‘I want to do one of those bikini shows.’ My ribs were visible and my face was sunken in. My body was dying.’: Former bodybuilder shares recovery journey, ‘You’re whole just as you are’

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Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of disordered eating that may be triggering to some.

“Our society is consumed with toxic messages about weight loss, diet culture, and having the ‘ideal body,’ which can really mess with a person’s head. I remember consuming all these mixed messages. I did not know what to believe, but I was so desperate for a solution. During my second year of college, I had a goal to lose the weight I had gained my freshman year. I picked up running and forced myself to workout purely for weight loss. I hated running and it was not enjoyable. I was constantly comparing myself to others and if I wanted to keep up with what was deemed as socially acceptable, I felt like I had to kick my *ss into gear and start some sort of couch to 5K plan, so that is what I did.

The thing is, I always had a new goal. They became more extreme each time. I remember talking to my partner on Christmas in 2015 and telling him, ‘I want to do one of those bikini shows.’ I had no idea where to start or what my level of involvement needed to be to make that goal happen. After meeting with a bodybuilding coach in March of 2016, we developed a prep plan with the goal of getting me on stage in October of 2016. That year, I became obsessed with myself in the unhealthiest way possible. My life revolved around food, I spent my days living for the gym, and I was never happy with the way I looked, even though I was literally at the lowest weight and size I had ever been.

First Fitness Photography

Bodybuilding consumed me and robbed me of my happiness and joy. I woke up every day, shoved supplements down, worked out, obsessed over myself in the mirror, ate my meals at all the perfectly scheduled times throughout the day, carried around my gallon jug of water all over my college campus, went back to the gym for a second workout, got minimal sleep, and repeated that process day after day after day. I went on a trip to Mexico with my partner’s family, but I was such a buzzkill. I had all my supplements and protein shakes packed, along with my food scale and resistance bands. I spent most of the trip drinking water and working out while everyone else drank tequila and hung out at the beach. I was preoccupied with constant thoughts revolving around food and my body. Everything had to be meticulously thought out. I could not just grab food at the all-inclusive buffets. I had to rip apart the eggs to make sure I was only eating the whites, not the yolks. I loaded up on selective fruits and steered clear of everything that looked amazing, like the pastries which were totally an ‘off-limits’ food to me at the time.

Unfortunately, the restricted cycle got worse and worse as the day of my bodybuilding show approached. I was not able to show up for anyone. My dad was fighting with stage three colorectal cancer and I was emotionally unavailable to take care of him to my fullest capacity. I had the privilege of being in a girlfriend’s wedding as a maid of honor and I brought my own meal to her wedding day, refusing to eat anything besides my pre-measured chicken and rice. My romantic relationship was on the rocks because the only thing I could think about was my self-image. How could I love someone else when I could not even love myself? My life was a freaking train wreck.

Courtesy of Sara Loomis

After I competed in a few shows, I realized during my quest to be healthy, I became the complete opposite. I ended up in the emergency room with a diagnosis of acute kidney damage, I lost my period, and my hair was thinning. I was sick. My body was dying and it had nothing left to give. After deciding and making a promise to myself that I would never compete again, I stepped away from the stage and started seeking recovery. I saw an eating disorder licensed counselor and a registered dietician who both aided in supporting me through anorexia and binge eating recovery.

In 2018, after about 2 years of restriction, while working with these two professionals I was advised to stop tracking my macronutrients/calories. I was scared because I was taking away the tool I used to control my weight for so long. I was terrified of gaining weight and ultimately was scared of what people would think of me. Society praises us for being thin, but when we gain weight, it is often frowned upon. At the time, I had body dysmorphia and believed I was obese but really I was anorexic, my ribs and tailbone were very visible, and my face was sunken in.

