Breaking the Cycle: My Fitness Story

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to shame anyone of any body type, shape, or size. These are my own personal experiences and past and present inner dialogue about my own body. People who have shared similar stories with me about their personal journey also inspired this blog. Please note that this could trigger anyone with body dysmorphia or eating disorders. I am not holding back in this post.

Straight out of an ’80s sitcom subplot-line, I’m the fat girl you run into from high school who lost the weight and gained self-confidence. What these 30 minute episodes don’t show is a pattern I’ve recognized within myself as many other women I’ve known.

When you go through a major physical transformation, your mindset doesn’t always follow. You still see that same body in the mirror, regardless of what others see. Just losing weight doesn’t improve your low self-esteem. I learned this the hard way.

You won’t be happy with your appearance until you’ve repaired your mental/emotional relationship with your body. On the journey to finding body peace, your body fluctuates along with the highs and lows of your mindset. It’s a vicious circle—toxic to both the body and mind—that far too many women get trapped in.

My experiences of finding fitness echo a lot of others’ stories I’ve heard. They’ve gone become a victim of the cycle themselves, struggling to find a balance between extremes. This is my story.

Growing up, I was obese. People say I carried it well on my 5’7″ frame, but there’s no hiding the fact that I was once extremely unhealthy. Not just for a short stint, but for the majority of my life. My weight gain began when I was in kindergarten and snowballed into high school. Despite being a competitive dancer, volleyball and basketball player, and shot put and discus thrower, the weight just stayed.

Since I was always on the go with rehearsals, practices, competitions, and games, it was easiest to turn to fast food for a quick meal. Of course, that was the reason the scale never budged. But, I was uneducated about nutrition and how to live a healthy lifestyle. When I felt upset, I would turn to food. It was a comfort, but making my health worse.

I was called names to my face and behind my back. Fat, ugly, disgusting, and worse. I still remember overhearing one fellow fourth grader say, “Rachelle’s so fat, she looks pregnant. If I were that fat, I’d kill myself.” Kids can be really, really mean. That’s normal. The problem was, I allowed comments like this to define my identity—which became my normal.

I was the “Fat Girl” and accepted it as my role. I dreaded the mile run, the public weigh-ins in the common hall of my grade school, changing in the locker room for practice, semi-formals that no one asked me to, trying on new dance costumes with my slender dancer counterparts, and pretty much anything that brought attention to my body.

I hated it. I wanted it so desperately to change. But wanting something doesn’t get you anywhere unless you put in the work. I slumped into depression, hoping that my fairy godmother would drop by and *POOF* I’d be alluring and attractive to my high school crushes. I was convinced that I would be happy as soon as I lost some weight, because others would perceive me differently.

One day I had that “aha” moment—a pivotal instant that marked the turning point to make a change to in my lifestyle. Mine happened in December 2010. Every Christmas, my grandparents buy the grandkids in my family the same gift, with minor variations in color or style. These gifts have been everything from a photo of us to a blanket. That particular Christmas, it was pajama pants. As we all opened the box and searched for the pair marked with our initials, I saw the biggest ones and knew immediately they were mine. My girl cousins each received a small or medium, and the pants fit perfectly. I put mine on, and they fell right off of me. They were laughably huge. My cousins and I joked about it. But to me, this was no laughing matter.

I checked the size: XXXL. An XL would have been sufficient. Maybe you think, “Wouldn’t that make you feel good to know they were too big?” Nope. Instead, it made me think. This is how people see me. Obese enough to warrant buying a size that was special ordered. I couldn’t continue looking like that.

I immediately went on a mission to switch from my fast food trips to eating lighter at home, getting salad bar at lunch, and dedicating my free time after school to exercising. I jogged, did work out DVDs, and counted calories like it was my job. I skipped my beloved Diet Coke in favor of green tea and coffee, and swapped my time wasting activities during gaps between classes for runs and Jillian Michaels. In four months, I lost 45 pounds. People noticed. My once snug clothing started fitting loosely (take note of my baggy uniform khakis from private school, second picture from the right). I was smiling and talking more, now less afraid to draw attention to myself. Plus, I was getting compliments about my discipline and my new appearance.

