TW: This blog post includes topics relating to disordered eating and self harm.
Regardless of your personal relationship to the modern world of diet and exercise, there is no escaping the culture we've built around it. Your experiences with these throughout life may be completely positive, or completely neutral, but I know you know what the stereotypical perfect body looks like. You know that we are trying, and finally beginning, to change that narrative and accept different bodies - different expressions of those bodies. But I'll bet you also know that it's not so easy for anyone who has struggled with their body image to see that early change, and say, "Oh, sweet, we're becoming more accepting as a society! That gives me full permission to love MY body!"
You do have full permission. You always did. But I know you know it just doesn't work that way, especially if you've dealt with it within yourself.
I genuinely can't count how many friends I've grown up with who experienced negative body image to the point of disordered eating - too many. I had my fair share of problems with it as well, though, thankfully, I wouldn't say my internal struggles ever got to the point of a diagnosable problem. But I want to start off with this version of myself and this circle of friends, the things I heard and learned from them (through no fault of their own...they heard and learned and believed unfortunate things about themselves from elsewhere), for this blog post because it is, for better or worse, where my love for working out began. I want to go through a bit of a personal narrative today, not to vent or focus on myself, but in hoping that you can find yourself somewhere in here. My story is not like anyone else's, but I feel so grateful to say that it has a happy ending, if the ending is now. The story will continue, and I think it will continue in an upward motion for quite some time due to the calm confidence I've gained over the years. Ultimately, if this is something that you may find yourself struggling with, no matter how severely, I hope to offer some thoughts that bring a little light to whatever you're going through. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and how this lands for you.
2012-2014: The Tumblr Years
If we're about the same age and of a vaguely similar crowd, I'll bet you had a Tumblr phase on the cusp of middle and high school. And I'll bet that if you went through that phase as I did, you saw a LOT of shit on there that you probably would have been better off not seeing at that age. I'm not talking about the porn - I'm talking about something much worse: the rampant tags and reposts promoting extremely thin people, their thigh gaps and bruised knees and habits of replacing lunch with a cigarette; they'd pass these posts off as an "aesthetic," but we all know now how dangerous the trend was. It made us all think we had to be that thin to be accepted. We had to look good in knee-highs and Docs, whatever that means; we had to be quiet and cool and never be seen eating. It's hard to recall if I fell quite that hard into believing I should also look that way, but I definitely wanted to appeal to the aesthetic. I had friends that wanted the same. Looking back, I was already pretty twiggy thin (and pubescent, so...duh), but I remember saving pictures of girls much older than me who had unrealistically tiny waists, defined abs, and tiny thighs I could wrap my hands around and still have room. Aside from the fact that these were probably not real pictures anyway, I was straight up too young to even possess a body that looked like that! It's easy to see now, but back then when it was such a large portion of the media we absorbed, it was much harder to recognize the falseness of it.
So I did what any other Tumblr teen would do: I paid way too much attention to calorie intake and calorie burn, weighing myself every single day. I started exercising for the sole purpose of getting abs and losing weight. I started getting pissed at myself for gaining any weight, eating the "wrong" foods, eating too much, not exercising enough (my goal at the time was every single day), the list goes on. I was probably fifteen when this pattern began. Sometime during my sophomore year, only a year or so later, when I realized I was counting the number of almonds I packed for lunch, I realized it had all gone too far. It was a small moment at the time, but I'm relieved to say that it had a huge impact in the long run - big enough to shake me awake to the reality that it didn't fucking matter. It became one of the few "coming to Jesus" moments I've had in my life, and was luckily about all it took for me to ease off of the food obsession. Problematic exercise would take quite a while longer.
