Disclaimer: This story contains details of eating disorders that may be triggering to some.
“I was born during the last decade of the USSR in Kiev, Ukraine. We had two channels on TV: Channel 1 and Channel 2. Eventually, they added a third and that was pretty exciting. When the Soviet Union was overthrown and the barricades went up in Moscow, all three channels played ‘Swan Lake.’ That’s how we knew the ground we stood on was about to give way. Chernobyl blew up when I was seven years old and I remember having to spend the summer traveling around in order to avoid the radioactive cloud. The store shelves were empty a lot and finding chewing gum was somewhat of a miracle!
It was certainly a very different childhood from the one I experienced when I moved to the USA at the age of 12. We planted ourselves straight in the heart of San Diego and my first memory of our new country was staring up at palm trees. The amazing palm trees I still love so dearly welcomed me to this country! I was filled to the brim with new experiences and impressions. For one, I never saw a store where you could buy literally EVERYTHING. K-Mart was the fulfillment of all my childhood dreams. I reveled in my new found treasures of Barbie dolls and bright-colored leggings.
I wanted badly to fit in at my new school. That did not go too well. It was an inner-city school where I was probably one of five white kids in attendance. Talk about a culture shock! Until I was 12, I had never seen anyone who wasn’t white in my entire life. All of a sudden, literally overnight, I was thrown into a very diverse classroom. I was a child and couldn’t speak English either. The scene made for a cringe-worthy after-school TV special.
It was hard. I desperately wanted friends and kept getting mocked for how I looked or talked. I found the only way to get any attention was to be as pretty as I could be. My identity began getting wrapped in how I looked, how many friends I had, and how mean I could be to other people who happened to be weaker. It was power at its worst. I didn’t have to dig too deep to access it because I was primed for this behavior. Eastern Europeans are not known for their acceptance or compassion. The people are tough, they hold back a lot. They judge, criticize, and tear down anyone who tries to be different. This was engrained by the Soviet regime.
Women are tough. They have to be! In a country where their ENTIRE value is based on how well they take care of their families, how well their kids are performing at school, and how they look, if you don’t learn to be stoic, you struggle.
Women are expected to be gentle yet work hard and provide for the family. They are expected to be feminine and taken care of, but not overly pampered and lazy. Getting married is really the only ambition any woman should have and if she isn’t married by the age of 25, she is called names and pitied. There is little room left for compassion. I grew up hearing a regular stream of meanness directed toward other women for being too fat, too ugly, to unfit ‘to wear that dress.’
Comparison, competition, criticism. The three deadly Cs, as I like to refer to them. The shaming was awful but it was a socially acceptable way to get the slacker back in order and fast. The rigid code of conduct was carefully observed and upheld by the women themselves. Strength was modeled to me as being stoic, not displaying any feeling no matter how badly you hurt, and never, ever sharing your struggles with anyone else. That was a weakness. It was weak of me to cry when I got my adenoids pulled out without anesthesia at the age of eight or nine. I was not being brave when I ran out of the dentist’s office before another torturous session of having my teeth drilled and filled, all without anesthesia.
My 20’s and 30’s were characterized by endless and persistent self-image struggles. Comparison was my way of life and I operated on a faulty belief if I just lost 10 more pounds, got a bigger bust, and developed a smaller waistline, I would finally be happy. And accepted. And liked. Things would just work out.
I approached all my workouts with a penance-type attitude. I was absolving last night’s extra few calories eaten out of sheer hunger. I would halt a workout and walk out of the gym if I spotted a fitter girl. That’s how insecure I was. Denying myself meals was my favorite pastime and I was good at it.
Self-compassion and acceptance were not in my vocabulary. I thought I was unhappy because of the way I looked, not realizing it was my attitude toward myself and my lack of acceptance of my body as something unique and wonderful that was poisoning my life. What’s even worse is I believed I was the only one to feel this way. Yes, the lies you tell yourself will build walls around you and eventually completely isolate you.
