Similar to many young people, I struggled with my body image growing up. I’d watch girls in my school refuse to eat and later vomit in bathrooms after lunch, ingraining an obsession to be as skinny as possible in my mind.
Thinking back to the school cafeteria with bright white lights above dozens of dirty tables packed with teenagers, I remember losing touch with my body and picking up the same unhealthy eating habits as the girls in my grade.
I worked out occasionally throughout high school, but it wasn’t until senior year that I began to take fitness seriously. The gym, a place of reconstruction and self-discipline, saved me from years of unhealthy relationships with food and poor body image. It’s a haven where I can focus entirely on myself without fear of judgment.
My progress in the gym and my journey to better mental health did not come easily. It required months of improving my headspace along with learning how to set up weights on a bar, work the intimidating leg press and have perfect form all at once.
In ninth grade, my mom insisted on packing my lunch: pasta salad, chips, carrots and a wild cherry juice box on the side. I always felt too embarrassed to eat lunch in front of my friends who refused to. Coming home, I’d rush to the trash can and throw the food away.
It became normal for dinner at 5 p.m. to be my first meal of the day. Wolfing down whatever plate was in front of me, a second helping was needed to quench the empty pit in my stomach.
I felt like a waning moon, slowly losing its light and fullness. Each day I became weaker, and I lacked the drive to go about my day normally, coming closer to a moonless sky.
During the pandemic, I gained 20 pounds from binge eating, raiding the pantry every time I came home from school. When senior year came around, I cut back on eating dramatically. I lost my appetite and couldn’t stand the guilt that came with food, so within three months, I lost more weight than I previously gained.
I didn’t know if I was small or big, despite being neither. My self-image was warped, and losing 25 pounds tipped me over the edge. I had no sense of my image; the mirror was not a friend to be trusted.
Each day I was on the edge of passing out, and I’d throw up the already minimal amounts of food in my stomach. My inability to eat led my parents to begin forcing reality down my throat and threatening to put me into therapy along with hiring an eating specialist to shake me from my denial.
I finally accepted support until I could start taking care of myself on my own. My mom would sit with me as I ate. Even if all I could stomach was a banana cut up into small pieces, she was there.
A close friend of mine at the time motivated me to start going to the gym. He worked out regularly and was always excited to tell me about new personal records or compliments from others.
Hearing about how much stronger and happier going to the gym made him feel sparked the idea that maybe feeling better about my body through exercising could be my solution too.
My first gym experience was incredibly intimidating. I felt as if everyone else was more advanced than me and I’d be judged for my simple, beginner exercises, but I was surprised to find each person I asked for advice was patient and understanding.
I found a community in the gym that gave me confidence. Considering the timing of my journey, being able to ask questions and learn about machines and exercises from others helped me to grow physically, further overcoming my disorder.
With each weight I picked up, every bar over my shoulders and each sit-up, I came closer to feeling like myself again. I gained weight through muscle, and my body began to feel more toned and strong. Eventually, I was able to lift more and my focus changed from losing weight to gaining muscle.
I began to feel more grounded as I took time out of the day, even for an hour, to be in the moment. Pushing myself each day to put in the work, my body felt stronger and my desire to be skinny slowly lessened.
I have proved to myself I’m not only capable of being healthy, but also strong.
Although it’s still a daily struggle to eat, and I still experience guilt, I understand my body needs the right number of calories to grow stronger.
Even though I’ve only been going to the gym for a year, I feel more empowered with every workout. Seeing my body transform into a healthy, balanced figure brings me more satisfaction than seeing my weight go down on the scale.
Thinking back to my days in high school, I wish I didn’t focus so much on my appearance and compare myself to the other girls. If I could have appreciated my body and treated it the way it deserved to be treated, then maybe I could have saved myself a lot of pain. However, it is a part of me, and I wouldn’t change anything if it meant I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
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