Everyone I came in contact with said I looked “like a whole new person.” I was barely recognizable as the Fat Girl they knew for years. While I looked like a Whole New Person and outwardly acted like it, I was more like half a new person. My body looked different, but my perception of myself was the same. Everyone was so proud of me, but I still saw the imperfections plaguing my body. I’d pick apart my “flaws” in the mirror, vowing to lose those last few pounds. I thought I could be happy if I just could become skinny.

The scale number plateaued in mid-2012. I didn’t know how to keep seeing my weight go down. I was introduced to strength training for the first time by a co-worker, who suggested giving it a go. I was clueless about the weight room. What I did know was that cardio and long work outs burnt calories, and that my calorie intake would determine pounds lost. If I expended more calories than I took in, the scale would change. I took the idea, and I ran with it.

Obsessed with the short-lived high I got from seeing the numbers go down, I started exercising 5 days a week lifting for 3 and hopping on a treadmill or elliptical for a minimum of a half hour. I lowered my daily calorie intake from 1700 to 1200. But every couple of weeks, I would see the same number, or worse, a pound or two higher. It threw me into a fit of rage at myself. I wasn’t working hard enough for this. I slacked and let myself down. I needed to ramp up activity and lower my calories.

So a half hour of cardio turned into an hour every Sunday through Saturday, and 1200 calories turned into 1000. Then to and hour and a half exercise and 800 calories. Then to two hours and 500 calories. Eventually, I was in the gym for three hours, seven days a week. I would punish myself for exceeding 300 calories and subsist on coffee and fat burners only. Some weeks I just didn’t eat, because I knew it would make that scale budge. At 5’7″ I weighed 118 pounds. I slid into a size 2 with ease, which was a big change from the 16 I started in. Finally, they called me thin and skinny. But, I still saw the same body I began with in the mirror.

I was in total denial about the condition of my health. I was miserable, tired all of the time, having trouble focusing, avoiding social situations with food temptations, lost my period, and nearly passed out in some of my classes from not eating. My body took any fat it could to use it to burn as energy, and my face showed it. While I had been receiving psychiatric care for my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression, I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder. I was the best at hiding my shape in large clothes and lying about having eaten. I’m lucky to have never been hospitalized, but also unlucky in that I never received treatment.

The point in my life in which I was the smallest I have ever been, was also the point that I was most unhappy with my life. I despised who I saw in the mirror, and it didn’t help that my personal life was unfolding in a negative way. My relationship with food and my body felt irreparable. But, I thought just maybe I could be happy if I took back my power and quit letting the scale control me.

After my lowest low, I realized that thin wasn’t the only thing I could be. It didn’t define who I was or make me a better person. And it definitely didn’t make me feel any better about myself. So, with some guidance, I realized I could be strong.

While I had been introduced to the weight room, I was still clueless. Strength training was difficult for me to learn. My small frame and complete lack of muscle tone made my arms buckle under the bar. As I slowly started normalizing my food habits again, my strength soared. I could deadlift, squat, and overhead press. Strongman implements like the yoke and sled were regulars in my workout sessions.
A year later, I competed in my first powerlifting meet. I hit two PRs and could feel the effects of lifting.

The following year, I started to dabble in the Scottish Highland games. Having competed in shot put and discus in high school, the throwing field was familiar territory. That same year, I tried my hand at pole fitness. Let me tell you, I didn’t have the strength to handle it. I went into tricks like a limp noodle, and my body awareness was nowhere to be found. As a dancer, I was completely flabbergasted. If I could just start to strengthen myself, I could be hitting the cool tricks I saw advanced polers doing each day at the studio.

