My journey: from self-loathing party girl to powerful personal trainer
My skewed relationship with food started at a young age. I grew up a chubby kid and I coasted through elementary school with my outgoing personality and creative imagination. I got made fun of for my weight and visibly hit puberty before most the girls in my class. I had a muscular build, frizzy hair, and a complete lack of fashion sense. I would overhear the other kids talking about big I was or how I needed to wear a bra and shave my legs. Even though it hurt my feelings, I developed a tough exterior. I'd make jokes to my friends and pretend not to hear them. I acted like there wasn't anything wrong with me and that they're hurtful words could roll right off my back. Denying my true feelings lead to stuffing them at home. I'd go home after school, veg out on the couch, and devour a whole package of Oreos. Being that I was only 10 years old, I didn't understand what I was doing. It became a robotic habit and I gained more and more weight.
Meanwhile, I was frequently coming down with colds and strep throat. Doctors told my mom that I probably had food allergies and encouraged a complete overhaul of my diet. She didn't want me to have a negative understanding of food or body image, bless her soul, so she gently brought up the idea of an elimination diet for health. She made sure to always tell me I wasn't fat and that it was strictly to find out if I was allergic to anything. I remember thinking it was the end of the world that I couldn't have Chips Ahoy and Taco Bell. It felt like I was only "allowed" to eat chicken and broccoli. I couldn't stick to the plan for long. It was too strict and made me want to rebel and eat junk food even more. I look back and now I understand that food was my coping mechanism for the stress and anxiety I felt at school. This coping mechanism followed me into adult life.
As for the exercise part of the equation, I didn't hate it. I remember enjoying being physically active; I loved riding my bike and rollerskating. I never excelled at any sports because I'd get discouraged and would compare myself to the other kids on the team. I was afraid to really put myself out there and fail. I didn't want to give kids another reason to make fun of me. Additionally, I hated running with every ounce of my being. Because of P.E. class, I thought of it as a torturous exercise that I was forced to do. I thought it was the only way to be healthy and in shape. I was terrible at it; I was always the last one to cross the finish line. Being a slug made me feel like I wasn't meant to be active or athletic, so I gave up on the possibility. Aside from failed attempts at basketball and cheer leading (you didn't have to try out at my middle school), I stuck with artistic hobbies like playing clarinet, singing along to Third Eye Blind in the mirror, and cutting out pictures of dolphins from National Geographic.
The summer before 8th grade, I discovered boys and what it felt like to have a crush on someone. Thanks to the music video for "Hit Me Baby, One More Time" and YM Magazine, I knew for a fact that boys wouldn't like me if I didn't look like the picture perfect bodies I saw on glossy pages and screens. It would've been great to have "body positive" social media accounts to follow, but those were nonexistent. I wasn't exposed to any polarizing standards of beauty. Ultimately, I ended up figuring out how calories worked, obsessively riding my parents' old stationary bike, and doing sit-ups in my room everyday. I ate nothing but salads and saltine crackers for the whole summer. I completely transformed myself: I lost 40lb, started wearing make-up, and begged my mom to let me buy some over-priced clothing from Abercrombie. I had achieved exactly what I set out to do. Somehow, I still saw the frizzy haired, dolphin-loving, "big-boned" girl in the mirror.
From that point on, my relationship with food, body image, and exercise was warped. High school was a bumpy road; I put all of my self-worth into my appearance because people had started praising me so much for it. I nearly forgot about all other interests or hobbies and put everything into maintaining my weight and physical appearance. It became addicting to be frequently complimented for being attractive and I was finally getting the attention that I had always fantasized about from boys. However, surface compliments are just that. They simply skim the surface and offer temporary validation. They didn't deeply effect my self-worth because my looks were not something I truly found value in. Therefore, along with my weight, my self-esteem fluctuated. I look back and realize that I never did anything wholeheartedly or with full force. The reason for this was because of the constant body image chatter berating my brain. I would half-ass almost everything because these thoughts consumed me. Along with this, I would often starve myself or eat very little for a few days and then binge because I was so hungry. My brain wasn't getting the nutrition it desperately wanted in order to grow.
