The red digital numbers taunted me as I towered above them. It was the highest weight I had ever seen on the scale. I was forty pounds away from hitting two hundred. That’s a lot to gain. That’s years down the line, maybe months. It depended on how I ate in the following days.
The mirror was worse than the number though. I wasn’t curvy or vivacious in shape; I was pudgy. The sides of my stomach fell over the waistband of my sweatpants—the loosest article of clothing I owned—and I had red creases across my torso from the rolls rubbing when I sat down. I played with the fat on my stomach, squished it between my hands. I squeezed until I felt pain and then I released, staring through the mirror at the marks I left behind. They would fade. I didn’t do any damage.
I scrolled through Instagram later that night; I wasn’t searching for anything in particular, but rather trying to bore myself into sleeping. I came across my usual: cute animal videos, food videos, and celebrity gossip. But then I fell into a hole of fitness gurus decked out in their sports bras, name-brand gym leggings, and six-pack abs. I saw their before and after photos. Most of them had been like me, but now they were skinny and strong. They spoke their truth and they were confident and beautiful. I wanted to be like that too.
I downloaded a calorie counting app. The first thing I ever logged was a medium-sized banana for breakfast, about 90 calories. I didn’t eat lunch that day, but I had a light snack and a large dinner when I got home. In between those meals, I slipped into my ratty workout gear and subpar athletic sneakers and stepped onto the treadmill for the first time in years. No one really touched it; we got it for looks, I think. Or maybe in hopes of being motivated to get healthy. It didn’t work out that way, at least not until that day. I walked at a brisk pace for nearly an hour, switching to a light jog when I got bored of walking.
When I was finished, I looked at the burning red numbers on the electronic display screen. I had burned 450 calories. I was euphoric and walked with jelly legs into the bathroom to roll up my shirt and stare at my reflection. I already felt skinnier. I remember smiling and boasting to my mom and dad about how good I felt. They were really proud of me for trying to get healthy.
At the end of the day, I had consumed just under 1,000 calories of healthy foods. I just hoped I could keep up with it for longer than a week.
In just a month, I had lost 10 pounds. I was working out five days a week, burning 500 calories each workout that lasted an hour, and ate my 1,000 allotted calories. I had never been so proud of myself for sticking to my goals. I felt thinner and healthier. I had more energy. Hell, I had so much energy that I started waking up at 5:30 in the morning, every day, to workout before school. I had switched out chips for apples and bananas, rice and pasta with vegetables, pizza for homemade tortilla pizzas. I woke up every day a little more refreshed than the last. I looked in the mirror at my body and liked the progress it was making with my dedication. I didn’t pick at my skin and play with the fat anymore. For once, I didn’t entirely hate what I saw.
By the time I was down 15 pounds, I reached a standstill. I stopped losing weight no matter how much I exercised or how little I ate. I also reached a point where I was starving by the end of the day. I’d eat my pre-workout banana and protein bar and my normal organic cereal with soy milk for breakfast. Not even two hours later, my stomach was clenching and gurgling like I hadn’t fed it in days. To add onto that, running on the treadmill was getting old. I was starting to hate cardio and had to force myself every morning to get up to run. I used to be able to spend one straight hour walking with no issues, but after nearly six months of cardio, it felt like an hour even though I had barely reached ten minutes. I had to take multiple breaks within a single hour just to finish and staring at that grey line on the belt every time it came around made me physically sick. Sometimes, I skipped days because I never wanted to step foot on that moving belt ever again. So, I went back to where it all began: Instagram.
I searched more fitness gurus, found out about their diets and exercise routines. It was then that I came across a woman who sounded far less fake than the model fitness gurus. She talked about macro counting and how it helped the plateau in weight loss. I bought her guide, and within a week, I had my customized macros: 1,661 calories, 135 grams of protein, 161 grams of carbs and 53 grams of fat. And with these macros came a weight training guide for beginners. I got a gym membership shortly after and started my journey. I focused on legs three times a week and upper body was spit into two days: biceps, back, shoulders, and then triceps, chest, and abs.
