‘Whatever, at least I’m skinnier than you.’ I took off my shirt, sucking in my stomach.’: Woman warns against diet culture, promotes body positivity

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“I started noticing diet culture and comparing my body to others around the age of 5. My mom is Ukrainian and we grew up Ukrainian Catholic, and she put my brother and I in Ukrainian dance classes around that age at our church. During dance lessons, the girls were expected to wear a leotard. I was a chubby (not necessarily fat) kid but despite that, the teacher would always tell me to ‘suck in my stomach’ during lessons. I remember feeling like I wasn’t as good as some of the other girls in the class, and often felt bad I couldn’t move the same way as them. I didn’t know it then, but this first glimpse into the rather dangerous world of body dysmorphia is where my journey began, and the worst was yet to come.

The years that followed were some of the hardest, not only for me but for anyone who was in a larger body. Kids at that age have no filter and it felt like it was so normal to comment on other people’s bodies. This was exacerbated in the changing rooms, where the worst part of the body-shaming happened. I remember the bigger girls would go into the stalls to change, while the rest of us all changed out in the more open room together. I distinctly remember one day in the change rooms where I told a girl, ‘Whatever, at least I’m skinnier than you,’ as I proceeded to take off my shirt while sucking in my stomach super hard. It seemed that each of us was stepping on the other to hide from the hatred we were developing for ourselves.

girl in Communion dress with family
Courtesy of Racquel Wallen

Luckily, I never received any food guilt from my parents growing up—I was very much allowed to eat whatever I wanted. However, my parents, more specifically my mom, would comment on my body and say how much bigger mine was compared to my friends. Sometimes her friends would even say, ‘Maybe she’ll grow out of it.’ (Like you just become thinner after a certain age, right?) Of course, this was damaging to hear—especially at such a vulnerable age. I constantly felt like I needed to change my body. It also didn’t help that, as someone who is also of Jamaican descent, it was expected of you to finish your plate and never refuse food from a family member at gatherings, but it was also a problem being in a bigger body. I find this all so ironic looking back now because my mom had and still has a larger body. I realized growing up this was just society’s influence on her and she was just projecting that onto me.

The summer leading into eighth grade is when I started my first diet. It was during these times where my parents allowing me to eat whatever I wanted was used against me. I heard from others my best friend at the time was saying how ‘gross’ it was my mom would bring me fast food during lunch once a week. It felt like what I was eating was ‘bad’ and I shouldn’t be eating it. Needless to say, that person was no longer my friend after that. But it was the combination of that and being influenced by my other weight-obsessed friend that caused me to go on a diet. The thought that thinner was ‘better’ was reinforced even more and I decided to go on a diet to lose weight. I would heavily restrict my portion sizes (think just a baked potato for a meal), and I started going out for runs. Of course, doing that for a couple of months, I lost weight. My parents never noticed though, I was so good at hiding how little food I was eating and they thought I just ‘grew out of it.’

In high school, the diet culture battle continued. I really wanted to get into modeling. I would watch America’s Next Top Model in hopes I would one day be on the show. So I went to an agency and they said I needed to clear up my skin before I joined and no other place would take me if I didn’t fix it. Needless to say, I did not join them and they only heightened my insecurities around my acne. Around 11th grade, my friends told me about this casting call that was happening and I jumped at the chance. I go in, do my walk, tell them a bit about myself, only for the casting agent to tell me I needed to lose 20 pounds to even be considered. I felt so defeated and felt like my dream could never happen. I was fortunate enough to come across other people who liked my look and shot with me exactly as I was. Modeling was a huge factor in developing my confidence and being comfortable around a camera.

woman in blue shirt with curly brown hair smiling
Courtesy of Racquel Wallen

Despite the leaps and bounds I made in my confidence, the thought I needed to change my body became more prevalent in university. It was in my third year I decided to take fitness more seriously. That journey started out because I didn’t want to end up like my mom who has had a heart attack and now has mobility issues because of double knee surgery and shoulder surgery. I wanted to do everything I could to make myself strong with the hopes I would never experience what she did. I didn’t realize at the time switching gears and aiming for a muscular physique (six-pack, toned arms, and legs, etc.), wasn’t all that different from the headspace I was trying so desperately to escape. I would constantly watch ‘what I eat in a day’ videos and people’s workout routines all the time. I downloaded a calorie counter app and was super strict about what I ate and how much I exercised. I started wearing waist trainers and sweat belts all aimed at getting that perfect ‘hourglass’ shape… a shape mostly created by Hollywood’s plastic surgeons. This became my ideal look and I lost sight of the fact a ‘natural’ body was never made to look like that.