I'll never forget one night early senior year, cuddling on the couch with my boyfriend, when he made a comment about my stomach. He was probably trying to be cute, not critical, and I really don't even remember exactly what he said; I only remember that he poked one of the rolls in my curled up belly, and it made me feel like shit. I looked at myself later and saw a soft, undesirable person. A chubby face, no definition to be found, soft and weak and never good enough. But I was seventeen - still growing. I thought that if I focused extra hard on the exercise portion of changing my body, I might be able to stave off any extra years of excess baby fat and just cut to the chase of being a hot adult. It's all I wanted. I made a new Tumblr specifically for "fitspo," started doing one of Jillian Michaels' old terrible workout DVD's (which I blogged about at length on said Tumblr page), and yet again made it a goal to work out in my living room every single day. At the time I was disappointed, having not seen any change in my appearance from the beginning to the end of the year. But I will vouch for my eighteen-year-old self and say that this was the first era in the "fitness journey" that sparked some healthy habits and resources that I still use today. I was no longer weighing myself regularly - only when I had doctors' appointments. I was starting to understand that the number on the scale was a bunch of bullshit, anyway, and that I couldn't lose weight and gain muscle at the same time. It slowly, thankfully, became more of a priority to be strong than hot. In fact, strong was hot. I started doing workouts that were actually beneficial and yet gentle - big shoutout to Blogilates who I still use every week - rather than the bullshit DVD sets that likely ripped my insides to shreds (if you remember the Insanity workout trend...I'll say no more on that).
In all honesty, I was going to post a link to my fitspo Tumblr page in this post to show just how cringy it was, but looking back on it as I write this, the final months of its usage really weren't so bad. I became more accepting of myself and my imperfect days. I was looking forward to college, where I'd have access to a real gym for the first time, and finally be able to make my own decisions about my schedule. If those little, miraculous mindset changes at the end of high school were the catalyst for a great relationship to fitness, then starting college was the explosion.
2015-2016: The Embodied "Gym Junkie"
I don't have a whole pile of nice things to say about my college experience, but what sits front and center of the little stack I do have is how amazing the campus gym was - and that's how I felt before it got remodeled! The amount of space it had, and the amount of newfound freedom I had made freshman year a perfect opportunity to get comfortable with going to the gym most days, talking to folks who knew their way around a squat rack, and generally just figuring out what I liked best. At the start, I messed around with cardio, weights, yoga classes, different focuses for different days of the week, and I still carry out a lot of the same routines I built that first year. Going to the gym became my "me time," and it still is; more on that later. This was the first time I can say I had a truly healthy relationship to the culture of diet and fitness, but I still struggled with body image. Knowing that I was taking steps to better my strength and ability surely helped a bit, but I would still see pictures of myself and hate the way my stomach protruded; I'd buy tighter clothes in the hopes I'd finally be comfortable enough to wear them, but never was. There were a lot of ups and downs with this. Perhaps I got better at taking selfies or was attracting more attention from guys than I ever
had before. This boosted my confidence however marginally, but it never came from within. All the validation was external. I was doing it for everyone who would look my way - never, ever for only myself. In a brief single period, I dreamt of making dudes fall to their knees over me at parties. Just like freshman year of high school, my ultimate goal was not to be strong, or even to be healthy, no matter how much I tried to convince myself or others that it was. No matter where I posted it, talked about it, or even thought about it - deep down, all I wanted was to be more appealing. To be loved, and to feel more loved. To feel worshipped, even.
I never saw any desirable results, even though I was going to the gym six days a week, eating healthier than I ever had before, and becoming more of a friend to myself than I ever thought possible (though, looking back, I was only in the babiest of baby-steps of this process!). Why? Because I was lying to myself. I did not want strength or health. I wanted something that I could never have, and that was to be loved by everyone.
2017-2018: Backhanded Compliments
Something happened when I came home in the fall of my junior year of college. Everyone, it seemed - my mom included - noticed that I had lost weight very quickly. It was a good thing to them, for the most part. My old managers would pull me in and say "Oh my god, you look amazing! What have you been doing?" My mom was concerned I wasn't eating enough. But just about everyone had something to say about it - wanted to know what changes I was making.
