For the first time in my life I exercise because I want to. Not because I “have to”. Exercise and yoga, and any form of physical movement makes me feel happy and strong, in my body and in my mind. That is why I do it. I no longer workout as a form of punishment because I ate too much guacamole last night, but because it genuinely makes me more sane and brings me joy.
It hasn’t always been this way.
How It Started
For a majority of my adult life and all of my teenage years I wanted to be smaller. I wanted to take up less space and I wanted to look like those stick thin models you see in the magazines.
When I was a teengager I was obsessed with fashion and beauty magazines. I would read these magazines and tear out pictures of my favorite celebrities and tape them all over my bedroom walls and use them as “inspiration” for how I would one day look. I would watch MTV and America’s Next Top Model and pick myself apart because I didn’t have thighs that were the size of my calves. I dreamed about looking like all the beautiful celebrities who had perfect bodies and perfect skin and perfect makeup and perfect clothes and perfect everythinggggg.
I was obsessed with being perfect.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I realized my quads were never going to be the size of my calves, but boyyyy did I try to make that dream a reality. I ran, I lifted weights, I ate less carbs. I did ALL THE THINGS in hopes that my legs would shrink. They didn’t. They got stronger. They were more “toned”, but they never got to be as skinny as the models in the magazines, and I hated myself for it.
When It Got Worse
Fast forward to college. I was 20 years old and living in NYC, the mecca of beautiful, skinny, fashionista socialites. My desire to be perfectly thin and perfectly beautiful and perfectly everything was like an unstoppable force. I went to fashion school where I was surrounded by thousands of other girls who wanted the same things I did.
We all had a very skewed image of what it meant to be “happy”. Wanting to be perfect and skinny is so normalized in the fashion industry that it’s almost like if you don’t have an eating disorder you are an outlier.
It was around this time that my relationship with food started becoming unhealthy and dangerous. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, I can confidently say that being immersed in the fashion industry and going to fashion school during my college years was probably the biggest contributing factor of what would be the start of many years battling my body and hating the way I looked.
I’d read on some fitness website that if I wanted to lose weight and get a flat stomach then I would need to start counting calories and increasing my cardio. “Ok!” I thought, “that sounds simple enough.” So I did.
I got a brand new journal and I remember writing down every single thing I put in my mouth. I counted every single calorie like my life depended on it. Literally. Even coffee. Because apparently coffee has like 5 calories, and when I say every calories was counted, I mean EVERY calorie was counted.
Based on something I read in a magazine, I determined that I needed my caloric intake to be no higher than 1200 calories per day (this is crazy). I didn’t always have time to do an hour (or more) of cardio every day, so I figured I would just eat as little as I possibly could.
I somehow became even more obsessed with every single thing I put into my body. If I couldn’t figure out how many calories was in something I just wouldn’t eat it. At first my new diet plan really seemed to be working for me. I was in control. I was staying “on track”. I was heading in the direction of flat-stomach-central and thighs the same size as my calves!
It wasn’t long until I realized that I couldn’t really go out to eat with my friends because I couldn’t count calories in food that I didn’t make myself. I couldn’t go out drinking or attend social events because wine had too many calories, and don’t even get me started on how I felt about snacking (basically the equivalent of the devil in food form!). I also worked in a restaurant which was a whole other source of drama. Being around food all day when you’re essentially starving yourself fucking sucks, as you might imagine. All of these realizations began creating a boat load of anxiety. I was having to decide between living my life or being skinny. And you probably already guessed that being “fit” and skinny was obviously the only right choice.
When you set yourself up for failure you’re bound to get disappointed, right? I was probably 21 at this point, and the only education I had about health and fitness was what I could devour from my fitness magazines and fitness websites that were trying to sell me weight loss and workout plans. There’s an obvious problem here because first of all, everything you read in those magazines is complete bullshit. Second of all, the reason diet culture exists and has grown to be a multi billion dollar industry is because they prey on you. They capitalize on your insecurities. That’s the bottom line. But I was young and impressionable, and I believed everything I read.
A Breaking Point
This continued until finally it started to break me. I started feeling so sad and angry and ashamed of myself that I couldn’t just stick to eating 1200 calories and be skinny already! I was consistently going over my “calorie limit” (obviously because it’s insane to think you can live on 1200 calories AND work 2 jobs on your feet all day AND exercise AND live in NYC so you are already walking around all day).
The guilt and shame I felt about my body was unbearable so I started making myself throw up when I ate “too much”. And I ate “too much” a lot.
It’s not like I was making myself throw up after every meal, but it was happening at least a few times a week, and I literally didn’t even think anything of it. My desire to be thin was the only thing that mattered. Not my mental health. Not the way I was treating my body. None of it.
