Disclaimer: This article is not intended to shame anyone of any body type, shape, or size. These are my own personal experiences and past and present inner dialogue about my own body. People who have shared similar stories with me about their personal journey also inspired this blog. Please note that this could trigger anyone with body dysmorphia or eating disorders. I am not holding back in this post.
Straight out of an ’80s sitcom subplot-line, I’m the fat girl you run into from high school who lost the weight and gained self-confidence. What these 30 minute episodes don’t show is a pattern I’ve recognized within myself as well as other self-proclaimed ex-fat girls.
When you go through a major physical transformation, your mindset doesn’t always follow. You still see that same body in the mirror, regardless of what others see. Just losing weight doesn’t improve your low self-esteem. I learned this the hard way.
You won’t be happy with your appearance until you’ve repaired your mental/emotional relationship with your body. On the journey to finding body peace, your body fluctuates along with the highs and lows of your mindset. I call this collection of phases “The Fat Girl Cycle”.
My experiences as a fat girl finding fitness echo a lot of others’ stories I’ve heard. They’ve gone through the Fat Girl Cycle themselves, struggling to find a balance between extremes. It’s a vicious circle, toxic to both the body and mind, that far too many women get trapped in. I’ve narrowed the Fat Girl Cycle down to six universal phases. This is my story.
Phase One: Fat Girl
Growing up, I was obese. People say I carried it well on my 5’7″ frame, but there’s no hiding the fact that I was once extremely unhealthy. Not just for a short stint, but for the majority of my life. My weight gain began when I was in kindergarten and snowballed into high school. Despite being a competitive dancer, volleyball and basketball player, and shot put and discus thrower, the weight just wouldn’t come off.
Since I was always on the go with rehearsals, practices, competitions, and games, it was easiest to turn to fast food for a quick meal. Of course, that was the reason the scale never budged. But, I was uneducated about nutrition and how to live a healthy lifestyle. Not an excuse, just a fact. When I felt upset, I would turn to food. It was a comfort, but making my health worse.
I was called names to my face and behind my back. Fat, ugly, disgusting, and worse. I still remember overhearing one fellow fourth grader say, “Rachelle’s so fat, she looks pregnant. If I were that fat, I’d kill myself.” Kids are mean, that’s normal. The problem was, I allowed comments like this to define my identity.
I was the “Fat Girl” and accepted it as my role. I dreaded the mile run, the public weigh-ins in the common hall of my grade school, changing in the locker room for practice, semi-formals that no one asked me to, trying on new dance costumes with my slender dancer counterparts, and pretty much anything that brought attention to my body.
I hated it. I wanted it so desperately to change. But wanting something doesn’t get you anywhere unless you put in the work. I slumped into depression, hoping that my fairy godmother would drop by and *POOF* I’d be alluring and attractive to my high school crushes. I was convinced that I would be happy as soon as I lost some weight, because others would perceive me differently.
Phase Two: A Whole New Person
Every former Fat Girl has an “aha” moment – a pivotal instant that marks the turning point to make a change to their lifestyle. Mine happened in December 2010.
Every Christmas, my grandparents buy the grandkids in my family the same gift, with minor variations in color or style. These gifts have been everything from a photo of us to a blanket. That particular Christmas, it was pajama pants. As we all opened the box and searched for the pair marked with our initials, I saw the biggest ones and knew immediately they were mine. My girl cousins each received a small or medium, and the pants fit perfectly. I put mine on, and they fell right off of me. They were laughably huge. But to me, this was no laughing matter.
I checked the size: XXXL. An XL would have been sufficient. I know what you’re going to say. “Wouldn’t that make you feel good to know they were too big?” Nope. Instead, it made me think. This is how people see me. Obese enough to warrant buying a size that was special ordered. I couldn’t continue looking like that.
I immediately went on a mission to switch from my fast food visits to eating lighter at home, getting salad bar at lunch, and dedicating my free time after school to exercising. I jogged, did work out DVDs, and counted calories like it was my job. I skipped my Diet Coke in favor of green tea and coffee, and swapped my time wasting activities during gaps between classes for runs and Jillian Michaels. In four months, I lost 45 pounds. People noticed. My once snug clothing started fitting loosely (take note of my baggy uniform khakis from private school, second picture from the right). I was smiling and talking more, now less afraid to draw attention to myself. Plus, I was getting compliments about my discipline and my new appearance.
