Kay Hansen is no stranger to facing adversity. But unbeknownst to the world, the 22-year old UFC prospect was dealing with something much more difficult than fighting inside a cage when she withdrew from her scheduled matchup with Cheyanne Buys at UFC Vegas 22 in March.
In her own words, this is Hansen’s story of awareness, acceptance, and the hope of finding answers ahead of her hometown matchup with Jasmine Jasudavicius at UFC 270 on Jan. 22.
Content warning: This story contains graphic details about alleged sexual abuse and eating disorders that may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.
I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for a while. It’s something that I’ve struggled with outside of fighting too, but being in a sport that revolves around feeling and looking at peak athleticism, and around weight, I just let it get out of hand.
I unfortunately had to pull out of my fight in March because everything was just crashing in on me health-wise. If anyone has followed my career since I was 18, I’ve had 14 fights, six pro boxing matches. I’ve just been non-stop fighting and making weight, but I was young and I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I developed really bad habits. I wasn’t eating anything, but also training super hard two to three times a day, so I just had to put my health first for once in my career because it all caught up to me.
I’ve never pulled out of a fight before. I’ve fought with a lot of issues going on, whether it was personal life, or physical, but I kept getting ear infections, and [other] random infections. I was always lightheaded, I had zero energy, bruises and black eyes that weren’t healing for a month or so, and I just always felt drained. I was getting really tiny, but everything was also inflamed.
I just felt so sh*tty and it got to the point where my coaches started noticing. Two to three weeks out from the fight they said, ‘How about you take a few days off?’ Me, in my head [I said], ‘I have a fight soon, I can’t take any days off.’ It just got to the point where everything started crashing down. I was getting sick, I was always lightheaded, I was getting dizzy. I found out I was severely anemic, I was Vitamin D deficient. I lost my period. My whole body was just like, ‘We’re done,’ to the point where I physically couldn’t train.
I’ve always prided myself on pushing through. I thought pulling out would be weak, but it got to the point where I couldn’t really deny it.
This is going to sound stupid to some people, but I had to relearn how to eat. It’s called an eating disorder for a reason: There are disordered thoughts behind that. I got to the point where I was convinced that I didn’t need to eat, and eating would make me blow up. That I’d get big, I’d miss weight. I never had a problem making weight, so I don’t know why that was a fear in my head, but it was just a lot mentally to try and rewire.
I’m an athlete. I need fuel for my body, and I never looked at it that way. I literally had to reverse diet. I had to take off a month-and-a-half with zero physical activity. Mentally and physically having to take a step back like that, it was really hard. My body was literally learning how to digest food, trying to fix all of my hormones back to normal, my blood work and everything that was showing there. I had to take supplements and I’m still improving everything. Everything’s not perfect, but right now I’m actually fueling my body and learning to be OK with that.
[This has been an issue] on and off since I was 18 or 19. Growing up as a woman in general, with social media being more of a thing, you look at a lot of people on social media and you want to look like that and be like that, especially when you’re a young girl. I fell into that a little bit. I don’t know, it was just kind of my defense mechanism.
Whenever things in my personal life weren’t going well, not eating kind of came with that.
I was sexually assaulted and raped by a family member from 16 years old to 19 years old. During that time, I was still training full-time. I was actually fighting professionally at the time. It was a pretty traumatic thing [to experience] while trying to be a normal person and function normal. When I was 19, I ended up breaking out of that situation and that toxic environment. But like I said, it’s always been a defense mechanism. I don’t know where it stems from, but that’s a big part of it, just trying to accept my body and be the most attractive physically as I can to cope with other insecurities that came with that trauma.
I still struggle. A couple of weeks ago, I had a bad couple of days and I didn’t want to eat, but I’m trying to force myself to eat when I don’t want to. It’s not something that’s a quick fix. I’m talking to sports [psychologists] and therapists to help me because I am a professional athlete, and I want to make sure I’m fully functioning as one, and as just a normal person in general. But for me, it’s been kind of cool seeing my progress in all of those aspects.
I’m still talking to people about this to get to the root of everything, but my outlet was always training and fighting. All of this stupid and horrible sh*t was going on in my life, but when I went to the gym, and I’m getting ready for a fight, none of that mattered. I’m doing what I Iove to do. That was always my outlet.
And with that comes the bad guidance part — bad weight cut guidance, distilled water loads and sh*t like that that f*cks up your body, and then just certain coaches [saying], ‘Just don’t eat, you’ll be fine.’ I didn’t have all bad guidance, but by the time I got good guidance, it was already ingrained in me so much that my personal life stuff on top of trying to ‘be a good athlete’ and not cut too much weight, cut out stuff too early, it all just compiled into this big thing.
I let it get out of hand, but that’s just the stubbornness, the fighter in me who wants to just say, ‘I can do this no matter what.’ But it was the first time in my career where I was forced to put my physical and mental health first.
It took me a long time to get there, and that’s why I’m vocal and honest about things, because maybe if I would’ve heard this last year, I’d [think], ‘Maybe I should stop.’
I know this is a problem, not just with women in the fitness industry or men in the fitness industry, but little girls growing up who aren’t athletes. It’s a common thing, and that’s something that I’ve learned going through this: There are a lot of girls, especially, with the same issues as me, but they just don’t talk about it. So maybe if I talk about it, someone will be like, ‘I’m doing that,’ or, ‘I notice my sister is doing that,’ because if I would’ve heard that when I was going through everything, maybe it would’ve helped me.
Facing your problems is not fun, especially your mental problems, the past you’ve been through and breaking that down, finding out why you’re doing certain things that are reactions. That sh*t’s not fun, at all. But this past year, I’ve had no choice but to dive into those. For me, I can kind of be open and talk about it now. It’s not something that I’m just storing away and hiding, even from myself.
[This entire process] has just lifted a weight off my shoulders. Not like I was hiding something, but I don’t know — I was always tricking myself into saying my eating disorder wasn’t even an eating disorder, like I was just dieting or I was just doing what I’m supposed to do for my sport. I made excuses for it without even realizing it. I needed my body to completely break down on me for me to listen to it, unfortunately. But I think I’ve finally learned to appreciate what my body has been through, and what I’ve put it through, and how it’s been able to bounce back. I’m the strongest and healthiest I’ve ever been in my whole life right now, and it’s taken a lot to mentally and physically get back here.
Editor’s note: All quotes edited for clarity and concision.
Checkpoint provides resources and support for mental health awareness around the world. Several resources for survivors in the United States can be found below.
Mental Health America: 1-800-273-8255
The Eating Disorder Foundation: 303-322-3373
National Eating Disorders Association: 1-800-931-2237
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255