How Weightlifting Helped Me Recover from My Eating Disorder

A common misconception about eating disorders is that everyone who has them must be debilitatingly thin, recluse, and in treatment. Eating disorders are mental illnesses where people experience severe disturbances to not only their eating behaviors but also to their thoughts and emotions. People become so preoccupied with food and body weight that it turns into a plague of the mind and eats away at them. For example, you may look at me and never once think that I ever had disordered eating. I’m a 5 foot (barely) 2 inch woman of average weight. I’m tiny but have never been particularly thin, and yet, I did suffer from anorexia for about 5 years, which may come as a surprise to most people around me who I’m sure have never known that I ever struggled with anorexia at all. But this isn’t a story about an eating disorder. This is a story about recovery.

I had always been interested in weightlifting. The first guy I ever dated in high school (who ironically went on to become a personal trainer at Equinox) knew I was interested so he offered to teach me the basics of weightlifting. And, God, was it terrifying. He put me under a 45-degree leg press machine and I genuinely thought I was going to crush myself. I felt embarrassed working out alongside him and was very intimidated. Fast forward a year later to college. New year. New boyfriend. This time around, the guy I was dating also absolutely loved weightlifting and it made me want to give it a try again. He had his best friend, who was really into crossfit, teach me proper lifting form and how to do barbell squats. I was so off balance that I could barely stand properly with the barbell resting on my back, let alone do a squat, so it was definitely still just as intimidating as it was the year prior. My boyfriend at the time was supportive of my interest but slyly said to me that he didn’t want me to get “too bulky.” I laughed it off at first and assured him that I wouldn’t, but the comment stuck with me for awhile. It made me feel as if women didn’t belong in the weightroom and that they should stick to their treadmills and ellipticals.

But I thought back to my all-girls middle and high school, which believed that every girl should be confident enough to step onto any team and into any gym with confidence. I loved my physical education classes in middle and high school way more than any of my friends. They taught us everything under the sun from basketball and handball (yes, the Olympic kind) to kickboxing and cycling (Sorry, Ms. Allen and Mr. O for all the times I nearly got hit by cars in your cycling class). They had instilled in me that women belonged in sports and in the gym just as much as anyone else, and though it was hard to believe at times, I knew they were right. Because I was a dancer my whole life I never had to work out since I was always in the studio. But when I went off to college and stopped dancing, my body began to slowly change. I felt weak and frail, regardless of how much time I spent on the elliptical. So, a little less than a year ago, I decided to get back into weightlifting, and this time around I decided I was going to stick with it, no matter how wobbly my barbell squats were, no matter how little weight I could bicep curl, and no matter how many times someone stared at me and laughed.

I’ve considered myself to be in recovery from anorexia for around 4 years now. Unfortunately, the reality of recovery is that it isn’t always a straight line, and that’s okay. Within the recovery journey there are often quite a few bouts of relapsing. I define my eating disorder relapses by when those thoughts aforementioned take over again and I return to an unhealthy mindset. Because of this, when I fully transitioned into recovery, I vowed to never go on diets, never deprive myself of a food I was craving, and stop weighing myself entirely, because I knew it was a slippery slope that I definitely couldn’t handle climbing.

A few months ago, after almost two full years without any relapses, I began to slip down that slope once again. Halloween was coming up and I had become so preoccupied with looking slim in my costume (I know, how stereotypical of me), that I hadn’t realized that my mini “diet” had turned into so much more than that. I had relapsed with my eating disorder before so this wasn’t new to me. What was different this time was that my mind quickly noticed itself slipping and I immediately felt upset with myself. I was angry and disappointed, things I had never really felt before in regards to my eating disorder. I said this wasn’t a story about an eating disorder, which it isn’t, but I’m telling this story because a huge part of my eating disorder was that I loved feeling in control of my body. The more I was able to say “no” to my body, the stronger I felt, as if I was stronger than my cravings and that I was weak if I gave in to them. But all of that began to change when I discovered weightlifting.

At a certain point in my life and in my recovery, I realized that no matter how much weight I lost and no matter how many miles I ran on the treadmill, certain parts of my body would never change and that I was going to have to change the way I thought about and saw myself instead. Around Halloween, the difference in my thoughts, the disappointment and frustration, during my relapse showed me my progress and all the steps I had taken forward in my recovery, even if I was taking one small back in that moment. With my eating disorder, I loved feeling what I deemed “in control.” But, now, I’m able to be in control of my body yet again, but in a completely different way; a way that makes me feel powerful and truly in control of my body. Can I deadlift 200 pounds? God, no. But I can sure as hell try as hard as I can. You can’t force a body to be something that it isn’t, but you can train it to be the best that it can possibly be. Weightlifting has taught me to not love my body for how thin it can get, but to love my body for how strong it can get.

In the last few months, as my physical strength has grown, my mental strength has only catapulted. I used to look in a mirror and not be able to say one thing that I liked about myself. My high school counselor once asked me to try this and I literally couldn’t utter a single word. But now, I no longer look in a mirror ashamed of my body, instead I’m proud of it. I’m excited about fitness and look forward to my growth in the gym. Over the summer, a few months into my weightlifting journey, I went to the beach. And for the first time in ten years, a whole damn decade, when I took my clothes off I didn’t want to tear away at my skin and hide away. For the first time in as long as I can physically remember, I wasn’t disgusted by my body or ashamed for exposing myself and letting people see me. It wasn’t a moment of pride or excitement, but rather a neutral moment in which I was able to simply exist peacefully at the beach. That moment and that feeling is a feeling I remind myself of every time I step into the gym. Though I’m sure my recovery may still have its ups and downs in the future to come, after a very long decade, I feel as if I have stopped fighting a war with mind and I have finally found peace with body.

 

To every girl who wants to start weightlifting: Go for it! If you’re scared about “bulking up” just know that that not only requires you to be in a specific calorie surplus every single day in order to achieve, but it also isn’t something to be afraid of. If you begin to lift weights, you’ll for sure grow muscle, but growing muscle is a way of showcasing what’s inside your body. Be proud of those muscles. You’ve worked for them and you’ve earned them. So show ‘em off.

And to every guy who tells you he doesn’t want you to bulk up: Screw ‘em. All that matters is that you love your body. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

Something to remember: A couple of months ago, I was squatting without guardrails when I lost my balance and fell down, getting myself oddly wedged underneath a barbell in the middle of the KAC weight room. I called out to my friend who was a few bars over but she couldn’t hear me through her headphones, so I was left to my own defenses to wiggle my way out. I’m telling you this story because the next time you’re scared to go lift in the weight room, just remember this. Quite frankly, it really doesn’t get any worse than getting stuck under a barbell and not knowing how to get up. But if I could get back up from that, then so can you.

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