How It All Started
It didn’t take much. He was tall and lanky; I was not. But at 5’2” and 100lbs, I was far from overweight. All he did was wrap his hand around my arm, and then do the same to his own. An alarm sounded in my head — but on the outside, I didn’t move a muscle. I knew exactly what he was doing: he wanted to see if I was bigger than he was. I turned away very calmly without a word and left the room.
The following day began as usual. I hung around my 13 year-old peers, giggled my way through class, and turned in assignments late. Then lunchtime rolled around and I simply sat there. “I’m just not hungry,” I told everyone. The truth was, that friend from yesterday was sitting too close for my comfort. I couldn’t let him see me eat.
And so began the beginning of my dark days. As the months rolled by, I continued to skip lunch. And as I began to drop weight off of my already-petite frame, the compliments started rolling in. You’re so pretty. You’re so skinny. How do I get a body like yours? I loved it. No – I relished it, and I craved more. My breakfasts soon consisted of a few quick bites of whatever was on the table, and dinner was cut in half. My stomach growled on a constant basis, but that only made me feel strong. I have the power to resist the food; I can do anything.
It wasn’t just the eating, of course. As the star of my school’s swim team, I was pressured to perform. I was also on the varsity cross-country team at the time and my days consisted of long distance running followed immediately by two hours of grueling swim workouts. To that, I added a daily regimen of 200 pushups and 500 sit-ups every evening. I felt so accomplished.
Fast forward to six months later, and I was sitting at 92lbs. I ran into a friend’s mother who hadn’t seen me in almost a year. She gasped in delight, cooing over how much more attractive I’d become. “You’d look better if you dropped just a little more weight,” she said. “Maybe another five pounds or so.” My heart dropped. What I was doing was not enough. People were still not happy with me.
|“You’d look better if you dropped just a little more weight,” she said. “Maybe another five pounds or so.”|
I think something went off in me that day, and I went just a little bit crazy. I cut my food even more, and my exercise regimen became obsessive. I worked my way up to 300 pushups and 5,000 sit-ups. I spent my Friday evenings peddling away for a full three hours on the bike instead of hanging out with my friends like I so often had done. After all, it was the perfect opportunity to burn more calories, right? I was a social butterfly no more. I stopped laughing, I stopped smiling, and my thoughts revolved exclusively around food and the next time I could exercise. I went from being a mediocre student with the occasional C’s to straight-A perfectionist. Everything had to be exactly the right way; everything had to be planned out in advance, practiced until flawless.
Later in the summer, my family went out for lunch. I was vehemently opposed to this idea – I hadn’t eaten out in months, and who knew what could happen? – but was forced against my will to sit and eat. I felt nauseated because I could feel the food sitting heavily in my stomach. I’m going to gain all that weight back, a voice screamed in my head. Once we returned home, I walked nonchalantly to the bathroom and quietly closed the door. I wasn’t even thinking. I bent over, stuck my finger down my throat, and promptly threw up. I blinked. Then I smiled to myself as I wiped my vomit-stained mouth. Well, that was too easy. And that’s when bulimia entered the picture.
|I smiled to myself as I wiped my vomit-stained mouth. Well, that was too easy.|
I was shipped overseas a few weeks later to attend summer school. It was the first time I was away from home for an extended period of time. I took advantage of that opportunity, and in my unhealthy state of mind, I delighted at the fact that my eating would not be monitored. I plunged deeper into my anorexia as I stopped eating almost entirely, only wolfing down food every third day, only to throw it all back up. My hair fell out in clumps, and I had long since stopped menstruating by then. I ran for 90 minutes every day with no rest. I made no friends that summer. I returned home teetering just over 80lbs.
High School Years
9th grade was a transitional year for me. Entering the high school scene was challenging enough, and add to that my struggle with food. I continued in my extreme, obsessive, restrictive ways for a number of months, but then something happened.
My body was royally pissed off at me. I wanted to continue starving myself, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. What happened to my will power? Was I getting weak? I felt defeated as I slowly increased my exercise even more to compensate for the food I was inhaling. Although I was purging on an almost-daily basis, my face, my legs, my entire body started to fill out again as I slowly began to put the weight back on. I felt constantly bloated and the shame was never-ending.*
By 10th grade, I was no longer anorexic but the bulimia still loomed ominously overhead. I was back to a healthy weight of 103lbs. I couldn’t seem to go more than a few days without binging and purging. It was such a vicious cycle: the anxiety-ridden urge to inhale as much food as possible, the panic as I forced myself to throw up, the vowing to never let this happen again as I brushed my teeth and tried to get the smell of vomit off of myself, the hiding of the bloodshot eyes, the feeling that I’d failed… only to do it all over again. If I so much as laid eyes on a plate of crackers, I had to eat the entire thing. And then I’d purge. If I was offered a few Wheat Thins, the whole box would be devoured within an hour. And then I’d throw up.
I wanted to be anorexic again, I really did. I yearned for it. But my body had had enough, and the feeling of my stomach eating away at itself was no longer something I could ignore. The incredible rush I’d once experienced from not eating for more than 24 hours stopped coming. I felt like I’d failed myself because I couldn’t make myself stick-thin again. Although I’d stopped my daily ritual of pushups and sit-ups, I still exercised for months and months at a time without taking a day off.
