from disordered to empowered | a journey of self-acceptance
The waves were small this morning, so I skipped the surf and lounged in bed for an extra hour - allowing myself to ease into the day. One of the many perks of laid-back, island life. The full moon had affected my sleep, and I felt heavy in my body. These subtle cues are something I have been actively paying more attention to over the last few months. And let me say, I find it astounding that as grown adults, we have to put so much effort into something as simple as listening to our own bodies… but I digress.
Since I was feeling stiff, I was eager to stretch out and move around the stagnancy of sleep. I slowly roused myself, taking time to sit outside, journal and take in the sounds and smells of the morning, before getting changed. The gym is only 2 doors down, an easy endeavor, so I made my way over eagerly.
After an hour of organic, unplanned activity - consisting of low intensity strengthening and a bit of boxing - I lay on the mat alone, with nothing but the high-frequency shrills of nearby jungle birds passing through the open windows. I looked at myself through the mirror, folded over my left leg in pigeon pose, and thought to myself:
I have arrived.
The past 10 years have been a chaotic rollercoaster ride when it comes to my relationship with my body. As I'm sure many of you can relate. I faced so many changes during this period, but one thing remained consistent, and that was the value I placed on my body and the belief that my own self-worth was DEPENDENT on how my body looked. My happiness, my confidence, my ability to hold space for love and acceptance - all contingent on how 'thin', 'fit', 'toned', or 'lean' I looked. And when all that went to shit, I felt incredibly lost.
Now fast forward to today, where I've settled in this moment, feeling like I've finally 'arrived' in my body. What does that mean? and how did I get here? Let's dive in:
[age 17-18: the beginning]
When I was 17, I started taking birth control pills. Up until then, I had the body composition of a prepubescent boy.
Thin, athletic, with a chest as flat as a frying pan. And my body was consistent, unwavering. I had a mean sweet tooth, and there was always room for dessert. But I was incredibly active, a natural born athlete, and could get away with eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I faced the teenage social pressures of wanting boobs, thinking about sex and telling myself 'everyone else is doing it' - which was enough of a reason for me to pump my body with artificial hormones, yippee!
I continued to eat the same way, act the same way, and to no surprise, my body started to change. A thin layer of cushion slowly started to fill in around what used to be skin and bones. Hormonal acne developed around my chin and forehead. And I PANICKED. Why? Because now, not only was I a flat-chested 17-year-old. But I was a flat-chested, mild acne-wearing, teenager whose jeans were becoming too tight. For YEARS, I had listened to all my friends fussing over their muffin-tops or shrinking thigh gap, enviously gawking at how I could so easily slip into their old designer jeans they had since outgrown. That was the only confidence I had up until this point. Now I was losing that body, and with it, my self-esteem. Not to mention, being a competitive diver, required me to be in a skimpy one-piece swimsuit for 4 hours a day… Where even the tiniest of changes to one's body would be noticed. And my friends and family weren't shy to remind me that things were changing.
I had no experience or education in what it actually meant to be healthy, but I found myself desperately trying to reverse my current situation. I started reading articles my dad sent me about the importance of weight training. This was new to me, so I took up some exercises in my family's small weight room in the basement. I kept hearing that I needed to stop eating so much sugar and dessert, so I tried to cut back, guilting myself when I over-indulged. Food and fitness tracking apps had become all the rage, so I began logging every meal and snack I ate, recording each and every workout, to see if I could maintain a caloric deficit and return my body back to 'normal'. The more information I absorbed, the more restricted I would become. Amidst this, I realized how much I enjoyed learning about food composition, nutrition, and health.
Rather than just accepting claims like "pasta and bread" is bad, I asked myself WHY and learned about empty carbs. I built a growing, yet over-obsessive, relationship with nutrition, that was a double-edged sword. Because at the end of the day, I was still placing so much pressure and worth on my body image, using health and nutrition to manipulate it and get the results that myself, society, and modern culture deemed optimal. And it worked. My body returned to a better-than-before form, and I saw my confidence skyrocket as a result. a slippery, slippery slope.
