A few years ago, a friend of mine invited me hiking. I was not a hiker. I was barely a walker. From the safety and comfort of my well-worn couch, I imagined this hike as a leisurely walk through lush, sun-splashed meadows with my two little dogs trotting beside me. Sounds lovely, right? The 5-mile hike took over 5 hours, most of which I spent sitting in the dirt, alternating gasping for air and trying not to puke, genuinely concerned that I would have to be airlifted from the top of the mountain. Though my friend was patient and kind, assuring me that I should take as much rest as needed while she surveyed our views with barely elevated breath, my thoughts were trapped in a disparaging and self-critical feedback loop: “She must be so annoyed and embarrassed of me.”, “I am SO fat.”, “Why is this so easy for everyone else??”, “Why do I even bother?”, “I’m disgusting,” I recall this day with true humiliation.
Previously, I had spent 27 years fostering a difficult and complex relationship with food and my body. Even as a child, I can recall numerous times I wondered whether any of the treasures I should expect out of life--family, friends, career, and education--meant anything to me if I had to be a “fat person”. Health and fitness were never really the goal; I just wanted to do whatever was necessary to look like the slender, happy women I saw on TV and in magazines. Cycles of binging and deprivation, losing alarming amounts of weight and gaining it all back and more, punctuated my personal narrative. The more dangerously extreme I became, the deeper I dug into a profound and silent sadness that continually pulled me back no matter how hard I fought.
I had to reach a breaking point. The negative effects of these binges/restrict cycles I’d leaned on for so many years were leaching into my personal relationships and even my career. I’d truly had enough of the continual wash and repeat cycle of gains and losses, and tried something I’d never done before. Not another diet or cleanse, not a new hot fitness trend to burn 10,000 calories in 10 minutes, no more quick fixes. I reached out. I let people know that I was not okay. I sought professional guidance and the support of my friends and family to help me learn the coping skills I had spent a lifetime supplanting with food. It has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
When I embraced the emotional support I so desperately needed, my relationship with my body started to shift. What I had spent my whole life thinking of as food and exercise became fuel and training. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been an athlete--throw a ball in my direction and my first reaction is to duck and cover. But when exercise evolved from the punitive drudgery that had to be completed no matter the cost to something empowering, rewarding, and dare-I-say fun, I started to care more about feeding that fire than starving it away or stuffing it down. Having adequate nutrition to grow into more of myself and not less, to become stronger, faster, and louder became a new and exciting priority. And, yeah, cake is still my favorite food--but I have a better understanding both of nutrition and my personal psychology to know how I can use that cake as a tool, and when it doesn’t fit my goals.
Though I look very different today than I did that fateful day of hiking, “transformation” isn’t really the right word. The biggest change between the person I am today and the woman just trying to survive that hike is not how she looks, but that today I know what she is worth. Then, she was so focused on what others were thinking of her sitting in the dirt sucking air, and how terrible she must be, she couldn’t see the tremendous heart and persistence that pushes her to never quit. She didn’t know that recovery is not a linear track with single defining steps, but a winding, sloping, and turbulent path of consistent and persistent choices--but she followed it anyway.
It’s been almost three years of introspective growing and learning, and there are absolutely days that I struggle with nagging old habits. There may always be that inner voice whispering beneath the applause, questioning whether I am enough. I know there will always be people stronger and faster, leaner and more put-together than I am, but their success does not have to be my humiliation. As long as I am lifting my hardest, running my fastest, burpee-ing my--just kidding, still hate burpees--then I’m already better than the person I was yesterday. Most days I can look in the mirror and recognize the incredible qualities that make me unique, beautiful, and strong, no matter where I am or have been, in my story. Most days, I walk into the gym excited to crush it! Both of the women in these pictures are the same incredible person.