What’s funny (not funny at all), is that I seriously NEVER thought I had an eating disorder because, in my mind, people with eating disorders were insanely thin.
It’s not that I was fat. Actually, I was not fat at all. I just wasn’t skinny like I wanted to be. I wanted to look like the supermodels on the runway and I wanted my damn thighs to look like sticks, and I wanted my stomach to be concave, and I wanted my upper arms to be the same size as my forearms, and I wanted my cheek bones to pop out of my face! Was that so much to ask!??!?!
I thought if I could shrink myself and look like that, then finally I would just be happy.
Finally I would be worthy. Finally I could relax and soak up what being skinny really felt like, which MUST be great. Right?
I used to wish that I would develop anorexia. Every day I woke up and thought “ok, I’m just not going to eat today and that’s that.” But that didn’t work. I would cave in and eventually eat because I actually like eating! And then I would feel guilty for liking to eat. So instead, I would just throw it up when I felt like I’d had too much food, and I defined “too much food” as any time I wasn’t still hungry after eating a meal. And I totally thought this behavior was fine.
It never got out of control like to the point where I was actually dangerously skinny until maybe my late 20’s. I wasn’t throwing up anymore that often, but I had a prescription to amphetamines for ADHD and I would use that to curb my appetite.
At the peak of my eating disorder I was about 28 or 29 years old. I got down to 113 pounds, and I was so freaking proud of myself. I was finally skinny. And I was also so incredibly sad.
The actual saddest part is that I cannot tell you how much praise I got from everyone around me for being so small. When I really started to lose the small amount of body fat I had left I would get compliments all the time. “Wow, Nicole! You look great!”. “Omg, you are shrinking!” These comments came from yoga students, friends, people from the studio, family members, family friends. And I loved. Every. Second. Of. It. I really thought I was living the dream. The sadness and lack of nourishment and food restriction didn’t matter to me as much as continuing to uphold this image that people had of me. I didn’t want the attention of being thin to stop, no matter the expense.
This way of living is obviously not sustainable. It took the tragic wake up call of me losing 50% of my hearing because my body was so malnourished to realize what I was actually doing to myself. I can’t say with 100% certainty that my hearing loss was caused by not eating enough and exercising too much, but at the same time, it’s likely that this is why it happened. At this point, I was forced to stop and take a long hard look at my life and my health. You can read about that here.
I Promise. You Are Capable of Recovery
Today I have no idea how much I weigh. I don’t check because I don’t want to know. This is one way I can protect my mental health. I know for a fact that seeing that number would send me spiraling. Even though I’m much stronger now than I was a few years ago, body image is still something I struggle with daily. Maybe one day I’ll be able to step on a scale without having a panic attack, but that day is not today and I’m ok with that.
I’m so proud of how far I’ve come and I still have a long ways to go.
I have a healthier relationship with food, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t still a work in progress. I workout because it makes me feel good.. I eat when I’m hungry. I stop eating when I’m full.
I don’t count calories anymore, even though the sad truth is that I can still tell you how many calories are in any given food item from years of obsessing.
I can’t stand to think about how much of my life has been wasted thinking about food and hating my body.
I started this post saying that I exercise now because I love it, and that’s the truth. But the other part of the truth is that there’s still a small part of me that wants to look a certain way on certain days. It happens less and less, but the difference is that now I’m aware of these tendencies and I’m no longer willing to sacrifice my happiness and mental health for a 6 pack and stick thin thighs.
I’m working on myself every single day. And most days it’s hard AF, but I’m committed to loving myself and loving my body, so here I am, in it for the long haul.
I wrote this very personal post because I think it’s important, be it a sensitive one. I know I’m not the only one out here who’s experienced body image issues. I think the statistic today is 1 in 5 women suffer from an eating disorder.
So I guess this is my PSA to all the people out there who are suffering and who are sad and who want to make themselves take up less space and who are sacrificing their own wellbeing to do so.
I’m not saying don’t have goals, but while you’re out there chasing those goals watch out for dangerous behaviors. Watch out for calorie counting. Watch out for people in the fitness industry telling you that they can help you “be your best self!” or “lose those last 10 pounds!”, etc.
It’s great to have goals, but it’s important to also remember that You Are Enough. There’s nothing to fix. There’s no need to be better or different, and I’m here to tell you that on the other side of chasing a certain physique, there is real happiness. There is a freedom and liberation to love yourself just exactly as you are.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder don’t wait to get help. Tell someone. Reach out. Don’t be afraid or ashamed, you’re not alone.