I had friends going through the same battles and being open about their struggles, but I was so full of shame I couldn't even come clean and admit it to those closest to me. I completely internalized my hurt and pretended as if there was nothing going on with me. I continuously justified my actions to myself and convinced myself I would eventually get it under control and it was healthy and normal to behave this way. Even when my mom confronted me out of concern (there were a few times I dropped significant amounts of weight) I denied everything. My self-esteem issues spilled over into my early romantic relationships and nearly every aspect of life.
Going into college at Arizona State University with a complete lack of awareness regarding my own strengths and weaknesses was utterly confusing. I was into music, art, and writing but never thought of any of those as a something I could make into a job. To remedy this confusion and sense of worthlessness, I partied quite a bit and skated through my English Lit program. Like most college freshmen, I changed my major multiple times before settling into something I wasn't crazy about. Nothing ever resonated with me and I felt like I was an outsider because I couldn't figure out what I was meant to do. I'm certain that my lack of self confidence played a part in this. I never wanted to take risks and constantly doubted my own abilities, so I never really threw myself into the academic experience. No career options jumped out at me and I saw college as a time to be social. One quick look through my Facebook photo albums from that time and it's evident what my priorities were.
While in college, I had become bored with my fitness routine. It consisted of doing the elliptical and a few sit-ups. So I purchased a popular at-home fitness program. This is how I found my love for lifting weights. I liked the process of learning new skills everyday and how it was always a different workout. I built a little muscle and dropped some pounds. I had never thought I could thoroughly enjoy exercising, but I found myself excited to wake up and push play. However, I didn't stick with it for more than a few months. I didn't have enough education surrounding physiology, anatomy, and movement. I believed what I read in magazines and on random websites. Something in the back of my mind still told me that exercise was punishment and that if it wasn't painful, it wasn't progressive. I continued to sabotage myself over and over again.
The next few years consisted of going from one extreme to another with my exercise and health. I worked against my body instead of with it. I tried every popular diet out there while pounding my body with HIIT (high intensity interval training) everyday. I even went vegan for over a year under the guise of being an animal activist and health nut (I may have also watched one too many Netflix documentaries). My brain couldn't grasp the fact that it was disordered eating and not out of concern for my health. I hadn't dealt with my messed up relationship with food and my body image issues from my childhood. Enter: Crossfit.
Crossfit came into my life at the perfect time and it was my next experience with serious weight lifting. It was as if the raptures had opened up to a whole new world of different body types and amazing athletic abilities. I felt like I was meant to be there. I was happy to embrace my muscular build and be around like-minded people. I became obsessed and got wrapped up in the community, the culture, and the workouts. Obviously, I was hardcore into Paleo as well. Another way to control my food? I'll take it!...However, I must say that the Paleo template was my first real introduction with eating for nourishment and performance while learning to feel my body's response to what I was putting in it. It was a wonderful starting point on the road to fixing my relationship with food. Unfortunately, as much as I adored my new love affair with Paleo and Crossfit, it clashed with the party-girl mentality and social life I was still desperately clinging to. I wasn't practicing what I preached and I was still abusing my body in many ways.
After using exercise as punishment for overeating and partying, I began to lose that light and view it as torture. Forcing myself to do high intensity interval workouts while sweating out the alcohol and shame from the night before started to make me dread my workouts. I'd push myself so hard at Crossfit that I became sick. I didn't know what "over-training" was at the time, but I was certainly doing it. For me, there was no middle ground and it was go hard or get the hell out. I lost the ferocious enjoyment I had once felt for hitting the weights....But there was something in the back of my mind telling me that exercise played a role in my life for a reason.
