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A Personal Trainer’s Personal Struggles with Body Image

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Hi I’m Rachel, creator of Own Your Strength. I’m a personal trainer by trade and have been for almost 7 years. I’m also trained in holistic nutrition and life coaching. This is the story of how becoming a “health professional” ruined my body image. Don’t worry – it’s not as sad as it sounds! It does have a happy ending. It led me here to you! If you’ve ever thought you weren’t good enough, if you’ve ever hated your body, if you’ve ever thought that your thighs were too fat, your arms too jiggly, or stomach too soft, then I invite you to read on… you are not alone.

As a personal trainer you’d think I’d have this whole health and wellness thing figured out. But in reality, I had a much better handle on this body image thing before I made health and fitness my profession.

Most of my life I’ve been an athlete. My body was for getting me from A to B, for playing basketball and lacrosse, and for horseback riding. I was not concerned with it being something to show off and definitely didn’t attach my worth to what my body looked like. Sure, I wanted to fit in at school, and worried over what clothes to wear on Non-Uniform Day, but I wouldn’t say that had anything to do with me loving or hating my body.

This care-free attitude towards my body, one of function over looks, quickly changed when I finished university and got my first job as a “Personal Trainer”.

It all started with my very first interview. I was sitting on the fake leather chairs across from the front desk at a franchise gym close to home. I sat nervously, waiting to be called in to meet the hiring manager. This also happened to be the area where new clients waited nervously to meet their trainers for the first time.

After what felt like a century, a woman who looked like she could be sisters with Gillian Michaels, walked over to me. “Hi,” she said, with a bright smile, “are you waiting for your trainer? I’m Sandra, the head trainer here. It’s nice to meet you, let’s get started!”

I would have loved to have seen the look on my face in that moment. Instead of rationally thinking “oh she just made an honest mistake, no biggie”, I immediately thought “Do I look like I need personal training!?”

Wide eyed and my mouth slightly open, I’m sure I looked more than a little surprised. I pulled myself together, and as politely as I could replied “oh no, I’m here for an interview… for a personal training position”. (which was nice-talk for “b*tch please I’m here to do your job, step off”).

Ok, I know you might be thinking. “Whoa! I thought this blog was all about empowering women? And here’s this chick getting all catty just because someone made an honest mistake and asked her if she was there for an appointment!”

Well, you’re right. It was catty. But what I realized years later was that, in that moment, I compared myself to her. I thought “oh… that’s what I have to look like if I want to be a trainer? But I don’t look like that… maybe I’m not cut out for this… Or, maybe I can look like that I just have to try harder… I’ll prove to her that I’m better than her even if I can’t look like that… I got this” *puffs up chest*

In that moment, I decided I wasn’t good enough to be a trainer based on how I looked. That pivotal, unconscious decision paved the way for a host of insecurities to develop at the beginning of my career.

At that time, on the mission to perfect myself, I was constantly trying new “eating plans” (that’s what we call diets when we don’t want to seem like we’re on a diet) to see how my “body would respond” (and that’s what we say we’re doing when we don’t want to admit we’re on a diet to try to lose weight or look different). I was over-exercising and ignoring injuries because I was terrified that if I missed a workout or lowered my intensity I’d be taking steps backwards *no more gainz ☹* and end up getting fat (whatever my version of that was at the time).

Trust me, when you’re surrounded by mirrors and fit people all day it’s easy to find things wrong with yourself… even if you’re one of the “fit people”!

In that environment the dialogue quickly changes from “damn gurl look at you!” to “hmm those tight pants are extra tight…maybe lay off the vegan gluten free cookies” – just by moving from one mirror to the next.

Now, some of you might be thinking… “Pfft. Come on kid, you’re a personal trainer! You have no right to complain about your body. You don’t have the same struggles as the rest of us!”

False. Here’s why.

We like to think that no one has it quite as bad as we do when it comes to, well, pretty much everything. We especially like to trash talk our bodies;

“Don’t complain about your thighs, look at mine, they’re twice the size of yours.”