However, my body image was still in disrepair. Despite having put on some weight, I looked so small compared to all of the other female lifters I knew of that could pull some serious weight. They were performing so many feats that impressed, inspired, and discouraged me all at once. If I wanted to put on muscle, I had to start eating more. Food, which the simple thought of sent me into spiral as a Delusion Cardio Queen, made a big comeback in my life in hopes that I could look like these strong women I admired. 

To say my senior year of college was stressful is a grand understatement. My newfound interest in fitness got me to add a minor in Exercise Science. I had to cram 15 extra credit hours in two semesters. In the fall, I took 21 hours on top of running multiple campus clubs and working a part-time job. In between all of that, I still was trying to lift, pole, and do yoga consistently.

Though I was active, my health was suboptimal. My anxiety flared up, and I was losing so much sleep trying to do it all. Fitness took a back seat. There were points that I ate whatever I could grab between classes. The reigns on my food and exercise obsession started to loosen, but unfortunately they let go too far in the opposing direction.

I gained back nearly all of the weight I had once lost due to missing work outs for months at a time, redeveloping poor eating habits, and crippling stress. After I graduated with my degree, I took a good hard look at myself. I had been unhappy the entire time, but simply used other things as distractions. I thought that my apathy toward nutrition was a positive sign, that I had defeated the self-esteem demon. Besides, I was “just bulking”. But I knew I really only had avoided dealing with my relationship with my body by finding other distractions. Post-college, I hated my body again and spoke ill of it whenever I got the chance. I felt betrayed by it. I let my old binge eating habits come back. After all this work I put in, it was undone.

Then I realized, this is much bigger than my appearance. I wasn’t sustaining a healthy way of living. I flopped from one extreme to another in terms of health and size. My body and I were at a complete stalemate. Either I could continue despising what I saw but do nothing, or I could go back to the drawing board. I figured out that I HAD to bridge the gap between my mind and my appearance.

I needed to focus on what my body could do instead of how it looked. I became in tune with my body and worked with what it gave me each day. I was actually listening to what my body was telling me instead of just pushing through pain or letting go completely. We started to compromise. I started performing lifts that were conducive to my aerial fitness. I danced because I enjoyed it. I deepened my yoga practice and completed my 200 Hour RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) certification. I was losing fat while gaining muscle and confidence.

My body was starting to change, and I believe it’s directly related to becoming compassionate with myself. People were taking notice to the changes – to my physique and my demeanor. I was smiling more, exuberant with my newfound self-confidence in my appearance and abilities. It wasn’t just about the physical results I was seeing, but the dramatic mindset shift that started happening.

As it developed, I knew this had to be a permanent feeling. No more disregard for my health or unhealthy obsession with fitness. I needed to continue reaching goals because I enjoy them, while also taking time to enjoy my life. I couldn’t let it control me. Neither my appearance nor anyone else’s is the key to happiness. It comes from within.

Our bodies are the only place we really live, and it’s time to start treating it with the respect it deserves. Self-care is an important practice to be happy. There’s never a perfect size, age, and scale number to love yourself at. Respect the way your curves hug your foundations. Admire the imperfections in your skin that make you human. Look past the scars that have been made on your heart – by others and yourself. Quiet the negative self-talk that limits your potential. Be proud of the amazing things your body can do. Appreciate it for allowing you to do these things.

Of course, body peace doesn’t happen overnight. I still struggle some days with the relationship with my body. However, those are also the days that remind me of the freedom and happiness I feel when I love my body back. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. I’m just embracing the process. I’ve changed my life for the better by accepting that I’ll always be a work in progress. 

To others who toed the line in this gain-lose-gain repeat cycle, there is hope. By hating your body, you’re hating the one thing that has helped you survive everything. I know it isn’t easy; I understand and empathize. My self-love is a journey. It’s rough, it has its highs and lows. But it’s worth it.