Maggie Werba: When Perfectionism Becomes Dangerous

In America, if you strive for perfection, you are seen as driven. As athletes, if you strive for perfection, you are seen as dedicated to your sport. As students, if you strive for perfection, you are seen as an intelligent, committed student.

But when does perfectionism become dangerous?

My whole life, I have been a perfectionist. Seriously, I cried when I got a 97% instead of 100% on a vocabulary exam in middle school. In high school, I was a straight-A student. I did double practices up to 3 days a week and trained more than anyone else on my team. I knew how to fuel myself properly and had two end goals: make Olympic Trials and compete in NCAA Division 1 swimming. However, I too had my demons –and college swimming exacerbated them. 

Growing up, I was a happy, smiley, intellectual kid. My perfectionism back then rarely hurt me, but instead kept me focused and driven. My desire to constantly get better and better definitely helped my swimming and my academics in middle school and high school. As I started to focus on swimming more and more, I started learning more about nutrition and how to fuel your body for peak athletic performance. At first, this need to fuel properly wasn’t an “issue.” I ate plenty in high school, enjoyed nights with friends eating fries, had birthday cakes and donuts at school, etc. My life had remained pretty constant for awhile, with having my same swim coach, same school district, same amazing family and home to go back to each night. I definitely had my fears, but I wasn’t battling too much internally.

Heading into freshman year of college, though, I had gotten this idea in my head from the media about how female athletes look bulky. There was already the stigma of “the freshman 15” and that female athletes can’t look like pretty girls in magazines and social media. I had this contorted vision in my head that boys would like me more if I looked “more like a girl” and less like an elite athlete. I wish I didn’t care about that, but at the time, I did.

On top of some of these media pressures, I also immediately struggled with college swimming. Having dual meets all the time was tough for me, I was overtraining, and from the start, I wasn’t eating enough. At first, it was truly because I could not keep up. We were training so much more than I was used to, I was walking across a huge campus every day putting in miles just to get to class, and I had never weight trained until college. When I noticed I was losing some weight, I knew I needed to eat more and eat more nutritious foods.

College is difficult though, especially as an athlete, because I noticed others eating whatever they wanted, drinking away the weekends, and not taking care of themselves. Yet, they would still beat me in the pool. It was so frustrating because to me. If you weren’t going to be 100% dedicated to the sport outside of the pool, why do you get to have success in the pool? It’s a very frustrating comparison game sometimes.

I decided in that moment that if I wasn’t going to be the best in the pool, I was going to be the best at taking care of myself –hey perfectionism nice of you to show up! I had this idea in my head that if I could resist the dining hall dessert every day, that I was a “better” athlete –even if it wasn’t showing in the pool. Sadly, it didn’t end at just skipping dessert.

I slowly started convincing myself that all sorts of foods were “unhealthy” if they had too much fat or sugar. I understand this disordered eating concept now “food rules.” The rules that I made up in my head began to control me every day. If I ate a “bad food” I would feel immense anxiety because I worried that it would impact my performance at practice the next morning. The anxiety, along with hunger pangs because I wasn’t eating enough, would keep me up every night. I wasn’t doing this to lose weight, I was doing this to feel like I had some control.

When I was a kid and the weather turned warm, I was always so excited for Sunday night Dairy Queen with my family. Now in college, if friends invited me out for milkshakes, I would say no because my thoughts were too anxiety producing to enjoy it! I lived in fear and anxiety instead of making memories. I don’t have many regrets, but that’s a big one. As my disordered eating got worse, my body started to struggle with digesting much of anything, and I almost didn’t get to go to Big Tens because the night before I was writhing in my dorm room in pain from my stomach issues.

After the worst championship meet of my life (memories were great, my swim times were not), I thought that the solution would be to continue striving for more and more perfection in my eating. My intentions were never to make myself so sick that I was near dying, or crying for help, or anything like that –I truly had this twisted messed up idea in my head of what “perfect” was. That “off season” (which in D1 Swimming is basically the same as in-season), I would run after weight sessions in the morning in order “to earn food” later. I thought I wasn’t burning enough calories lifting weights (even though we had swim practice later that afternoon). I would then go to the dining hall to eat some snacks, but still focused on only protein and was afraid of fat.

When one of my teammates told me he was concerned with the amount of food on my plate, I realized that maybe there was something deeply wrong going on. But, realizing something was wrong still wasn’t enough to get help. At the end of the day, swimming no longer felt like the thing I was “perfect” at or “the best” at, so I clung on to my disordered eating to maintain a sense of control.

You may be wondering, did anyone try to get me help? Well, kind of. Of course my family was concerned, but when they asked if something was wrong, I didn’t actually know something was wrong yet. My coaches definitely worried about the fact that I wasn’t getting best times and was tired all the time, but they didn’t necessarily know how to connect me to the proper resources. The “team doctor” tried to have me see a nutritionist that was super strict about counting pieces of toast, for example, and that was a terrible experience.

