One of the primary reasons why I became a personal trainer is that I want to help people love their bodies. I have always struggled with my body image. I know how hard it is to accept the skin you're in, and I know how psychologically taxing that is. Women are constantly bombarded with messages that they are too fat, too skinny, too muscular, too everything. I want to help other women be as healthy as they can be: to value what their bodies can do, not just what they look like.
My story is not the story of dramatic weight loss or weight gain. In fact, it is about the opposite of that. It is about seeing your body as something it is not. Even though I have spent years cajoling, bullying, and forcing my body to look a certain way, and even though I have often felt fat and ugly and gross, my body has stayed mostly the same, and it looks fine. This is a story about body dysmorphia.
Childhood: I was an active kid, always running, climbing, and swimming. I took dance and Tae Kwon Do lessons every day. I'm sure I ate way too much sugar. Every summer I'd gain 10 pounds because my Granny would use that time to feed me huge meals of pasta and cookies and brownies. I didn't care, though. I felt strong and capable. I thought I was hot stuff.
Adolescence: Once I hit puberty, the body image issues started. One day I felt beautiful, the next day I felt fat and ugly. I was influenced by skinniness-obsessed media and the contagious angst of all the other girls around me dealing with the same issues. But I also started cheerleading, an activity that emphasizes weight and appearance. I was one of the biggest girls on the squad, and was always a base, not a flier. I hated my normal-sized tummy and loathed wearing midriff-bearing costumes and cheerleading uniforms. For the first time, I worked out not just to have fun and develop my skills, but to lose fat. I started counting calories, using an old dieting book from the 60's that was my mother's. Every morning when I woke up, I'd practice squats, kicks, push-ups, and crunches in my room. After school I'd have golf, cheerleading, gymnastics, or dance class. Then maybe I'd do a few hours of Tae Kwon Do, which would almost always be followed or preceded by weightlifting. If I wasn't doing that, I'd go running. I HAD to be better, stronger, faster, skinnier. Photos of me in high school show that I was far from fat, and had a ton of muscle, yet I hated my body.
College: Probably because I over-trained and under-ate in high school, at this point I had to quit lifting weights or running because of a knee injury. I also couldn't do martial arts, gymnastics, or cheerleading, and I was too busy with school to play golf — all the sports I used to do. I tried to stay fit, but without my old patterns, I didn't know how. I tried healthy a diet as possible -- something that is EXTREMELY difficult on most college campuses -- but I still didn't eat nearly enough. I had a strict "no eating after 6 PM" rule. If I felt hungry after that time, all I'd allow myself to eat was lunch meat, celery, and maybe some low-fat cheese. My radical diet worked. I lost 15 pounds my freshman year, which I think was partly muscle and partly fat. I dropped from a solid size 6 to a size 2. Lots of people complimented me on how skinny I had become. I still felt fat and terrified of gaining those 15 pounds back.
As college went on, I participated in sports when my knee cooperated. I picked up ballroom dancing and returned to running and weightlifting. I tried swimming, but the pool was too gosh darn cold. I know from pictures that I was slim, but still felt fat. I obsessed over my caloric intake. I slathered anti-cellulite cream on my cellulite-free legs. I would often cry in front of the mirror, even though I wore clothes in size 2-4. I didn't trust the dress size and repeatedly measured my bust, waist, and hips instead. At my lowest points, I dabbled with disordered eating.
In my twenties: After I graduated from college and got my first job, I worried about the negative impact that sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day would have on my health. I dived into reading and learning more about fitness. After I switched to barefoot running shoes, my knee problems vanished, and recommitted to lifting weights. I grew proud of my increasingly muscular body. One day, I went to the pool with some co-workers, and someone told me I had a hot body. That NEVER happened, and it felt good - a little awkward, but good.
A few months later, I caught mono from the kids I was babysitting. I had no energy to exercise. For a few years afterward, my hyperactive stamina dissipated. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed sitting still more than I enjoyed moving. I lost a lot of fat and too much muscle: 15 pounds worth. I wore pants in size 0. I still felt fat, but my baggy clothes told me that I wasn't.
I recovered from the longer-term effects of mono. Within two years, my almost boundless energy came back. My interest in fitness continued to grow as I slowly returned to running and weightlifting. I even started doing CrossFit. CrossFit helped me focus on what my body could do, not just what it looked like. As I put on more muscle, my arms and thighs got bigger. In years past, that would have made me stand in front of a mirror and cry, but this time I felt beautiful -- until someone told me I looked fat. Then I felt crushed.
It’s true that it is difficult for women to “bulk up,” but that doesn't mean that your body will always change in exactly the way you want it to when you “get buff.” For a while, when I first started lifting heavily again, my muscles grew but my body fat stayed the same. I felt bulky and awkward, like an ogre. None of my clothes fit. My biceps bulged in my shirts, my shoulders and back stretched my dresses, my thighs ripped my pants, and my calves kept my boots from zipping. I got rid of all my size 0 pants because they made me think of illness and weakness, not strength and beauty. I stopped buying new clothes, waiting for my body to pick a proportion and stick with it.
In my thirties: Now I’m a professional certified personal trainer. I'm no body builder, and no one would mistake me for a fitness model, but people occasionally comment on my muscles. This feels makes me feel self-conscious, but it also makes me feel strong and healthy -- usually. I will probably always struggle with my body. This is something I'm continuously working on. I'm tired of hating my body. It takes too much energy. I just focus on developing skills and strengths instead of forcing it to look a certain way.
A few months ago, I went to a fundraising event and wore a dress that I used to wear to cotillion dances in middle school. Yesterday, I was talking about body images with a good friend, and he said, "MJ, you've always looked exactly the same."
He was right. Throughout all those years, I looked mostly the same. Whether I was a size 6 or a size 0 didn't matter.
There are some people who struggle with other weight issues. They have true weight gain and weight loss that impacts their physical health and emotional well-being. They may feel frustrated about this blog post, because my weight gain and weight loss is all in my head. If this is the case for you, I hope you can understand why I think it is so important to talk about all these issues. I assure you that I empathize with your struggles, and I hope you can empathize with people like me.
You can waste years of your life obsessing over small imperfections that few other people notice -- and even if they do notice, it's none of their business, because this is YOUR body, not theirs. As long as your body is healthy and it does what you want it to do, just let it be. Love it. Accept it.
That's what I'm trying to do.