I had gone from one body obsession to another and lied to myself that my intention stemmed from health rather than vanity. Looking in the mirror started to become a huge obstacle for me as well. I would focus on every inch with a magnifying glass and list all the changes I wanted to make. No progress was enough to satisfy me and my daily life was starting to be affected by it. I refused to skip a single workout session and would only go to restaurants when I’ve had time to research the menu and prepare what I planned to order ahead of time. It was exhausting.

The moment that turned it around for me, the moment I knew I had to realign myself, was realizing I prioritized a workout over being there for a friend in need. I consciously chose to do a workout BEFORE going to check on a friend who had just been in a car accident… I was so ashamed that sticking to my gym schedule meant more than being there for her that I immediately decided my mentality around food and exercise needed to change.

woman laying down with balloons
Courtesy of Racquel Wallen

My body positivity journey began in 2018 by listening to the ‘ShesAllFat’ podcast. It was here I started to learn about fat allyship and how unjust it was for people in larger bodies to be shamed. Soon after that, a couple of YouTubers I followed started talking about intuitive eating and listening to your body. So I went further, I researched more into intuitive eating, Health At Every Size, BMI, and all of the false beliefs I was taught about how I should look, eat and move my body. It felt like I was escaping a sort of ‘matrix’ that was keeping me in this insecure version of myself because these weight loss companies wanted to profit off of me. It’s crazy to think how much money I was throwing away on detox teas and pills, cleanses, weight loss plans, fat burners, sweat belts, etc. Anger was a great emotion I used to really change my mindset towards dieting and take the steps necessary to escape its grips like deleting my calorie counter and unfollowing toxic social media accounts.

While I was going through this whole diet culture epiphany during 2018-2019, I was working as a Human Resources Administrator for a transportation company. I quickly realized corporate life was not for me. I hated reporting to someone, not to mention the management was terrible. My mental health was suffering and I hated when my alarm went off in the morning. One day in July 2020, one of my coworkers called me and said he was going to hand in his resignation. My first thought was, ‘Don’t leave me here to suffer.’ After the call, I just sat in my car and asked myself if I wanted to continue being this miserable. Of course, the answer was no. So I said screw it, and walked into the office, opened up Microsoft Word and typed out my resignation letter right then and there, printed it, signed it, and handed it in. Best feeling ever.

woman with two buns in her hair
Saint Aubyn Photography

I knew I had a higher calling, a higher purpose than to just sit behind a desk. I had thought about doing personal training for the longest while but it wasn’t until that moment I decided to take the leap. Looking back it felt like nothing but brilliant and divine timing. I felt secure in my knowledge and knew I wanted to take a more anti-diet approach to my training and help others break free of their own limitations as I did, and continue to do. I knew so many women were going through the same toxic beliefs and behaviors I was, and I made it my mission to help them escape that ‘matrix’ too. No one should have to go through their whole life hating themselves and constantly worrying about the look, size, or feel of their body

woman in neon green outfit, standing confidently
Jhxrrxs Photography

I don’t consider myself a body positivity coach though, I do spread the message of loving your body, but I do recognize for a lot of people out there (including myself) it is difficult to always love your body every single day. Some days you will still wake up not liking how you look, so I like to take a more body kind approach. Thinking of being kind to my body gives me space to still feel what I’m feeling, but also still respect it and nourish it and it helps keep in mind I know this bad body image day will pass. In all truth, this work is a lifelong journey, you need to constantly stop and check-in with yourself, but I would take living my life on my own terms over following the rules set out by someone else.

So if you’re one of the many people out there trapped in diet culture, I’ll leave you with these thoughts. How can you reasonably expect to find confidence in yourself when you’re looking for it in external factors? It’s easy to limit your mindset and define yourself based on society’s norms and expectations, but these are often only surface-level standards. You are more than that, and you are more than your physical body! No one on this earth was made by accident and no one was made like you. You aren’t supposed to be or look like that person you’re seeing on social media, nor are they supposed to be or look like you. If everyone was the same, life would be so boring. Think of all the awesome things different people in your life bring to the table just by being who they are.

It’s my goal to break the generational curses and usher in a new era of self-confidence and love from the inside out—an era where the changes you chose to make are for yourself and not for, or because of, anyone else. But the only person who can choose to break that cycle for you, is you… are you ready?”

woman in orange shirt holding a bowl of food
Of the Saint Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Racquel Wallen, CPT from Toronto, Ontario. You can follow her journey on Instagram 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.

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