My Journey to Body Independence
I first fell in love with exercise and nutrition as a high school athlete. I loved bettering myself, improving my performance, training to become quicker, stronger and more agile. I found what a major impact the foods I consumed had on my athletic abilities and began to gravitate towards healthier food choices.
I always had a strong build and felt “larger” than my friends. I was called “Sumo” by my soccer teammates and everyone always commented on my “Woodkey” thighs. In my younger years I didn’t think twice about these nicknames. I cared more about being strong, about being athletic, about how I performed on the field.
As I entered my junior year of high school this all changed. To this day I cannot put a finger on it. Maybe it was societal cues of what “beautiful” looks like, maybe it was feeling bigger than my friends and the high school “popularity” contest, maybe it was the media’s perception of the female body and being constantly bombarded by photo-shopped images and “perfect” physiques. Whatever the cause, I became self-conscious. I began to criticize my own body; I developed a negative body image and constantly felt “fat”.
This began a spiral into a dark hole that would last more than five years. I began exercising for hours a day, running miles upon miles, restricting my food intake, living on chewing gum, lattes and fat free yogurt.
As I lost weight I heard how “good I look.” I hid my obsession in baggy clothes and behind the “I’m just training to be more athletic” justification. It was winter, my body was covered, no one thought twice about my health. Not even those closest to me.
I went from a strong, 160-pound athlete to a gaunt, skeletal 120-pound frame in three months. My hair was falling out, my skin dry, my nails brittle. I was constantly cold, always tired, and my athletic performance declined dramatically. My family, friends, coaches and teachers took notice, everyone knew something was wrong. I was in denial.
A trip to the doctor revealed my body was in a state of panic. My resting heart rate was 30 beats per minute, my liver enzymes elevated off the chart, my blood pressure was dangerously low. I was anemic and malnourished. Doctors feared I could go into cardiac arrest if I continued exercising or participating in competitive athletics.
This was the low of low. This is where it all started. It would “stop” and “start” many times in the next seven years.
I was diagnosed with Female Athletic Triad, an eating/exercise disorder which is a combination of amenorrhea, disordered eating and osteoporosis. I was depressed, cut off from the activities I loved, constantly anxious and isolating myself from family and friends. I still saw myself as “fat”, I still restricted my intake, I continued to exercise in secret.
I was in a dark hole, one in which I did not know if I would be able to crawl out.
I knew in order to resume exercise I would have to gain weight. It was hard; I cried daily. I gave in numerous times. The only motivation was to be able to workout again. I still weighed myself daily and felt like a failure if that number had increased.
I would drink large cups of water and eat pounds of vegetables before my doctors’ appointments. The scale was going up, they were happy, and I was cleared to exercise. The truth is I was in no way healthy and I wouldn’t be for quite some time.
My parents decided to let me go away to college, I was still thin but seemingly stable. Maybe that would be the best thing for me, a change of scenery.
I relapsed HARD my freshman year. I was able to workout whenever I wanted, I had tons of free time, no one was there to make me eat. Deep down I was lonely and homesick, and dealing with a break-up didn’t help. My exercise, my nutrition and my weight were one thing I could “control”, and control I did. My weight plummeted even further. I went home at Christmas a 100-pound girl who was so lost, so hypercritical of her body, spiraling further down into that dark hole.
I continued this cycle of “recovering” and “relapsing” for some time. To many I was “just thin”, but to those who saw me doing hours of cardio a day, living on large salads with fat free dressing, sliced turkey and bananas knew I was still very sick. They reached out, I pulled away. I was fine, it was all fine.
Then came the worst decision I could have made. I told myself, “I’m going to compete in a bodybuilding show.” This took my already negative body image and increased it ten-fold. Why not get on stage in a tiny suit and let others judge my body? It was a horrible choice – one that prevented me from my recovery for many years.
The “excuse” for undernourishing my body and continuing to exercise compulsively was “another show,” the next photo shoot, or a modeling contract. I was a personal trainer helping others become healthy and fit, yet there was much work to be done on myself. My relationship with exercise and food was so tarnished. I was in a physically and verbally abusive relationship which only exacerbated the issue, but my self-confidence was much too low to leave the situation. I was a slave to exercise and nutrition and felt all I had to offer the world were six-pack abs and striated shoulders. I did not believe my talents were much beyond that.
To others, I had it all. A successful personal training business, good grades, a size-zero frame and defined abs. But, deep down I had nothing.
I competed from 2009-2012, constantly dieting, living in a state of restriction and further damaging my health, my relationship with food, and my obsession with exercise.
After a show in 2012 something snapped. For years I wouldn’t touch any “bad” foods fearing they would instantly put weight on me. That winter something was different. I began to eat and eat. Maybe it was years of depriving my body, maybe it was eating the emptiness inside of me, maybe it was to numb the pain from the abuse I experienced daily. What was once restricting became binging. Anything and everything. I quickly gained weight, going from 125 pounds on stage in November to 180 pounds by Easter the next year. My self-esteem had hit an all time low. If all I had to offer the world was my lean physique, I now had nothing, myself-worth was gone. I cried in front of the mirror daily. I felt inadequate. I was a personal trainer with degrees in exercise science and nutrition who in no way looked the part. There were days I just wanted to give up, days I hoped I would not wakeup.
