Path to Self-Love

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Growing up my self-esteem was never fantastic and I would often compare myself to other females and the way their bodies looked. The earliest time I can remember being conscious about the way my body looked was grade five. I was nine years old when I allowed my body to determine my worth.

Growing up in a family where sports are pretty much religion it was inevitable to be active. I never struggled with weight gain. For most of my life I was considered healthy for my size and age. I never battled with any health or hormonal issues. This carried on throughout high school. I was captain of both cheer and soccer teams, and played soccer competitively with a private club. With all of my physical activity from sports plus an ab circuit once or twice a week was enough to keep me generally satisfied with what I saw in the mirror. I ate what I wanted when I wanted and never bothered to educate myself on proper nutrition, calories or serving size.

Fast forward to the first year of university in September 2015, I was terrified of gaining the ‘freshman fifteen’. I was no longer playing any sports so I figured I would start going to the gym. With the loss of my regular physical activity and a big change in environment my stress went up. This caused my self-esteem started to plummet to the worst it’s ever been. From training with my previous teams, I had developed enough knowledge of the gym that I could make a small workout for myself. I quickly fell in love with the gym and was going almost every day; it made my stress subside and ensured I would stay toned which helped curb the heavy drinking and shitty cafeteria food. At first, I felt great but I still wasn’t satisfied, I wanted nicer arms, a bigger butt, and sharper abs, and perhaps the most significant thing I wanted was the scale to read 100 pounds at most.

In April 2016 I was finishing up my first year of university and I knew I wouldn’t return. I didn’t fit in with my peers and my program was not at all what I had expected it to be. My relationship at the time was starting to fall apart and I had no real passions or pathway of where I wanted to take my life. These series of events led me to move back home to my parent’s house.

That’s when I decided I wanted to get serious about my fitness goals, I wanted to lose the ‘extra fat’. That’s really all it took, just one day a switch went off and I was dedicated. Based on some information I had gotten from YouTube I decided I would start tracking my calories and downloaded a calorie counting app on my phone. I plugged in my height, weight, and activity level and it generated a number for me. Having done no research on my own I did not recognize that the number of calories it spat out for me was incredibly low, I took this number as definite. I would hit that target every day. Only I didn’t stop there. I started doing cardio most days, usually 30 minutes or longer first thing in the morning and then I would lift weights later that day. I started losing weight rapidly and I was finally seeing all the results I wanted, but it was never enough. I became obsessed with every calorie I consumed. Within five months I dropped to just 95 pounds, this was the smallest I’ve ever been.

Leading up to this point, many red flags appeared in both my mental and physical health but I ignored them all. The first red flag was that no one actually knew the extent I was reaching in order to look a certain way, predominantly because I would go out of my way to hide it. Before I went to restaurants, I would search the Internet for their nutritional information to make sure I hit my calories. I would read every nutrition label, all behind closed doors. One thing I have learned is that you should be proud of your goals, you should want to share them and talk about them. A major clue to myself that something was not right was that I was hiding it from the people I would usually share my successes and failures with. I was hiding it because I knew I would get criticized as a result of the negative actions I was inflicting on myself.

The second and most important thing that happened to me was that my period stopped; and what’s worse is that I didn’t really care. When the body thinks it is in danger and under too much stress parts that are not necessary for survival will begin to shut down and the reproductive system is not necessary for survival. Additionally, the female body needs to be in optimal health in order to have a child. Our bodies are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. My body fat was so low that it couldn’t maintain reproductive health, this should have been a major sign to me that something was not right.  

The third red flag was that I started to binge. Up until this point I had always had a late-night sweet tooth but since my calorie tracking began, I kicked that habit to the curb. I was so restrictive on what was going into my body that it started screaming for help. I would overeat to the point of feeling sick. I would tell myself “you are not hungry” “you don’t even want this” “stop eating” and physically I was unable to stop. It was like a black out. I figured this was cravings; really bad cravings from being on a diet. What I now know is that when your body goes through a long period of time in a nutritional deficit it panics and forces you to try to give it the sufficient energy it requires. On top of always telling myself I couldn’t eat certain foods my brain was convinced I had to eat all of what was in front of me immediately because I couldn’t have it later. After the binge I would mentally beat myself up about everything I had just eaten. I would ask myself why I just did that when I didn’t even want to; I would tell myself that I’m a failure, that I had ruined the body that I had worked so hard on. All the negative thoughts flooding into my mind all came to one solution: burn the calories off. So, I would binge and then I would put my body through a brutal cardio session of an hour or longer in an attempt to balance out the “damage” I had done. Exercise has always been a form of release for me to relieve stress and it was starting to become a form of self-punishment. It would be days afterward I would still feel guilty about the binge; this cycle corrupted me for almost a year. After being consistently told that I was too skinny, being asked how much weight I had lost, and not getting a period for over four months something finally started to click. Except, how do I stop? How do I stop looking at food for the calories it is worth and labelling it either good or bad? How do I start looking at myself in the mirror and loving what I see? I wanted to see myself get better, but the fear of changing was my biggest challenge and my actions had become habits.

I believe there are many things that led me to the dark place I was in at the beginning of my journey. The one big mistake I made was that I started from a place of hate for my body instead of love for the things that it could do. My internal health was irrelevant to me and remained that way for far too long. There is nothing wrong with wanting a hot body! Do the physical effects of exercise still play a role in why I do it? Of course, but there are times when taking yourself to the extreme becomes dangerous.

I have a picture on my phone of me at my most unhealthy weight. When I share my story with others, I will show them this picture. A common response I get is “wow look at your abs.” I know it’s meant to be a compliment, but to me, I am disgusted and sad. I don’t see the picture in its physical form. I don’t see the shredded abs; I see a picture of a woman who is broken. I see a place I never want to go back to. To me, that picture is a representation of my deteriorated mental health. I keep it on my phone to look back on in order to remind myself of how far I have come. I don’t track my calories to the gram. I go out to eat with my family and friends and I enjoy myself. I use food as a way to fuel and nourish my body. I don’t use exercise as punishment. I challenge my physical fitness in ways that are enjoyable. I lift heavy weights. I spent so much time forcing myself to be smaller until I learned how it felt to be strong.

My journey is not individual and it’s definitely not linear, I’ve heard many stories from women just like me. I understand the negative headspace one has to be in order to get there and the internal battle that goes on in your mind every time you try to eat. I know that it could have been much worse, and for some people it is. Self-love takes practice. It’s so easy to let those haunting thoughts come back. I still struggle to find the beautiful parts of me, and even more, to accept the ugly ones. But I am miles from where I started.