Courtesy of Sara Loomis

At this point in my journey, I was introduced to the world of intuitive eating and was told by my professionals our bodies are way smarter than we give them credit for. Our bodies signal off hormones that indicate hunger and fullness cues. When I was dieting, I was so disconnected from my body. I had no idea what that felt like to feel those natural cues and it took me a long time to develop the current beautiful relationship I have with my body.

Recovery was not linear for me at all. There were so many days I did not want to be in my body and feel the emotions of hopelessness and unworthiness. The best thing I did for myself was continuing showing up, even when things felt unbearable. My recovery included multiple nights of binge eating, consuming multiple boxes of graham crackers, ice cream, oatmeal, pancakes, bagels, chocolate, fruit, etc. It now makes complete sense to me, but at the time, I thought I was going crazy or I just did not have the willpower. When you restrict for so long, your body is begging for food. It is just doing its thing by trying to keep you alive. I had been eating 1,200 calories for way too long, which, by the way, is as many calories as a 3-year-old needs. My body was in starvation mode.

Courtesy of Sara Loomis

I felt uncomfortable for a long time during my recovery as I gained the weight back. The most important lesson I learned was becoming unattached to the result, which translates to an unwavering commitment to valuing my mental health over my body image every single day. I learned searching for happiness in weight loss is a quick path to failure. A piece of advice I would give to someone who is currently struggling is remembering you are whole just as you are. You are so important, and your feelings are valid. It can be easy to underplay an experience when you are the outsider looking in, but when you are the one going through the pain, no one can tell you how you get to feel. Always remember: the pain is the catalyst to growth. Without the pain, I would not be the woman I am today. Now I am a certified food freedom coach. I have the absolute honor and privilege to coach other women through their struggles with food and body. I guide them to break up with dieting and never count calories again.

I get it. I feel you and I see you. I lived in this place of pain and suffering for way too long. It feels like a legit prison. I was constantly wondering how I was going to pull myself out of the deep hole I had fallen into. Some practices that really helped me heal were writing out all my food rules and re-writing the narrative. For example, ‘Bananas are too high in carbs.’ My new narrative is I choose to honor my body with foods that nourish me, and bananas get to be included in my life. Something I was invited to do by my dietician was to pick a food that was a ‘bad’ or ‘off-limits’ food for me previously and eat it for a few days. I committed to eating a brownie every day that week and guess what? By day four, I was sick of brownies because when you allow yourself to have food, you are way less likely to binge or obsess over it. So no, it has nothing to do with the willpower BS. Eat the d*mn brownie!

Courtesy of Sara Loomis

Meditation/breathwork, journaling, and intuitive movement are three of the morning practices essential to my recovery and I still practice these each morning. Meditation and breathwork are great because they allow your mind to unhook and they both have really helped me connect deeper with my body. Sometimes it can feel foreign to just sit with yourself in silence and stillness but that is where a lot of the healing happened for me. I love journaling three things I am grateful for that are completely unrelated to food and body. I also write ‘I am in the process of’ statements. For example, ‘I am in the process of nourishing my body’ or ‘I am in the process of self-acceptance.’ These statements are especially helpful when you may not be at a certain place you want to be yet, but you are on your way there. It helped me progress forward each day, knowing it is a process and a journey.

As a certified personal trainer, I also know the power of intuitive movement and the impact it has had on my clients and myself. When you move with the intention to feel good and honor your body versus to punish with the goal of weight loss, the best results are produced. I often talk about the word intention. Whatever it is in life, it must be done with the best intention. If your intention is to go to drink wine because you want to drown out and numb your feelings, that looks a lot different than someone who is drinking a few glasses a wine to enhance the moment.

At the end of the day be gentle with yourself. Know you do not have to love yourself and that repeating affirmations in the mirror over and over will only take you so far. When you are ready to dive a bit deeper and re-create a nourishing relationship with your body, it will be there for you. Your body holds the truth. If you start listening and taking care of it, it will return the favor and take care of you.”

Courtesy of Sara Loomis

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sara Loomis. You can follow her journey on Facebook, Instagram, and her website. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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