Protein? Carb? Fat? I had no idea what they were at the time, and I had no interest in taking the time to learn. I thought it was a waste of time and that I’d be better off continuing my miserable ways. In my mind, there was no way out. I was trapped forever, and the rest of my life was going to be more of the same. Dissatisfaction with my body, and consequently, myself as a person. I was never going to be good enough.
When It All Changed
One day during my second semester of 12th grade, I stumbled upon Oxygen magazine. I know it’s cliché, but where else are you likely to find a flock of athletic, lean women? At first I fell for a lot of the typical hype out there: eat bee pollen, plié squats only, take X Y Z enzymes, these fat burners, and this specific protein powder. I combed through The Eat Clean Diet** as though it was the bible and sucked in every word. I’d come across something that I’d never heard of in my life: you can eat food and not feel guilty or get fat? You can exercise and actually enjoy it? I’d long since given up on the idea that that was feasible, so to read about women who were doing it – and doing it well – shook my entire world.
Almost overnight, my mindset switched from starve, run, binge, purge, starve, run, binge, purge to lift, eat, lift, eat. I spent every minute of my free time devouring information on bodybuilding.com and other fitness websites. I designed my own training programs (poorly made at the time, mind you) and began to lift on a regular basis. I cut down on my cardio, increased my protein intake, and was no longer afraid to eat healthy fats. Oatmeal became a staple in my diet, as did brown rice, fruit, chicken, protein powder, fish oil, nuts, and vegetables.
|Almost overnight, my mindset switched from starve, run, binge, purge, starve, run, binge, purge to lift, eat, lift, eat.|
I hired an online trainer the summer after I graduated from high school, and the bulk of those months was spent adding more valuable tools to my fitness toolbox. I learned about compound movements, proper technique, the importance of rest, and corrected many of my misconceptions about what constituted proper nutrition.
Since then, I’ve undergone two off-seasons to build muscle mass and have made some sizeable strength gains in the gym. While my journey hasn’t been necessarily smooth sailing, I can now say that I have been in recovery from my eating disorder for some time. There’s no guarantee that I won’t fall back to my previous ways. But every day I make a thousand and one decisions, and each time I choose to respect my body, I am winning. And as long as I continue to win more days than not, I think I’ll be all right.
Where I Am Now
Today, I’m the strongest that I’ve ever been, both in mind and in body. It’s been a long time since I’ve graduated from the Eat Clean Diet days. I’m no longer afraid to eat real food – heck, I’ll even enjoy an avocado cheeseburger with onion rings (my favorite) every once in a while. In terms of training, I’m currently aiming to bench 120, squat 200, and deadlift 225 in the next few months. I can do unassisted chin-ups, which is something that I’d never dreamed of being able to do. While I’m far from being the strongest girl you’ll come across, I think I’ve come pretty damn far.
Fitness has become my passion. Over the years – through the depression, the breakups, the uncertainty of my life, the drama – fitness has been the one thing that I could always count on. I’ve competed in the NPC bikini division (now nationally qualified), received my NSCA certification, attended a fitness entrepreneurship conference, and I’ve also become connected to a myriad of individuals in the fitness industry. My heart still races whenever I think about lifting later in the day. I read fitness blogs as I sip my coffee every morning. I get excited when people ask me about training and nutrition. I argue with others about the best tasting protein powder out there (Gaspari Myofusion milk chocolate, hands down). I keep a training log to keep track of my progress and aim to push myself just a little more each week. I understand the importance of rest and exercise it (get it?) on a regular basis. I practically live in my workout clothes. Perhaps most importantly, though, I’ve fully embraced my past now and I’m not afraid to speak out about it.
I can’t tell you with full certainty where my love for fitness is going to take me at this point. For now, I’m doing what I love to do and having fun. Isn’t that that the point? Do what makes you happy, and everything will fall into place. That’s how I try to live anyway.
The moral of the story here is three-fold. First, I want to reach out to others, share my story, and let people know that fit is hip. If you’re in a dark place, know that there is a way out. I’ve been through hell and back, and today I am thriving. You’re not alone. Second, if you suspect that someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to him or her. Sometimes all it takes is one person to save a life. Have the courage to be that person. And third, lifting weights is certainly not just for men, and ladies, I promise you it won’t make you big. I’ve never felt so confident about my body, and that’s all thanks to the iron plates.
* You may notice that I never mention receiving any kind of professional help – and that’s because I didn’t. At the time, I didn’t even know what an eating disorder was and it never occurred to me that I was a victim. Unfortunately, given the culture that I was living in, my behavior was not uncommon and so nobody called me out on it. Seeking help would have saved me years of turmoil and anguish. I urge you to find the strength to reach out to others who may be suffering; you just may save someone.
** As a starter book, I found this perfectly adequate. I’ve even given this as a gift to a friend who was interested in becoming involved in fitness. At this point, however, there are many parts of the book that I disagree with and hesitate to recommend it to those just starting out.
Stay tuned for part II of this article, which will cover the science behind eating disorders.
Sohee Lee is a National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) certified personal trainer. She is currently studying Human Biology at Stanford University and will receive her Bachelor’s degree in June 2012. She loves to talk fitness, admires those who can push and pull heavy weights, and loves her protein. She is currently trailblazing her way into the fitness industry and will shake the entire world, so look out!