time that I caught a glimpse of the unfailing love of Jesus, though I had not yet realized even a fraction of the width and depth of my sinful heart.
Cheer camp each summer was at a large, prestigious university and was a big deal. Our performance at cheer camp determined our place on the team for that season.
At the camp before my sophomore year at college, I remember realizing the vanity of my motives and the pride of my heart through my envy of others’ talent that I just did not have. I wanted to glorify God with the position I held on the team, but couldn’t seem to carry it out.
One night at camp I came across a scripture and, realizing my flawed motives, boldly prayed it for the year: Psalm 26:2 – “Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my mind and my heart.”
A few months later, God did see fit to examine my mind and my heart. I lost control of my weight, got dumped, earned my first ever failing grade, and didn’t make our “nationals team,” which was the greatest honor on the team.
For the first time in my life, I was failing at seemingly everything I was involved with. I could no longer maintain my “unblemished” reputation.
I realized in my bitterness how deeply flawed I was and how much I NEEDED Jesus Christ for life and salvation. I came to grips with the fact that I was not in control and did not have anything to offer God; everything I had was by grace and grace alone.
Slowly but surely, I began to seek my identity and find my security in Christ alone. I learned that if I could continually be in prayer and truly fix my eyes on Jesus, I’d stop craving everyone else’s approval.
My desires began to change. My circumstances hadn’t changed, but my heart was being transformed. I began to see the world in a new way, learning to love pleasing God in my interactions with others; realizing I was placed in the collegiate athletics community to share the Gospel and to treat others as more significant than myself. I learned to serve others by serving the Lord, and with a much different motivation. And food became a joy and a fuel to my body, not my greatest enemy.
When I made the team my senior year, I was told I was on the team to be an encourager to others, not for my talent level. My freshman year, this news would have crushed me. But, with newfound purpose, I was now overjoyed to take on this new role, being so much more confident through Christ.
I was surely being healed from my disordered eating patterns and, while I certainly wasn’t the body type any longer for a co-ed collegiate cheerleader, there was a reason I was there. Where the old me would have used my envy as fuel to the fire of my eating disorder, now I could freely rejoice in the success of my teammates and encourage them at what they were best at.
I was liberated. Freed from the bondage of my old ways (Romans 8:12-16).
Though I still battle my flesh nature, God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; He continues to grant me faith to believe Jesus.
He is trustworthy and holy and I am free and secure in the finished work of Jesus Christ. I trust that He will continue in this work of the spirit that He started in me, as He will in you, too (Phil. 1:6)!
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February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Month and if you have questions or need information about eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.
Ashley Thompson was the Employee Wellness Coordinator at Christian Care Ministry. She graduated in 2015 with a B.S. in Sport/Exercise Science. Ashley is a Certified Personal Trainer - NASM.