Like many women I know, I’ve spent much of my adult life stressing about my weight. In high school, I never gave it a second thought—I was into sports and ate whatever I wanted. People commented on my body all the time. Back then I didn’t think much of it, but now I realize that was the start of my body becoming my identity. As a result, when my daily mini-pizzas and sugar binges caused me to gain the freshman 15 in college, I felt like I had lost my identity. I didn’t know anything about nutrition or health, only that I was unhappy and needed to lose weight. So I started running. And running. And running.
I would choose not to eat much throughout the day and run on the treadmill or around the neighborhood at night. First three miles, then five miles, then eight miles. I hated running, but I hated my body more, so I kept going. Throughout college and the few years after, I was in “great” shape (because I thought I was thin), but I was weak. I became obsessed with exercising, but not because I loved it; I did it because I needed it to feel okay in my body. But I was never happy, and no amount of exercise was ever enough. At first, working out four days a week was the bare minimum, anything less and I was a disappointment to myself. Then it was five and six days a week, and then it was doubles four to five days a week. I was still eating under 1,500 calories a day. I was exhausted, I was sick all the time, and I was binge eating and sometimes binge drinking on the weekend. Something had to give.
For some reason I believed the only way to succeed was to push my body to the limit, and that as long as I was the hardest-working person in the room, I was winning. The one good thing about working out obsessively was that I always found groups—cycling classes, running groups, swim teams—and in the process I made friendships that will last a lifetime. The bad thing was that my relationship with myself was suffering. Every forced workout, every counted calorie, every judgment meant I was hurting my relationship with myself. I was chronically injured and sick. I looked in the mirror every day and hated what I saw. One day I decided I needed a big change and joined a powerlifting gym.
I’m not going to lie: it hurt. I thought I was in good shape, but I had never done any strength training before, and it was a shock to my system. My coach told me I needed to be eating more to gain muscle and recover. I decided I might as well give it a try, and I started eating 2,200+ calories a day and lifting heavy weights. My goals started to change. I wanted to lift heavy and fuel my body, not get skinny and take up less space. Ironically, when I started eating more and training less, I actually lost weight. I had been overtraining and undereating for so long I had hit a major plateau, but when I started to feed my body, everything started to change.
I teamed up with a group of women that not only helped me to be stronger physically, but also mentally. We started working out two days a week together, and then three, and now four. We support each other through tough times in the gym and tough times in life. Even though we all still have body composition goals, we spend our time at the gym focusing on how much weight we can lift, and it’s amazing how empowering that is. That girl inside me that wants to be a certain weight or look a certain way isn’t gone. I still find myself making goals to lose weight or change my diet, but my focus has shifted. When we are in the gym together, we focus on gains, not losses. We celebrate adding extra pounds to the bar, not taking extra pounds off our bodies. Every time one of us hits a PR, we all feel the success. Just this last weekend we competed in our first powerlifting meet. The energy was unreal, and seeing so many women celebrating their strength was amazing. Each day is still a work in progress in terms of my relationship with myself, but I’m so glad that I have found a group of women to support me and I am grateful that I can support them too. I know whatever goals we set together, we can meet.
Now when I look in the mirror, I see a body that can lift heavy things and perform. I want to feed it, and I want to take care of it—it’s the only one I have. I used to use exercise and food as a punishment, but now they are my rewards. Having this body that can do things is a privilege, and I don’t ever want to take that for granted again!