I met my husband, John, on an international flight when I was 29. I was flying to Ukraine to meet my dad and my sister for the first time. We both switched seats and ended up sitting next to one another for 12 hours. We chatted throughout the flight and in the end, I remember thinking, ‘What a nice guy. Too bad I’ll never see him again.’ Six months later, we began emailing, which progressed to texting, and grew into long-distance dating, as he lived in Chicago. I ended up leaving my wonderful San Diego and moving to Chicago!
We spent the next 5 years living in the Chicago area and after we had our first daughter, Abby, in 2014, John got a job transfer down to Mobile, Alabama. No more brutal winters! This was when my struggle really intensified. I now had the postpartum body to ‘fix’ and I was determined to do it fast. With very demanding workouts and undereating, I came down to less than my previous weight in under a year. I obsessively thought about food, worried about missing a workout, and was terrified about getting ‘fat’ again.
After I had my second daughter, Keira, I was faced with the same daunting task of weight loss. I shed it again. Only now, this severe lifestyle was beginning to take a noticeable toll on my well-being. I struggled with severe anxiety, post-partum depression, chronic insomnia, and thoughts of not being a fit mother. I shamed and blamed myself for not being like the other mothers that had it all together. I hated myself for not being able to set a ‘good’ example for my girls and this drove me even deeper into a pit of despair.
I remember laying down on the bed with Keira, nursing her to sleep, and reading a book I’d just picked up at a garage sale for 10 cents, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie. This was the first time in my life I started wondering if I could change myself, change my thinking. A seed was planted, carrying the message that my thoughts were my own and I could change them if I wanted to. My reality was not shaped by my circumstances, but by the way I reacted.
I went through a couple of years of therapy and that was when I began reading books about emotional and mental well-being. I had always been a prolific reader but I never thought before I could read about changing myself for the better. Up until then, I believed that was impossible. You were born a certain way and you would die that way. This is what I was taught as a child, another nugget of wisdom passed down to the young.
I stumbled upon the books of Brene Brown about vulnerability, Kristin Neff about self-compassion, and other authors who opened my eyes to a completely different way of living and thinking about myself and others. The change did not come overnight, but the process had started. I began learning about the immense weight my thoughts carry. Thoughts shape my beliefs, my attitudes, and ultimately, my life.
Little by little, the way I viewed exercise began to change. I no longer wanted to do it as punishment, but as something that was good for my body. I love a hardcore workout! That is just my style and when I approach them with the right mindset, those workouts are amazing! I moved away from fitness trainers I’d been following for years who advocated severe food restrictions ‘to show yourself that you can’ and brutal workout schedules ‘to show your body who’s the boss!’ That philosophy now seemed masochistic to me.
It’s pretty powerful to be able to hear and see something and understand that it’s no longer for you. It doesn’t control you. That it’s not right. It’s as if I tuned myself to a different frequency, and everything else was just static noise. That spirit of discernment is unshakable. I felt I needed and wanted to help other women like myself withstand the overwhelming cacophony of media telling us how we should look, what we should eat, and how we should feel. Health does not equal six-pack abs on the cover of a magazine! You never know the amount of struggle and denial required in order to achieve and maintain that type of physique.
I became a personal trainer and nutrition coach because that was my strong point. But my desire and need to help and encourage women is my passion. I wanted to lend a hand similar to one that was lent to me through different books, podcasts, and inspirational talks by many other women.
It took me many years to be able to share my story with the world and I still wasn’t sure it was a good idea because I was afraid of judgment. I am sure the critics will come but what is even more important is speaking the truth: the truth about the struggle with disordered eating normalized by our society, the truth about destructive thought patterns that poison our very existence, the truth about the shame, blame, and secrecy encouraged by today’s culture.
I want to remind you: being stuck doesn’t have to be the end. Change is possible. One thought at a time, day by day.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Aleksandra Scott. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories like this:
‘It’s NOT postpartum depression. You aren’t suicidal.’ She said to buy essential oils. I feared the worst.:’ Mom’s postpartum depression dismissed for years, ‘I finally have the right people behind me
‘No one else has the guts to tell you this, but you look like a crack addict.’ I was surrounded by a looming cloud of self-hatred.’: Woman beats lifelong battle with eating disorders, ‘I get up every day and fight for my life’
Provide hope for someone struggling. SHARE this story on Facebook to let them know a community of support is available.