Weight training was an entirely different world from cardio. I was sore for weeks on end because running requires different muscles than weight training, so my body was extremely out of shape even if it didn’t look it. I was also super nervous and self-conscious in the gym, surrounded by all the testosterone of guys going into beast mode in the free weight section. I had no idea what I was doing compared to them. At first, I tried to stay in the least crowded part of the gym so no one could see me being an amateur. I took note of the times that were busy and when they were slow so I wasn’t surrounded by too many people. I refused to touch the free weights, the assisted squat bar, or any of the assisted upper body equipment. They were always surrounded by huge men and I was terrified. So, I stuck to the basics: leg press, hamstring/quadricep curls, and body weight. But, after about a month into my weight training journey, I had shifted into beast mode. I started using all of the equipment I avoided before—I actually hit an assisted squat weight of 200 pounds— and trying out cool workouts I found on Instagram. I even once had someone come up to me asking about my workout because it intrigued them. Weight training was so freeing and it was never repetitive like cardio was so I always loved going to the gym. It made me feel so much better about myself and my body than cardio ever did.
When I say that weight training made me feel better, I meant that in a mental sense as well as a physical sense. There were moments when I still criticized my body, looked in the mirror and ran my hands down the length of my torso, wishing that my body would slim down faster than it was. But with weight training, the body burns fat and builds muscle at the same time, so it tones the body, making it proportionate. That’s what my body did with heavy lifting: I lost fat, slimmed down in the waist, grew my hips, and butt and bulked my upper body. I was the lightest and slimmest I’d ever been. I was happy and I felt amazing, but then something snapped. I’m not sure what triggered it, but I have an idea.
I was down at the local community center with my mom, walking the concrete trail around the softball fields. It was a Saturday, early evening, and my mother and I were getting in some walking just to keep our bodies loose since weekends were our rest days. I had on pair of teal spandex shorts and a matching loose tan top. My mom was in black cotton capris and a grey t-shirt. About a quarter of a mile into our walk, we came up on a basketball court with six men playing a game of three-on-three. I had my headphones in, but my mother didn’t. I could still hear some shouting over my “Three Days Grace” song, but I certainty didn’t hear their comment toward me. And I wish my mother had never told me. My mom nudged me after we passed, her face scrunched up in disgust as she eyed the men from the corner of her eye.
“I can’t believe them. Did you hear that comment they made about you?”
I said no, asked her to tell me.
She hesitated, but told me anyway, “They said, ‘I’d eat that’.”
I stared at her for a long moment, trying to process it. First, I felt disbelief. They had made that sexual comment in front of my mother. And the fact that they had even said it at all was baffling. No male had ever made comments like that to me before: I had never been catcalled, had my butt slapped or gotten risqué comments from the opposite gender. What had changed that? Was it my size? Was I more attractive to men because I wasn’t fat anymore? Second was the self-loathing. I blamed myself for the comment. I had chosen to wear those tight spandex shorts in a public place. My lower body was the most well-toned part of my body since I started weight lifting. My legs were my least favorite part of my body next to my belly before I lost weight, so when heavy lifting had slimmed them down and toned my butt, I was so happy. I liked showing them off, I felt good, but I should have known. I should have known spandex and a toned woman would attract attention. I had asked for it. Hadn’t I?
I avoided the basketball court for the rest of my walk. I kept tugging down my shorts, tried to cover my butt with my tank top and couldn’t stop thinking about getting home so I could change into something longer, something safer.
I never did wear those spandex shorts again.
About a month after the encounter at the basketball court, everything in my fitness life started to spiral. My mindset and the way I felt about my body entirely changed. I hated my body again. It wasn’t slim enough. I didn’t have the hour glass waist. My thighs were still too big. My butt wasn’t big enough. In order to slim down, I threw the macros guide out the window and lowered my calories to about 1,300. But then I was always hungry, so I’d go over my allotted calories. By a lot. I started binging. My cheat days turned into cheat weeks. I still went to the gym, but the way I was eating aided in bulking my physique. My quad muscles were huge and my love handles were back. They weren’t nearly as bad as when I first started, but it was enough to cause a deep self-loathing.