[age 18-22: the buildup]
This pattern continued as I moved across the country to attend University, competing throughout my 4 years on the school's diving team. We had intense training schedules, practicing for 20+ hours every week. But I also juggled a strict social-life schedule. I drank vodka straight with bright red, sugar-free crystal light packets to make "healthy" mixed drinks. I started moving towards a low-carb diet. And I did NOT waver from that plan. I didn't even bat an eye when my friends would eat late-night cheese fries in front of me after leaving the bars. My thoughts revolved around food, and I spent my free time absorbing more and more information.
College was fun as hell though, don't get me wrong. I walked a fine line, always balancing between happy go lucky and highly disordered. I managed to keep myself from going to a dark, obsessive place. If I could maintain a strict level of oversight around what foods went into my body, then everything else seemed to flow. I never said no to a party, and kept myself constantly busy with an ever-evolving social scene.
[age 22-25: the rock bottom] This is when everything went to shit. I landed a highly-sought after corporate consulting job with a hefty salary, and I thought I had made it. My whole life was beginning to unfold in front of me, and I naively thought it would bring me endless happiness and opportunities. In ways it did, (at least opportunities), but what it took from me was much greater. I traded time for money, and devoted 90% of my days and energy towards organizing, overseeing and managing meetings and deliverables. Each day was governed by a strict, and packed schedule. I ate all 3 meals behind my computer, and work didn't end when I left the office.
Most nights were spent in bed, in my hotel room, working on spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks, sometimes until the early hours of the morning. I woke up at 5am each day to go to the gym where I forced myself to sweat as much as I could in 1 hour, because that's the only activity I would see for the entire day. I dreaded the gym, my body didn’t crave or need that level of intensity, but I thought it was the only way to counteract life in an office. So, I forced it, day in and day out. Discovering anxiety for the first time in my life was a real slap to the face. I was on a project in Pittsburgh, and it felt like my team and I were always putting out fires. Rushing to complete a task. Fixing yet another huge problem that had somehow sprung up overnight. Around the same time each afternoon, as I sat behind my laptop typing feverously, I would have these pauses where I felt like I had stopped breathing for a bit too long. I would have to take massive inhales to try and satisfy this sudden need for air. but it wouldn't work. I felt like there was a corner at the bottom of my lungs that was starving for air, and no matter how deep I inhaled, I couldn't satiate the need. On top of that, I noticed that every time I ate, my stomach got upset. food (in general) made me bloated, and it felt like meals would just sit, without digesting, for hours. Even though I ate as clean as possible, every meal was take-out from restaurants. And as you may know, when you're not the one cooking the food, you really have NO idea what ingredients are being used and what goes into the end-product you're actually consuming. Oils, salt, sugar, and refined ingredients. Mixed with a triple dose of stress and anxiety. Plus, a steady stream of caffeine - led to a perfect storm inside my body.
I felt like shit. In every way shape and form. My body was constantly inflamed and puffy. My skin was breaking out again, for the first time since I was 17 and started on birth control. I LOOKED different. my face was changing and i didn't have the same zest and energy i once had.
Whenever I had weekends free, the 2 days FLEW by, and I tried to drown my feelings and insecurities with travel, booze and parties. I ran from my problems and distracted myself with surface-level conversations, loud music, and bubbles. I wore increasing amounts of makeup, because I felt ugly. I wanted attention that I wasn’t getting, I wanted SOMETHING or SOMEONE to make me feel whole again. Everything I did was a band-aid. An attempt to forget, or hide from whatever truth was at the bottom of these problems.
I wanted to excel SO badly. Everything I learned growing up taught me that working hard = success = happiness. So WHY did I feel SO lost. I wasn't happy. I didn't enjoy the work I was doing. I was constantly anxious, unfulfilled, and stagnant. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and I had NO idea how to make all of this better. My health was the worst it had ever been - working out more and attempting to eat cleaner, cut out more food groups, only seemed to make things worse. I couldn't keep hiding from this internal unrest, but I was so fucking scared to accept what was going on. I didn’t know how to fill up my own cup. I didn’t even know what I enjoyed anymore, what I was passionate about.