I had worked in the restaurant industry for many years. Not everyone succumbs to the lifestyle that's generally associated with that gig, but I certainly did. A few times a week I'd party, late-night binge, and then punish myself in the gym the next day. It never occurred to me that that routine could be part of the reason I felt so tormented. Mostly everyone around me did the same thing and seemed content. I had graduated college and continued to work in the restaurant industry after a few internships and job offers didn't pan out. I pretended to be interested in various career options but nothing ever felt right. Although going to Crossfit was the best part of my day and gave me the illusion that I was doing something productive, I couldn't grasp the fact that I was coasting. I had no real purpose or driving force connecting me with my life. This lack of purpose was destroying my relationship with myself. I never felt physically dependent on alcohol, but I got wrapped up in the social aspect of going out to bars and parties as a distraction from my feelings of inadequacy and boredom. The days following a night of drinking and debauchery, I would feel lost, out of control, and worthless. I'd belittle myself. I'd mentally swing punches at myself. Deep down, I knew I was capable of living a different life but my debilitating fear had boxed me in. It seemed as if the war going on in my head was coming to a climax and I needed to make a decision. I had gone down a rabbit hole and seen visions of my future self; it scared the crap out of me. I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and get rid of my victim mindset. I came to terms with the fact that these emotions were created by my thoughts. There is one thing in this world that I'm in complete control of and it is my own thoughts and thus, the actions that come out of them.
I had known what I wanted to do for quite some time...I'd gone as far as ordering a study program to become a Certified Personal Trainer. Self-doubt had shoved it aside and it was collecting cobwebs in my closet. I questioned myself and my abilities to help others, but I knew that physical exercise was something that made me feel like my true self. I wanted to share this revolution with everyone. I loved the way feeling strong and powerful felt; watching new muscles develop, nailing a new type of lift, or beating an old record. Exercise allowed me to consistently amaze myself with my body's physical capabilities. As someone with low self-esteem, new feelings of confidence and empowerment were like little waves I finally thought I could catch. Maybe I couldn't stand up on the board yet, but just getting into the water felt refreshing. I also noticed the cognitive benefits of exercise. I'd feel inspired and have all my best ideas during or after a workout. I would light up and speak passionately when lifting or movement came up in conversation with others. I would read fitness blogs, listen to fitness podcasts, and obsessively watch YouTube videos in all of my free time. I'm certain my non-gym-going friends were sick of me talking about it. Miraculously, I got fed up with fear and self-doubt. I got sick of hearing the voices in my head and didn't seem to be on my team. Why couldn't I do it? What was stopping me? I knew that I needed to lean into my insecurities and take some action. So, exactly one year ago, I took some action.
One morning, after waking up hungover and depressed, I took a leap of faith and signed up to attend the School of Exercise Training and Science in Phoenix, Arizona. I had been feverishly googling the school for months...Going back and fourth in my head about whether or not I was cut out for it. I knew I needed something in-person and hands-on to keep me motivated. I needed something to show up for and get me out of my comfort zone. The first day of class felt like the beginning of something huge for me. Learning about our amazing, adaptable bodies thrilled me to no end. I was excited to wake up in the morning, go to class, and put the work in. I felt feelings of ambition, vigor, and eagerness that I had never felt before. I was driven and I knew the fitness industry was my calling. I saw physical activity and movement in a whole new light; it was something to make our own and use as a tool to empower and motivate ourselves. It didn't have to be torture. Upon graduation, I got an additional certification with the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer. The whole experience was the single best adult decision I've ever made.
Now that I'm armed with knowledge of exercise physiology, proper nutrition, and much more self-awareness, I'm grateful for my personal struggles. Although I'm proud of the body that I've built, I don't put all of my self-worth into my physical appearance. I've rediscovered my burning passion for creativity, music, and writing. I've fostered a new purpose in life and love of helping others reach their goals. I've found a new level of confidence and absolute content with the person I've become and the person I'll continue to grow into.
I'm proud to say that even though it sometimes tempts me to tango, I don't dance with the devil of disordered eating. I've done the mental work to help me overcome using it as a coping mechanism. I know how important balance is and that we don't need to choose between one extreme or the other. I can go out with loved ones, be carefree, and truly enjoy the little things in life... while still maintaining a body that I'm proud of. Sometimes I eat for pure pleasure and sometimes for pure nourishment. Overall, I want to eat food that nourishes my body and makes me feel energized because I know that I need to feel the best I can in order to show up for others and help them to do the same.
I've learned that approaching our own health and fitness is a never-ending journey. As we age, we must adapt and change our health and fitness routines in whichever way our bodies demand. Our bodies are smart; make no mistake that IT WILL demand it. It's possible to fall in love with movement but we need to find our own flow. There doesn't need to be a box we put ourselves in or a mold we try to fit.