Everyone I came in contact with said I looked “like a whole new person.” I was barely recognizable as the Fat Girl they knew for years. While I looked like a Whole New Person and outwardly acted like it, I was more like half a new person. My body looked different, but my mind was the same. Everyone was so proud of me, but I still saw the imperfections plaguing my body. I thought I could be happy if I just could become skinny.
Phase Three: Delusional Cardio Queen
Let me begin this section by saying I am not proud of this phase of my life. It’s a mindset I still battle on and off until this day. But this is my story, and I know many other women who have also experienced this or something similar.
The scale number plateaued in mid-2012. I didn’t know how to keep seeing my weight go down. I was introduced to strength training for the first time by a co-worker, who suggested giving it a go. I was clueless about weight. What I did know was that cardio and long work outs burnt calories, and that my calorie intake would determine pounds lost. If I expended more calories than I took in, the scale would change. And I ran with that.
Obsessed with the short-lived high I got from seeing the numbers go down, I started exercising 5 days a week lifting for 3 and hopping on a treadmill or elliptical for a minimum of a half hour. I lowered my daily calorie intake from 1700 to 1200. But every couple of weeks, I would see the same number, or worse, a pound or two higher. It threw me into a fit of rage at myself. I wasn’t working hard enough for this. I slacked and let myself down. I needed to ramp up activity and lower my calories.
So a half hour of cardio turned into an hour every Sunday through Saturday, and 1200 calories turned into 1000. Then to and hour and a half exercise and 800 calories. Then to two hours and 500 calories. Eventually, I was in the gym for three hours, seven days a week. I would punish myself for exceeding 300 calories and subsist on coffee and fat burners only. Some weeks I just didn’t eat, because I knew it would make that scale budge.
At 5’7″ I weighed 118 pounds sopping wet. I slid into a size 2 with ease, which was a big change from the 16 I started in. Finally, they called me thin and skinny. But, I still saw the same body I began with in the mirror.
I was in total denial about the condition of my health. I was miserable, tired all of the time, having trouble focusing, avoiding social situations with food temptations, lost my period, and nearly passed out in some of my classes from not eating. I looked even paler than I already am, and if you look closely at the above pictures, you’ll see my sunken in eye sockets. My body took any fat it could to use it to burn as energy, and my face showed it. While I had been receiving psychiatric care for my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression, I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder. I was the best at hiding my shape in large clothes and lying about having eaten. I had become a Delusional Cardio Queen with severely disordered eating.
I know many women have taken this to even further and more deadly extremes. I was lucky to never have been hospitalized for lack of fluids or organ failure. Some women aren’t so fortunate and don’t make it past this phase. My heart breaks for them, as I know exactly how this feels to not truly see the person you are in the mirror.
The phase in which I was the smallest I have ever been, was also the phase that I was most unhappy with my life. I despised who I saw in the mirror, and it didn’t help that my personal life was unfolding in a negative way. I thought I could be happy if I took back my power and quit letting the scale control me.
Phase Four: Little Lifter
After my lowest low, I realized that thin wasn’t the only thing I could be. It didn’t define who I was or make me a better person. Plus, I was totally miserable physically and emotionally. That’s when I realized I could be strong.
While I had been introduced to the weight room, I was still clueless. Strength training was difficult for me to learn. My small frame and complete lack of muscle tone made my arms buckle under the bar. As I slowly started normalizing my food habits again, my strength soared. I could deadlift, squat, and overhead press. Strongman implements like the yoke and sled were regulars in my workout sessions.
A year later, I competed in my first powerlifting meet. I hit two PRs, and could feel the effects of lifting. The following year, I started to dabble in the Scottish Highland games. Having competed in shot put and discus in high school, the throwing field was familiar territory. That same year, I tried my hand at pole fitness. Let me tell you, I didn’t have the strength to handle it. I went into tricks like a limp noodle, and my body awareness was nowhere to be found. If I could just start to strengthen myself, I could be hitting the cool tricks I saw advanced polers doing each day at the studio.
