I was overweight as a child, and I remember the first time I became aware of it. I was in the doctor’s office for a checkup. The nurse loudly shouted my weight as she wrote it down. I was old enough to understand that what I weighed was considered “bad.”
So I went on diets, binge ate, restricted food, exercised endlessly, gained and lost the same weight through my teens and twenties. Probably not due to that particular moment at the doctor’s, but a gradual realization that whatever shape my body was in was never “good enough.”
In my early twenties, I began restricting and exercising obsessively to cope with the intense pressure of law school. I lost so much weight that I began losing my hair in clumps in the shower and feeling my bones dig into any surface I sat on. Despite the rigid control I exercised over everything, I felt like I was existing outside my body with some greater force was controlling me. I did not feel like myself.
When I became a lawyer, I turned to using food to cope with stress from my new job and a bad former relationship. I ate normal meals with others, but ate unfathomably large amounts of food alone – boxes of granola bars or cereal, bowls of oatmeal, jars of peanut butter, bags of chocolate. I talked to myself very negatively, using language I would never say out loud to anyone. I exercised more and vowed to be “good.” I became uncontrollably hungry from restricting and exercising. I resisted, then gave in and binged until I was sick. Again, I felt like I was outside myself, watching myself from above, thinking “this is not me.”
One day, sick, sore and exhausted, I googled “I can’t stop eating.” I learned that binge eating disorder was an actual thing, but no one really talked about it. Even still, I felt like my problems were too “ugly” to admit to anyone I knew, so I found a therapist. I was so scared that I binge ate on the way to the therapist’s office and almost turned around a few times.
That was certainly not the final binge, but it was a step in the right direction. I began a journey back toward loving myself and giving myself permission to be imperfect. I learned to define myself in other ways aside from the number on the scale, what people wanted me to look like, or how many hours I spent in the gym. I began to focus on being strong and athletic, and understanding how food can fuel performance in the gym. I began living inside my own body again.
Sadly, I do not believe my story is unique. I made a career change to being a fitness instructor, so I see this more than ever. Women who participate in hours of classes or slave away on machines to fit into their clothes, women who ask me for diet advice, what exercises will “tone” perceived problem areas, or how quickly they can “bounce back” after having children, an injury, or setback. Very much suffering alone, feeling like they must cave to the pressures they face or deal with them using food and exercise as placebos. I have been all of them – desperately trying to burn off what I’ve eaten; feeling overwhelmed because I could not stop eating; dragging myself to the gym when I was exhausted, sick or injured; missing out on time with loved ones for the gym.
Many years ago, I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling. Now, I’m posting this online in hopes that it may reach even one person. It starts with language you use and how you perceive food and exercise, ignoring what society or others may tell you, and coming up with different goals for yourself. Focus on something other than the scale or the size of your clothes – the weight you can lift, the distance you can run, or how strong you feel, for example. When goals become things other than looking a certain way, the possibilities become endless. Surround yourself with positive influences, and be a positive influence for others. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and praise the small victories you achieve. Small changes in mindset can be a major step toward finally freeing yourself from the endless rollercoaster and becoming the best version of yourself.
About Caroline Horstmann
Caroline Horstmann is a greater New Orleans area fitness instructor and semi-retired lawyer. She teaches classes at Hour Blast, Ochsner Fitness Center, and Premier Fitness. She holds a group exercise certification through AFAA and is currently working on her personal training certification through NASM.