What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Two months ago, I finished university and finally returned home. My parents decided to stage an intervention — for my body.
I've always had a personal history of sucking at keeping myself accountable when it comes to food. One slice of pizza? That wasn't going to fly with me. But many pizzas and late night snacks later — combined with the sedentary lifestyle of a university student who preferred Netflix over exercise — left me with a muffin bulge and a 20-pound weight gain that put me in the red. My dad, the healthiest person I know, decided to become my personal trainer of sorts.
"Your glycogen stores haven't depleted yet; more vegetables and cardio for you this week," he would say. He never let me starve, and I was grateful for it, but I would be lying if I said I didn't miss carbs. Give me white bread over carrots any day. For the first few days, I smuggled packets of crackers to my bedroom. He was furious. Not because I ate the crackers, but because I lied to him and myself about sticking to the plan.
It hadn't always been this way. I wasn't a star athlete in high school, but I actively took part in dance class and Chinese martial arts lessons. I loved my food, but Mom made sure the kitchen was stocked with healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables. We were never big on chips and soda to begin with, and instant ramen was only eaten in dire situations when we were out of food. Eating and exercising was never a mental challenge that required a head count of the calories I could consume and burn afterward. I was happy with the way I looked — even when the rest of my teenage friends didn't, thanks to the influx of mixed messages featuring stick-thin models and other beautiful celebrities that TV and magazines bombarded us with.
That all changed in university. Living on my own without my mom stocking groceries weekly meant I had free rein over whatever I wanted to eat. I was too engrossed in course work and my social life to focus on working out. I started dating someone who loved food as much as I did. Before I realized what was happening, food slowly began changing roles. Back home, food had been a source of nutrition. Now, it was a source of comfort. Instead of channeling my frustration at the ever-growing pile of course work and social activities, I turned to tubs of ice cream to de-stress.
I started taking notice of the skinny models in the magazines. They were thin, had fair unblemished skin, and were, therefore, successful. Growing up, my Asian parents taught me that potential employers sought workers who looked like they were capable. They wouldn't hire someone who wasn't even capable of looking after themselves, my parents reasoned. To them, capability equated to physical appearance and first impressions, and I was growing further away from the Asian ideal of a socially acceptable body.
I whined about my fat to my boyfriend, who assured me I was still beautiful, but at the same time expressed concern that I ate whole cartons of ice cream when impending coursework deadlines weighed heavily on my conscience. I stopped showing up in social events because I felt ashamed about the way I looked. I pored over fitness articles offering diet plans and fitness regimens that I didn't even bother trying, all the while ruminating about how unhealthy I felt.
Coming home after graduation meant not only a complete overhaul of all the bad eating habits I gained, but also overcoming mental stumbling blocks when it came to food and the way my body made me feel. As expected, I had just enough motivation that first week to last me from Monday to Wednesday. By that Thursday, my enthusiasm waned as energy levels started to drop, and Friday brought me an embarrassing breakdown. I couldn't will myself out of bed. I curled myself into a ball and cried until noon, the fatigue from my aching muscles refusing to provide the catharsis that I sorely needed. My dad commented on my lack of physical activity with a steely gaze that made me feel like a loser.
The second week, I tried to skip working out, feeling fed up with the entire process.
My dad was done treating me like an adult.
"How can I expect you to move out of this house if you can't even look after yourself?"
He had a point. At home, I was lovingly fed with correctly sized portions of delicious food. I was reminded every single day to treat working out as a priority, not a second choice. My health was of the utmost importance. I had to stop treating it like an option. I couldn't give up because I wasn't perfect, as I had at university.
Today, I still feel like a loser. I may be 20 pounds lighter now, and yet I'm nowhere close to my target. But now I am a loser with a potential to win. I will continue to weep over every slice of cake uneaten as I dig into my daily salad lunches. I will continue to lament over my cheap sports bras that don't seem to support my boobs well enough whenever I do any jumping exercises, which is why I personally think that cardio is a death sentence for women. This week, I will stop pretending that I enjoy exercise and that food is a reward. Food is fuel. Exercise is a necessity.
But fitness positivity is not.
You see, the other half of every fitness journey is the psychological minefield that every person has to overcome. Raise your hand if you have ever tried to start a health kick only to fail a few days later and then give up for months at a time. Guilty? You know you are, but you shouldn't be.
We hype ourselves up with so-called "fitness positivity" or "fitspiration" quotes that feed our insecurities when we don't achieve perfection. They tie physical activity to self worth, a marriage that can have disastrous effects on one's psyche, like it did mine. We already live in an age where we're inundated with images of celebrities with svelte physiques and magazine covers promoting "fat-blasting" workouts. Why should we mentally torture ourselves further with one-line catchphrases that only serve to bring us down when we don't achieve bodily perfection?
Take the following "fitspo" quotes, for example:
Sore. The most satisfying pain.
Soreness is not satisfying. Please warm up and cool down after exercising.
Believe that success is your only option.
It's OK if you can't do 10 reps. You can only do eight? That's fine. Go get 'em next time, Tiger.
Sweat is magic. Cover yourself with sweat daily.
Honestly, I don't get how this is inspiring. Sweat is gross, so please take a shower after you work out.
What you eat in private, you wear in public.
So if I eat peanuts, should I start wearing a dress made out of peanut shells? No. This is terrible fashion advice, and it only serves to make you feel bad about not looking like a carrot. We exercise and eat healthy to BE HEALTHY.
You're only one workout away from a good mood.
"Fitspiration" is what got me into this mess in the first place. Before going to university, I was healthy. I did martial arts and yoga, I took walks every day in the park, I ate a balanced diet, and I got a good amount of sleep every night. At university, it was harder to achieve balance amid all the distractions. I could blame my weight gain on coursework, friends, parties, Netflix, and snacks, but my warped perception of obsessing over perfect body only brought down my self-worth when I didn't achieve what I wanted.
And when I didn't achieve what I wanted, I gave up.
Now take a deep breath and repeat after me: "I don't need this bullshit in my life. I work out and eat healthy because I need to."
Intent isn't the same as doing. Do more and "think about doing" less. You'll thank me later.