It goes to show that most adults in collegiate athletics are not trained to deal with the mental overload that student athletes cope with on a daily basis. We didn’t have a team nutritionist for the swim team, either, and the school only had two sports psychologists, so it’s difficult to see them when you have 20 hours of practice, 20 hours of class, meets every weekend, and there’s 500 other athletes trying to see them, too.

So, by the end of my freshman year, I hadn’t gotten any kind of “help,” but it was noticeable to many that there was a struggle going on. My coaches threatened to not let me compete at Olympic Trials that summer if I didn’t stop losing weight (I am thankful they did that). So, I did the bare minimum to maintain my weight and compete at Trials.

After Olympic Trials, I went home for the rest of summer. That gave me all of July and August to rediscover the comforts of home, and to rely on my family’s cooking to help me remember that food isn’t just fuel, but also a way to show love and something to enjoy. I trained a lot and put on some much-needed weight. I now knew how much food my body needed to “feel good” –but I had to count calories to get to that point. Counting my calories seemed like a good idea to make sure I was getting enough at first, but it also made me hyper-aware of what I was putting into my body.

Sophomore year, I actually hit some of my best times again. I trained well, I had fun, but I still was consumed by thoughts of food –worry filled me if I went over my “calorie limit,” and if practice was a recovery day, I thought I didn’t deserve more food. I probably appeared to be “better” to most people throughout my sophomore year, but I definitely wasn’t fully “recovered.” 

Athletic and medical personnel often want to find a “reason” for why something doesn’t go as planned. They would say, this girl didn’t get a best time because she spent the weekend drinking, this guy didn’t lift as much weight because he didn’t get enough sleep last night, etc. The constant push to always be on your A-game at every practice, every competition, while also being a student first is brutal. As college athletes, we need to at least be provided with the mental health resources to help cope with those pressures. Two school sports psychologists was not enough. One shared nutritionist for an entire athletic program was not enough.

Thankfully, at my university, we had one athletic trainer that was my lifeline, the one that encouraged me to get real help, and knew me well enough to know what kind of help I needed. She encouraged me to checkout an eating disorder clinic, and it wasn’t until after my sophomore year when I went to a therapist with specific skills regarding eating disorders, that I truly healed. 

Therapy might have a stigma to it, but I genuinely think it saved me from years and years of stress and anxiety around food. Therapy works as well as the energy that you put into it. By the end of my sophomore year, I truly wanted to get better. In therapy, I learned about the reasons behind why I had these fears and worked hard to dispel the rumors that my mind told me about myself! Once I got to the root of those fears, I did a lot of work on my self-love and self-worth.

Self-love and self-worth are not necessarily synonymous with “elite D1 athlete striving for perfection.” My self-worth for years had been built on being the best swimmer, improving times, and training to failure. When I stopped being able to do that, my self-worth dwindled. The thing is, self-worth SHOULD BE synonymous with elite athlete! We should be allowed to value ourselves and love ourselves even when a practice didn’t go well, or we didn’t lift as heavy as usual, or we didn’t get a best time.

Building my self-worth was the last phase of my transition from being “in recovery” to being “recovered.” You see, self-love is always necessary. I found it harder to mentally and physically beat myself down when I loved myself for who I was –not a number on a scale, not a six pack or flexed bicep in the mirror, not a tight pair of skinny jeans or a perfect bikini body –but a human with a generous soul and kind spirit. Self-love is something I need to practice for the rest of my life.

One of the hardest parts of recovery was that ever present question of “what will other people think of me?” Especially in our times of social media, where we are hyperaware of ourselves versus others, we might think that other people will notice every single pound we put on our body. I realized that those who truly love me will love me no matter what I look like.

After another six months of going to therapy and dedicating myself to MYSELF, I felt like a new me –a version of that happy, smiley, intellectual kid who still had some perfectionist in her, but also had a heck of a lot of self-worth and perseverance (and an amazing family and friend support) holding her up and reminding her of her value. It is so important to be able to find your worth in more than just your sport. It is difficult when your sport consumes you 24/7, but it is so important. I hope that in the future, elite athletes will also find the time and space to take care of themselves.

That’s why now, three years later, I am so passionate about sharing my story and showing people love through food. My family showed me that throughout my whole childhood, and then I lost it. But I found it again and now it burns even brighter. For that, I am ever grateful and hope that my story is one of hope for anyone who may need it in this moment.

Feel free to reach out to me at @maggiebakesgrace on Instagram if you ever need to talk to someone. If you need help in regards to disordered eating, I encourage you to check out NEDA at nationaleatingdisorders.org for resources and support.

Maggie Werba is a retired swimmer who swam at Olympic Trials in 2016 and then for three years on scholarship at the University of Minnesota. She is now healthier and happier, getting married next year, working out for fun, playing on water polo team, and cooking yummy food for herself, friends, and family.