It started with lewd comments from a boy in school, followed in short order by “compliments” offered by adult men to my parents: “She’s going to be trouble.” Wink, wink. When I was teased (or criticized myself) for being “fat,” my mom came to my defense: “You’re not fat. Your boobs are just getting bigger.”
When people ask me when and how I began my fitness journey, these are the moments I never share. Today my credo is this: Value your body for what it can do, not for how it looks; let it take up the space it needs, no matter how other people feel about its size.
But two decades ago, I wanted nothing more than to disappear.
At 13, my height and bra size were exactly average for a grown woman, but I felt monstrous among my peers. Dieting was my recourse. I plotted out a 1,200-calorie-a-day meal plan. Every day after school, I exercised — in private. From fitness videos, I learned to squat, curl, punch, and yoga-flow.
The weight dropped, and I hid in ever-loosening clothes. I took care not to lose too many pounds, though; being too thin would also draw attention.
In time, restricting food became more and more difficult. And as my hunger grew, so did my goal.
I still wanted to disappear, but I also wanted to feel something. It turns out that existing as a ghost is dissatisfying for living humans. I found a new delight in the discomfort I could inflict by overeating and overexercising. The physical pain matched whatever was happening inside, and that felt good. Or maybe vice versa — this history is a knotty mess that is difficult to untangle.
For years I vacillated between food restriction and binge eating, inactivity and bouts of exercise. My weight fluctuated, and my body continued to be the topic of mostly well-intentioned, but no less inappropriate, conversation.
Exercise was the variable I felt most comfortable controlling. It was a pleasure and a punishment, and the more I expanded my fitness repertoire, the more tools I had to manipulate the feeling in my body, for better or worse.
It’s hard to pinpoint my wake-up call. Perhaps it was the cessation of my period, the insomnia, the weight fluctuations that began to occur independently of my manipulations, the discovery of a small (noncancerous) tumor on my pituitary gland, or the chronic back pain.
Or maybe it was some combination of all these signs. My body seemed to be screaming, Take care of me!
I was ashamed of my actions, by my inability to just be “normal.” I knew better. But I didn’t know what to do about any of it, and it wasn’t something I felt I could talk about.
When I moved to Minnesota in 2013, I joined this magazine, which discussed body issues very differently from my internal dialogue. I found a fitness community that valued exercise as nourishment for the body and soul. I wanted so badly to embrace these values that I admired but struggled to integrate.
Painful trial and error has helped bring awareness to — and has begun to disintegrate — my own patterns. Biofeedback testing and intuitive training played a huge role, connecting me to my body and my emotions in new ways. But some habits die hard.
The biggest challenge has been deciding to show up in the world — to be seen and heard, and to accept that I have value simply because I exist.
A friend recently confided that she often overeats to the point of experiencing physical pain. She said it was “weird.” She couldn’t imagine anyone doing this, so why did she?
I could have simply reassured her and pointed her to resources on binge eating. Instead, I asked her if I could share my own story, if it would make her feel less alone.
While I’m sure people in my life had guessed at my habits, it was the first time I’d spoken the words. In doing so, I felt less alone.
I also realized that it had been at least a year since I had inflicted pain on myself in this way. I cried at the thought.
I’m now sharing my experience through the fitness filter of this column. But it could just as easily be a discussion on sexuality, identity, self-awareness, or how we talk to and about our young girls and boys.
For me, these issues are intertwined in such a messy way that it still feels impossible to tell the whole story.
But, for the time being, I offer this storyline, one more thread in the narrative of how I became “fit.”