Around October, I stopped going to the gym altogether. I was still eating excessively, mostly trying to diet during the day, but by night I’d stand in the pantry door and scoop spoonfuls of Nutella at a time into my mouth. Once, I finished an entire jar in one sitting. That’s 2,000 calories in less than half an hour. Those calories were on top of 1,000 more calories worth of eating in the daytime.
By Thanksgiving, I had put back on the 25 pounds I’d lost over a span of six months of dedication in less than three months with binging. I didn’t stop, not at first, even after gaining all of my weight back. I didn’t hold the fat the same way. I was still slim, I had a waist, but I got my tummy back and my thighs too. I wasn’t confident anymore, but I had moments where I convinced myself that my body was okay. It never really was. I only lied to myself until I started to believe it.
In January, I took two fitness classes as electives during my last semester at Northampton Community College. That helped keep the weight off as well as figure skating every weekend and doing an hour of yoga every day. I had come to terms with my body at that point. I had days where I still looked in the mirror and cried, but most days were, “I’m trying and that’s enough.” However, at this point, I was still struggling with binge eating. I was getting better; I wasn’t consuming more than 3,500 calories, probably around 1,800. I was probably eating enough calories to maintain and build muscle, which wasn’t a bad trade off. I actually started to love working out again with these fitness classes. They introduced me to new ways of working out that were fun and enjoyable. My love for the gym was renewed.
In March, I was finally able to break my battle with binge eating. Having a goal of becoming stronger for figure skating gave me a renewed sense of purpose in the fitness world. I kept working out for three days a week even after my fitness classes ended in late April, but that didn’t last long. I lost interest again, hated my body, and fell in a self-loathing streak so strong that I began to starve myself. Again.
It’s two months into the college school year now and I have since dropped 25 pounds. I started looking in the mirror again and criticizing what I see. I grab the fat on my hips and squeeze until it hurts. I grip my tummy until I leave marks. I run my hands down my torso, over the curve of my waist and I don’t think it’s slim enough. I hate my leg; they’re pudgy and carry excessive fat on the inner thighs and they rub together. Even though I’ve lost the 25 pounds again, I still don’t feel beautiful or skinny. I eat less than 1,000 calories in hopes of slimming down more. My mom always tells me no more once I reached 135 pounds, and my dad has asked me multiple times if I’ve been eating enough because I look super skinny. I don’t believe him because I don’t feel skinny. I still don’t go to the gym. I’m always too tired and sometimes, the anti-depressants don’t work. I rarely have good moments of body image and even though I see myself with hatred, I know I have a problem and that I’m a bit broken. I know I need to be fixed, but it’s a lasting battle between my depression and my reality.
I wish I knew why I think skinny is beautiful, or why I’m never happy with the number on the scale or the way I look in the mirror. I wish the answer was as simple as, “I want to feel empowered and strong”, but it’s not. Sure, it felt good to feel strong and beautiful for a while, but it never felt like enough. Maybe the answer is because I care too much. When I lost weight, I’d often look in the mirror and think, “No one in school will recognize me.” So, perhaps it wasn’t for myself but for others and that’s why it backfired. Maybe I’m just so insecure that I don’t know myself enough to have a preference on how I feel and look. I wish I could offer insight into my thinking process about my weight loss journey, but the truth is, I don’t know. Maybe the answer is hidden deep in my subconscious and I’m just too afraid to admit it, but I think that’s okay. I’m still learning and discovering myself. And that takes time.
There’s not exactly a happy ending here. I didn’t cure myself of this diseased way of thinking. I’m still broken, I’m still insecure, but I know that I have my family, my friends, and my boyfriend who will all help me through this period in my life. And I also know that one day soon, I’ll be able to look in the mirror and love what I see.