It's funny; nothing about my routine had changed. I actually wasn't going to the gym very much in those days, and certainly hadn't been eating less. What had changed was that I was beginning to experience the worst wave of anxiety I have yet lived through. Intrusive thoughts caused me to sleep a lot more than necessary, get quieter, stay at home most of the time, and look at each day more as something to get through than something to look forward to. No one knew, and I didn't yet have a name for what was going on within. But it made me really confused, and a little sad, because apparently all I ever had to do this whole time to look my best was feel my worst. It didn't make sense, and it exacerbated both the anxiety and the "getting skinnier." I didn't want any of it. I hate to admit I loved the way my body looked, but I still would have taken feeling normal, like myself, a hundred times over.
In fact, I couldn't go to the gym six times a week anymore - often, I couldn't get myself there even once a week - because I was too exhausted. It became a much lower priority on the list. And I'm honestly so grateful for that, because I knew I had to make more room for getting better. I did everything I could. I took my excruciating time. I went to therapy and stuck with it for the first time, I buried my nose in my studies and pulled better grades than ever. I stayed quiet and took the time to truly feel better for the long-term. Had the strict fitness regimen not taken a backseat in those days, it would have taken so much longer to heal, recover, and understand. Instead, through those dark, sometimes flat out miserable days, I began to learn intrinsic love.
I want to tell you: I don't think a truly healthy relationship to "fitness" is possible without it.
2019-Today: True Love
It's still touch-and-go sometimes. I still don't love my body every day. I feel guilty when I don't get to the gym as often as I'd like to, or when I don't intentionally nourish my body with good food. It's a process, and I, like you, will probably work on improving my relationship to myself forever. But that's just the thing: before we can build a good relationship to diet and exercise, it is essential to work on building one with ourselves. Back in 2015, when I only sought external validation, I was simultaneously allowing myself, for the first time, to be alone and love it. That's where much of the process began - in the throes of not-enoughness.
I think this whole fitness thing works much in the same way. Yes, the two relationships can be worked on at the same time. You don't have to love yourself fully to go to the gym and see real progress. You don't have to think you're beautiful every second of every day to add weights to the squat rack, to run another mile, to keep going. A lot of the inner and outer work is going to go hand in hand; what's most important is being able to step away from the incessant need to get physically stronger when what you truly need is to rest, recharge, and get mentally better. It's okay. You will not digress. You will not have to start over.
So anyway, 2019 and 2020 were pretty lackluster in terms of hitting the gym. I did when I could, but it just wasn't something I had time for in the midst of my graduate year, and of course it became nearly impossible during quarantine. In February of this year, though - right around the same time I started Lead to Gold - I joined a gym. I missed that "me time," and after being stuck in my parents house with not much to do, especially during the long winter, I had to find a way to get back out and moving again. I had become stagnant, and could feel my body begging for our old, favorite routine. I know I talked about that at length in my first few posts. Though there have been some inconsistencies, I'm in a place of satisfyingly steady gains on the cusp of the new year. I'm adding weight, incorporating new forms of cardio, blasting my music, soaking in the alone time and enjoying every second. I cannot wait to see what's in store. I'm finally in this with myself and for myself. This is not about anybody else.
This conversation took a turn I wasn't expecting, which so often happens in writing. I didn't intend to go into this analyzing the phases of my fitness journey to such a degree that I might actually learn something new about it, which is the message I want to leave you with for now:
We cannot see progress through the lens of self-loathing; we can only see it through love.
In the second part of this conversation, which I hope to launch later this week, I will go into more depth about actual strategies to use when attempting to be a mindful and intentional gym-goer. It will likely be a lot shorter, but it's a subject I've been getting several requests to speak on, and I can't wait to do so. In the meantime, feel free to reach out with comments, feedback, or follow up questions to these ideas. I'd love to know: Have you gone through similar steps in your relationship to diet, fitness, and yourself? Where do you see yourself in the journey?
Most importantly, can you see how far you've come?