Four years ago, I started a long and complicated journey regarding my health and fitness. Growing up, I never exercised much. I played on soccer and basketball teams as a child, but I hated it. Team sports made me feel inadequate, lazy, and miserable, and that sentiment continued well into adulthood. As most of my friends know, I hate conflict and competition. For the most part, I just want everyone to relax and have a good time.
The exception, of course, is competition with the self. I am a perfectionist, with all of the double-edged implications of the term. Perfectionism pushes me forward, never satisfied, ever-seeking a better version of myself and my world; at the same time, it holds me back with an almost crippling anxiety. It can damage me. Rationally, I know actual perfectionism is impossible, but it nevertheless fuels everything I do.
I usually manage it well. But lately, I have suffered under it.
When I began working out, things went well. I paid $25 for 30 days’ worth of yoga classes. I learned I loved yoga for all the reasons I hated team sports: I competed only against myself, and it didn’t matter if I wasn’t doing as well as the other students. No one cared. Lessons were blissful. I even started doing simple strength training exercises at home. But then I moved towns and changed shifts at work, and suddenly, no local yoga studio matched my new schedule. I never continued exercising at home, either, due to how drastically my daily routine changed.
Regular fitness seemed impossible, so I shifted my focus to healthy eating. My roommate at the time, Samy, inspired me to try the paleo diet. I loved it, but after a few months, I found it unsustainable. Gluten pervades Western cuisine. Bread is everywhere. Reading about diets and healthy eating did better inform me about facts versus fads, though.
Then, in 2014, Samy invited me to an aerial acrobatics class at Center Ring Circus School. I loved it, too. It improved my upper body strength tremendously, and the instructor, Greg, never made us feel inadequate or weak. In fact, he often reminded us that we were there to work out, not to compete with each other. The problem, unfortunately, lay with the cost. At $21/class, I couldn’t sustain aerial acrobatics either, no matter how fun it is. After a few months, I stopped, and I went back to yoga. However, the only class available that fit my schedule was at 8 AM on Saturdays, and when I did go, I felt the gnawing urge to do better than anyone else. Yoga ended up not being worth it at all.
I thought to myself: “I can do yoga at home. I can work out at home.” But I tried, and I failed. Working out surrounded by other people motivates me. On the other hand, working out alone is excrutiatingly difficult. Ironic, isn’t it?
And then I weighed myself, by chance. I can’t even remember when or where I was, because I don’t own a scale myself, but I remember the number and how I felt.
130 lbs — a mere 10 lbs heavier than I’d ever been in my life before then — and devastated.
Logically, I knew 130 lbs was not a bad weight. Logically, I knew that some of it was probably muscle mass from hauling my body weight vertically for several weeks. And I knew that some women weigh even more and are perfectly healthy. Yet anxiety seized my rational mind and filled it with irrational thoughts: the need to cut out all bad food, the need to exercise daily, the need to metaphorically cut these 10 lbs off my body in any way possible. I was not perfect, and I had to be.
And I hated it, of course. I knew why I felt the way I did: Nearly three decades of media and advertisements and unfair gender expectations. I fought it daily, yet I still succumbed. I tried to love my stretch marks and belly fat. I tried to tell myself that only one person will see my stretch marks and he will love me regardless. I tried to tell myself that a little belly fat on women is normal and meant to protect the reproductive organs. I tried to tell myself that weight fluctuates on a daily basis and depends on a variety of factors.
I worked out sporadically and pushed myself too hard every time. I felt weak and cowardly and inadequate. I had to remind myself to eat because I feared developing an eating disorder. And whenever I ate something unhealthy, I felt guilty. And I became infuriated.
Slowly, carefully, I recovered. I ate healthy food, but I also ate doughnuts and cookies. I tried to sleep as much as possible. To improve my self-love, I bought clothes I actually enjoy wearing, wore makeup once in a while, and took a few selfies, too. And only a couple of treasured individuals knew. Otherwise, I kept the anguish and fury to myself.
I credit a few resources for saving me, too. First and foremost, the holy grail of my sanity, is The Exercist blog on tumblr. Reading it makes me feel validated, encouraged, and relieved all at once. I learned about it almost a year before my weight-induced anxiety spiral, and the author’s words kept me from losing my mind. This blog busts bad science, exposes terrible photo editing of women, and showcases athletes who do not fit the “fitspo” stereotype.
On a much smaller scale, model Robyn Lawley also helped knock some sense into my otherwise irrational thoughts. In early 2015, she became the first plus-sized model to feature in Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Edition. Yes, at size 12, she’s considered plus-sized, yet she looks fabulously healthy and fit. In comparison, I usually fluctuate between sizes 6 and 8 for bottoms/dresses, and my tops are either size Small or Medium depending on whether they have sleeves or not.
And, finally, I read blogs of other girls — normal, average girls making their own ways through life — and found their self-love and self-confidence inspiring. One day, one of them shared pictures of herself in a mall dressing room, trying on different outfits. She captioned it, “Learning to love your soft, chubby body is freeing.” To respect her privacy, I won’t share her blog, pictures, or name, so you’ll have to trust me when I say she doesn’t look unhealthy at all. Instead, she looks fit and well. I sent her a message after I read her post, and we briefly chatted. On that day, I weighed my heaviest at around 145 lbs, and when she shared her weight — more than mine at the time — I was honestly shocked! I expressed how puzzled I felt that both she and I looked fine in a mirror yet our numbers were so high (in my opinion). She told me to throw away the scale.
So I did. At least, I stopped obsessing about it. I continued to eat healthily while letting myself indulge once in a while. I drank a lot of water. And by the end of spring this year, I embraced myself. While joking about losing weight, I casually told my mother that I weighed 140 lbs; she sent me worried texts afterward, but I shrugged it off. She can worry about the number if she wants. But not me. Not anymore.
Despite my progress and success, I still wanted to exercise. Before my panic, I loved working out. I felt a certain thrill knowing how strong I could be, lifting myself in the air or holding complicated yoga poses. But neither of those options appeal to me as they used to; classes still clash with my schedule and cost too much money. Then two things happened simultaneously that brought me to where I am today: I made friends with Andrea, an Olympic weightlifter, and my college friend Dorothea started posting more about powerlifting. Now, I’ve been awed of people who lift weights since as long as I can remember, yet I’ve only used dumbbells at home. I’ve never been to a gym thanks to performance anxiety. But I knew instantly: this was it. This I can do. So I sent messages to both of them, asking questions. They both encouraged me, and Dorothea agreed to coach me for free, even though she lives in another state.
Inwardly combating my nerves, I visited a couple of local gyms and asked a lot of questions. I bought a discounted membership. Dorothea put together workout routines, which I can read off an app on my phone. And on July 7, I lifted weights at the gym for the first time.
I can’t begin to describe how much of an emotional and mental victory that was for me. I swallowed a lot of fears. And now, I find myself wanting to go back all the time. And maybe, once I’m in better shape, I’ll even try that Couch to 5k program, or the more hilarious sounding “Zombies, Run!” game. For now, though, I’m lifting 10-lb dumbbells and can barely finish 30 bodyweight jump squats without collapsing.
But what matters is that I’m on my way, finally. And I will be strong.