I attempted to lose weight in the ways I had before. I tried restricting my intake, I tried doing hours of cardio, I tried fat burners and waist trainers. Nothing was working. The truth is I had done so much damage to my body, to my hormones and my adrenal glands that nothing was effective. Years of under nourishing my body and abusing stimulants had taken their toll. I felt helpless, weight became a daily stressor and I constantly worried about what people thought, that they perceived me to have “let myself go”. This stress only added to my already very full plate.
Here’s where it all changed.
I vividly remember this day. Instead of heading to the gym for another treadmill session in hopes of “losing” weight I decided head up a well known trail in my hometown that ends in an amazing view well above the morning clouds.
The whole way up I was thinking about the last five years, about how my obsession with exercise, nutrition, and my body had caused me to miss out on so much. I thought about how little love I had for myself because of how I felt about my body. It took 5+ years but it finally hit me: I am not a number. I am not a pant size or a body fat percentage. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, I am a personal trainer who changes lives daily. I am a preacher of health, I am a beautiful child of God. I could no longer let my weight handicap me. I could no longer base myself worth on my appearance in the mirror. It was on that day I chose to live.
Reaching the top of the mountain that day marked my independence, my liberation, freeing myself from my obsession. It marked my choice to be more than a number, more than a pant size, more than six pack abs or defined legs. I chose to embrace my flaws, butt dimples, cellulite and stretch marks. My calling was not to maintain a lean physique but to inflict positive change on the world, something that was not dependent on those three digits on the scale.
My disorder had held me back in life. I had forwent chasing my goals and dreams for fear of my workouts and nutrition being disrupted. I had isolated myself, avoided forming strong relationships and stopped anything that may impact my fitness and nutrition regimens. I decided that would no longer be the case. I had this one life and I was going to live it.
That day, that moment, changed my life. In the next three years I would grow more than I did in the previous 24. I would completely turn my life upside down, return to school, earn my master’s degree, become a registered dietitian and land a job completely outside of the fitness industry. I would move away from the comfortable and step into the unknown. I would gain the strength and courage to leave that abusive relationship.
I would live for me, not for my exercise and my “diet”.
What I can tell you is this: Once I stopped stressing about my weight, about my pant size, about the image staring back at me in the mirror… that’s when I really started to love training, to appreciate my body for what it can do, not just how it looks, and to repair my relationship with food and exercise.
Today I am happier and healthier than ever before. I am no longer a slave to my training or nutrition. I am able to indulge in moderation, to miss a workout without anxiety, to go on social outings and form strong relationships without fear. My body independence has come from an understanding that I am not a number, that my talents and abilities should not be confined by my size.
Now, I train because I love my body, not because I hate it. I see food as fuel for my workouts. I train to be MORE – not less – and I certainly do not use exercise as a punishment for what I’ve eaten. I still have my days. There are times I look in the mirror and begin to focus on my faults. There are moments when I feel “fat” and begin to think negative thoughts. I know this will never go away. What I have learned is how to channel those thoughts, how to change them into positives. Instead of “my legs look huge” I think “these thighs can squat over 250 pounds, they can run fast and jump high, they are mine!”
My goal now is to help others find this independence, to free themselves from an obsession with exercise, with nutrition, with six pack abs and those three digits on the scale. I want to inflict positive change on the health and fitness industry and help others understand what it took me so many years to come to terms with. Self-worth is not defined by your outward appearance, but by your character, the size of your heart, how you pour into others and the impact you leave on the world.
Be strong, be free, be your own kind of beautiful!
Author Bio: Lindsey holds a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition through Washington State University. She is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer through the ACSM and ACE, a Group Fitness Instructor, Health Coach, and a Medical Exercise Specialist. She provides training programs and nutritional guidance through her business, Key Potential Fitness. Lindsey’s philosophy is that there is no one way to become healthy and fit, and stresses that your approach must be enjoyable and sustainable while also producing results. She preaches that health should always be most important and makes it her priority to show and teach each individual how to reach not only their physique goals, but to also foster healthy, happy relationship with food, exercise, and recovery.
Today’s Activity: Clear Your Head
By now, you’ve made your declaration of body independence, written down your mantra, and used challenging statements to change some of the initial self-perception you might be struggling with. Today, my goal for you is to clear your head and take some time to really think. Get outside or go somewhere where you feel free. If you have a workout planned, take it outdoors. If you can take your lunch outside and away from your desk, do it. When Lindsey climbed that mountain on a morning run, she dug herself out of the hole she felt trapped in for so long. I want you to do and feel the same.
Today, find a place or activity that allows you to clear your head. For me, this activity is soccer. I feel the most free of self-doubt, self-comparison, and judgment when I am on the field. At the end of a game, I often feel more level-headed than when I began. For you, this may mean a hike, a yoga class, or at-home meditation. It may also mean a bubble bath with vanilla scented candles. Whatever it might be, go somewhere where there aren’t many distractions and where you can truly tune in with your thoughts.
How do you clear your head?