“I don’t see how you can’t love your body, you’re so fit! Mine’s all soft, I hate it.”

In a society where we’re so intensely self-critical, it’s easy to fall into our default mode of “you have no right to complain” when we hear people share their personal struggles. When we’re in that mode, what we forget is that:

  1. EVERYONE has their own issues when it comes to their bodies, and
  2. it’s all relative.

Just because I went from a size 8 to a size 14 (more on that in a moment) doesn’t mean the impact that has on my body image and self-esteem is less than someone who went from a size 8 to a size 28. It’s all about individual perceptions and how we deal with changes in our bodies.

On that note, I’m not saying that my experiences hold more weight (pun intended) or are more or less valuable than anyone else’s. I’m simply sharing my story in hopes that women can find something in this for themselves. We’re not alone, and by opening up a constructive dialogue on body image and body shaming we can start treating each other, and ourselves, with more compassion in regards to our bodies.

Ok I’ll get down from my soap box now. Let’s continue with the story…

Within the first 2 years of my job as a personal trainer I dropped 15lbs. At 5’10” I was 153lbs – a weight I hadn’t seen since grade 10.

Wouldn’t you know it, I STILL thought I needed to change.

I thought “ok, now that I’m thin I have to build more muscle. I don’t want to lose my butt, but I still have that stupid paunch under my belly button that’s got to go… ok… more abs, more legs, harder workouts, heavier lifting… that should do the trick”.

Fast forward 2 more years. I’d gone to school to complete a diploma in Holistic Nutrition and had gone from 153lbs to 193lbs. I’d gained 40 pounds.

WTF happened!?

I was eating an ultra-clean diet according to the highest standards of healthy eating and I was exercising 5 – 6 days a week.

So how did I gain all that weight?

Maybe it was stress from 7-day work weeks, the 5am workouts before class, and working until 9pm on weeknights to pay for school. Maybe it was a hormonal issue – my hair had started to thin noticeably and I was freezing cold all the time, typical of hypothyroidism. Whatever the case, by 2012 I loathed my body for packing on an extra 40lbs.

No matter how hard I worked out or how “clean” I ate, nothing moved. I just couldn’t get the weight off. I felt trapped in my own skin. Every time I passed a mirror I felt a wave of sadness and disgust with how I had “let myself go”. I was miserable. I can honestly say that in those moments I hated myself.

But that was then. I’m not miserable anymore, and I definitely don’t hate myself.

So how did I flip the script and learn to love my body you ask? Well, it wasn’t easy. There was a LOT of self-pity, complaining, and justifying before I got to the breaking point.

I remember one day waking up and making the choice to just be. Just for one day, not to criticize or be hard on myself. For one day, to do what I enjoyed doing when it came to fitness and even eating. I chose to listen honestly to my body and work with it instead of against it. No pressure. No “you should have worked out longer” or “was that workout hard enough to make up for those two cookies?”. None of that. I simply quieted my mind, took note of what I really wanted and needed and lived my life the way I saw best for me in that moment. It was a great day.

Since then I’ve had many more like it, and many more not at all like it too. I still have moments where I fall back into my old ways. I have days where I wake up late, rush to work, eat everything I see when confronted with stress, want to cry when I don’t get enough sleep, and successfully procrastinate working out long enough that it won’t happen at all… And that’s ok because I’m no super hero. I’m simply human.

We all have our good days and bad. That’s why nurturing my sense of self-worth has been so vital to managing the ups and downs successfully. And that’s why I wanted to share this story with you.

My mission here is to help women have more good days when it comes to being kinder to ourselves and our bodies. Through sharing our experiences, we can come together and find compassion for ourselves and others going through the same thing. Our body is our home. When we treat it well it shows and we shine bright. When we don’t it also shows and we diminish our ability to shine. Our bodies aren’t show pieces. They are tools for experiencing the beautiful, wonderful, magical world around us. Together, let’s look at how we can take care of our bodies and how that, in turn, will lead to taking care of our minds and spirits also. That’s what owning your strength is all about.

*Mic Drop *

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