In this phase, my body image was still in disrepair. Despite having put on some weight, I looked so small compared to all of the other female lifters I knew of that could pull some serious weight. They were performing so many feats that impressed, inspired, and discouraged me all at once. If I wanted to put on muscle, I had to start eating more. Food, which the simple thought of sent me into spiral as a Delusion Cardio Queen, made a big comeback in my life in hopes that I could look like these strong women I admired. I thought that if I could gain some muscle I could become like the women I was envious of, I would be happy.
Phase Five: “I’m Just Bulking”
To say my senior year of college was stressful is a grand understatement. I added a minor in Exercise Science and had to cram 15 extra credit hours in two semesters. In the fall, I took 21 hours on top of running multiple campus clubs and working a part-time job. In between all of that, I still was trying to lift and pole consistently.
Though I was active, my health was suboptimal. My anxiety flared up, and I was losing so much sleep trying to do it all. Fitness took a back seat. There were points that I ate whatever I could grab between classes. The reigns on my food and exercise obsession started to loosen, but unfortunately they let go too far in the opposing direction.
I gained back nearly all of the weight I had once lost due to missing work outs for months at a time, redeveloping poor eating habits, and crippling stress. After I graduated with my degree, I took a good hard look at myself. I had been unhappy the entire time, but simply used other things as distractions. I thought that my apathy toward nutrition was a positive sign, that I had defeated the self-esteem demon. Besides, I was “Just Bulking”. But I knew I really only had avoided dealing with my relationship with my body by finding other distractions. Post-college, I hated my body again and spoke ill of it whenever I got the chance. I felt betrayed by it. I let my old binge eating habits had come back. After all this work I put in, it was undone.
Then I realized, this is much bigger than my appearance. I wasn’t sustaining a healthy way of living. I flopped from one extreme to another in terms of health and size. My body and I were at a complete stalemate. Either I could continue despising what I saw but do nothing, or I could go back to the drawing board. I thought I would be happy if only I could bridge the gap between my mind and my appearance.
Phase Six: Embracing the Process
After meandering between coaching programs for two more years, it finally clicked. I needed to focus on what my body could do instead of how it looked. I became in tune with my body and worked with what it gave me each day. I was actually listening to what my body was telling me instead of just pushing through pain or letting go completely. We started to compromise.
I started performing lifts that were conducive to my aerial fitness. I danced because I enjoyed it. I deepened my yoga practice and completed my 200 Hour RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) certification. I was losing fat while gaining muscle and confidence.
My body was starting to change, and I believe it’s directly related to becoming compassionate with myself. People were taking notice to the changes – to my physique and my demeanor. I was smiling more, exuberant with my newfound self-confidence in my appearance and abilities. It wasn’t just about the physical results I was seeing, but the dramatic mindset shift that started happening.
As it developed, I knew this had to be a permanent feeling. No more disregard for my health or unhealthy obsession with fitness. I needed to continue reaching goals because I enjoy them, while also taking time to enjoy my life. I couldn’t let it control me. Neither my appearance nor anyone else’s is the key to happiness. It comes from within.
Many other women took just as long, if not longer, to realize this. Some still haven’t realized this. It took me until this year to vow to find peace with my body: the final phase of the Fat Girl Cycle.
Our bodies are the only place we ever really live, and it’s time to start treating it with the respect it deserves. Self-care is an important practice to be happy. There’s never a perfect size, age, and scale number to love yourself at. It’s never too late or early to start.
Respect the way your curves hug your foundations. Admire the imperfections in your skin that make you human. Look past the scars that have been made on your heart – by others and yourself. Quiet the negative self-talk that limits your potential. Be proud of the amazing things your body can do. Appreciate it for allowing you to do these things.
Of course, body peace doesn’t happen overnight. I still struggle some days with the relationship with my body. However, those are also the days that remind me of the freedom and happiness I feel when I love my body back. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. I’m just embracing the process. I’ve changed my life for the better by accepting that I’ll always be a work in progress. And knowing that it’s okay to be just that.
To others who have lived the Fat Girl Cycle, I would love to hear your stories. To those trapped in one of the phases, know that you can escape the vicious circle. By hating your body, you’re hating the one thing that has helped you survive everything. I know it isn’t easy; I understand and empathize. My search for body peace has begun, and I hope that you’ll join the journey with me.