Something had to change. I knew that the second I truly saw and RECOGNIZED what was happening - that there wasn't going to be a quick fix, and that I was living out of alignment - I would have to uproot everything. Change my entire life. Give up stability, security, and dive into the unknown. And that was scary as hell.
The struggles I initially faced with my body had turned into something MUCH bigger. It was no longer about how I looked. It was about how I felt and who I was.
So, I faced the question: how to get back into alignment in every aspect of my life?
[age 25-27: unlearning and undoing]
So, I let myself hit that rock bottom. I felt so low, out of touch, hopeless. But I knew that I was the only one who could pull myself out. I couldn't keep on like this any longer. And that realization was HUGE. The simplest act of quiet awareness can sometimes be the hardest.
What happened over the next 2 years was a lot of trial and error. It was a period of unlearning everything I once thought I knew about myself, and rewiring my beliefs. I could write a book about these 2 years. and maybe one day, I will. I thought that my body was the root of my issues. And that diet and exercise was the solution. Instead, I uncovered the real problem, which was that I didn't know myself. I didn't know my truth, my values, the pillars of my unique experience. Rather than paving my own way through life, I was following someone else's instructions. And in doing so, I lost who I was. I placed importance on material things, external validation and a false illusion of safety and security, when I was meant to be seeking meaning and purpose.
So, I got quiet. I started spending time alone. I listened to endless podcasts, initially about health and wellness, which slowly spread to the practices of spirituality, mindfulness, and holistic healing modalities. I was learning about things I had never heard of before: human design, adaptogens, manifestation and the law of attraction… and I couldn't get enough. Walking and podcasting became a form of medicine, and a new form of exercise. I learned that LESS IS MORE. I didn't need to be doing the extremes, working harder, pumping my body with more adrenaline, cortisol and stressors. I actually needed to rest, and learn to listen to my body.
My interest in fitness shifted to an interest in health more broadly. I wasn’t searching for how to get a six pack. I was instead learning about what foods prevent, rather than promote inflammation and disease in the body. How caffeine can increase our stress response, and the detrimental effects of processed, chemical-ridden foods. Emphasizing the power of clean water and hydration. I put my faith in nature, fueling myself with whole foods, in order to FEEL good, rather than look good.
These teachings and practices all led me to the same realization: I needed to drastically change my life. I couldn't live this duality, with one foot in health, wellness and spirituality, and the other in corporate, fast-paced, money driven society. I decided to quit my job, book a 1-way flight to Indonesia and put faith in the universe. Trusting that if I continued to listen to my heart, chase the things that give me energy and light me up, and surround myself with beautiful, compassionate, empathetic human beings - everything else would fall neatly into place. And that's exactly what happened. Minus the neat part (I mean, I've been living in Asia for god's sake… NOTHING here is neat).
Which brings me to the last piece of the puzzle. I picked up surfing in October of 2019, and that was what tied everything together. I fell head over heels in love with the sport - the ocean, the culture, everything that came with it. I was waking up at dawn because I LOVED it. Not to exercise, not to change my body, not to burn calories. Because I had a fire inside that pushed me to progress and learn more and more about the endless magic the ocean offers. I stopped forcing myself to go to the gym, stopped trying to place rules around what my body needs.
And everything fell into place. Health and happiness became natural. The more I let go of the reins, and stopped trying to force western ideology and cultural expectations onto my body, stopped looking for a one-size-fits-all fix to look a certain way, my body and my mind started working together. All that time I used to spend stressed about how I looked, was repurposed learning about things I actually cared about. I connected with inspiring and expansive people, and spent increasing amounts of time in nature. My digestion issues began to ease, and for the first time since I was 17, I started intuitively listening to my body. Feeding it with love and whole-food nutrition. I could breathe easy, without the looming, anxious weight on my chest, restricting my inhales.
This inner peace radiated from inside out, a warm, golden glow radiating from my skin - replacing what was previously a dull and hollow emptiness.
I surfed and surfed, creating a new normal, finding a new balance. Until one day I woke up on a day with no waves, practiced self-love just by listening to my body, and realized…
I have arrived.