The day I got my first period was also the first day that I was strapped into my Milwaukee back brace. For the next five years, I would stay locked in this brace 23 hours a day, with just one hour off for bathing. Obviously, that first day was not the best day of my life. It was also a pretty brutal introduction into adolescence and womanhood — a day that affected my body image for years to come. In fact, now that I think about it, I'd say that brace left scars on my psyche that still endure today. I’d been diagnosed with scoliosis, and the brace was meant to prevent my spine from further curving and twisting. When strapped on, it sat from my lower hips all the way up to my chin. After about two years of the full Milwaukee brace, I got “upgraded” to an Idaho brace, which went from hip to sternum. But, in either scenario, the brace was incredibly uncomfortable and very bulky. With puberty running its course at the exact same time, I felt beyond embarrassed and shy about the changes in my body. I had always been a sporty, lithe, and active kid, but now, my brace restricted my movements, made all physical activity rigid and awkward, and made my body look incredibly curvy overnight. Some girls may not have minded having their boobs looking bigger and their hips rounder, but I just felt totally humiliated. Trapped in this new body, my relationship to food changed dramatically. At first, I tried to fight the bulkiness of the brace by severely restricting my eating. My logic told me that if I were very thin, I could tighten the brace to the point that it would not look so big and clunky on me — almost like a corset. I went through a period where I ate an incredibly restricted diet (if I wanted dessert, for example, I allowed myself one stick of Juicy Fruit gum). But, all my efforts made no difference. The brace was so big that my being thinner did not have an affect on how I looked — at least, not to me. So, I went in the opposite direction. I accepted defeat from the brace and ate whatever the hell I wanted, with no consideration for balance or even whether or not I was full. I had recently changed schools and my new, gigantic appetite got me a lot of attention in my circle of friends. Stupid as it sounds, I started to eat way more than I wanted just to amuse them and confirm my status as “Human GP” — the Human Garbage Pail. (For the record, I have no idea why I craved this title or what about it appealed to me, but then again, does anyone fully understand teenage girls?) I piled on the pounds, hiding it all behind my back brace and large T-shirts. Every time I looked in the mirror, I hated my body. It made me feel disgust.
I was finally allowed to break free from the brace when I turned 17. The timing coincided perfectly with the new popular aesthetic for bodies — from heroin-chic to yoga-fit. Madonna (think Ray of Light Madonna) was the emblem of this new look; she was thin, but she was strong. That was the body I wanted. But, the body I had was flabby: My back and neck muscles had become so conditioned to having support that they were almost completely atrophied. If I looked up in the air at a bird flying overhead, I wouldn’t be able to look forward again without pulling my head up with my hands, like a character out of The Addams Family. I started doing yoga to get my muscle tone back, and looking back now, I can see that I immediately took it to an extreme place. I would go to yoga sometimes multiple times per day, pushing harder and harder. Though I remember being in pain from soreness (and probably also from injury), I had learned to disassociate from pain and discomfort to such a degree that this kind of physical punishment didn’t even register. No matter how hard I worked out or how little I ate, whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw myself inside that bulky, awkward, despised back brace. Then, at 19, I walked into a world that would amplify these insecurities to the umpteenth degree: I got recruited to be a fashion model. You’d imagine that getting recruited to be a model would make you feel on top of the world (and maybe it does for some girls). But, I felt like a fraud. Whenever I walked into a casting, there were hundreds of gorgeous girls, many of whom were ex-ballerinas; I often felt like one of those Disney hippos dressed in a tutu. I tried to compensate for my insecurities by intensifying my extreme exercise regime. If you’re ever curious about a given workout fad, feel free to ask me, because chances are I’ve tried it. I’ve done everything from yoga to barre to CrossFit to long-distance racing. At my peak, I found myself training for a Half Ironman race. Actually, three Half Ironman races. That’s when everything changed.
A Half Ironman is an endurance race that totals 70.3 miles: 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking, and 13 miles of running. Because I am hyper-competitive, I didn’t want to just get through the race; I wanted to land in a specific percentile range within my age group. I signed up for three different Half Ironmans, established time goals, and told myself that I was not allowed to stop doing races until I hit those goals. After months of waking up at 5 a.m. to train with a team, I looked at my body in the mirror at the gym and felt a stab of disappointment. I was training for two to three hours per day — double on the weekends — and my body still was not in the place I wanted it to be. What the hell was it going to take to get it there? I continued training, hoping the hours in the gym would get me to my time goals and the shape I desired. Then, during my third race, something unexpected happened. I was pacing through the running section when I experienced a strange, sudden awareness. I was in disbelief at seeing what my body was capable of. The switch flipped, and where I had once been constantly critical of my body and disappointed in myself, now I felt this pure appreciation for my physical strength, stamina, and health. I’m not sure what prompted this epiphany. It might have had something to do with the fact that all the other runners’ faces around me were twisted in agony, yet I found myself smiling like an idiot. I had just come off a punishing and steep 56-mile bike ride, and I felt awesome! I started thinking about how my body had been through months of grueling training, sleep deprivation, and probably inadequate nutrition. Yet it still managed to be strong, functional, and to enable me to do the things that I wanted to do. It was the first time in my life that I thought of my body in terms of what it could do, instead of what it looked like. It was an incredibly liberating feeling. As I ran on, a voice in my head asked, What could you spend all that time thinking about if you weren’t thinking about being thin? I beat my time goal by three minutes and decided to hang up my racing shoes. The races had served their purpose: Not only had I proved to myself what I could do, but I had also come to appreciate what an incredible organism my body is. I vowed to honor it more, to take care more, to be kinder. Of course, I still have that old, negative voice in my head that spews insults when I look in the mirror, and there is rarely a day that I feel happy with how my body looks. That is still a daily struggle, since my mind has been conditioned to think this way over many, many years. But, now, every time I have a critical thought, I force myself to think a positive one, too — to shut the voice up. Looking “perfect” in a bikini would be nice, but I know now that it’s more important just to be grateful for the healthy, strong body I have. On some level, I feel like I’ve been at war with my body for most of my life. Now, I want to focus on making peace with it and celebrating it for what it is: an incredibly strong vessel, which enables me to live, laugh, and enjoy my life however and wherever I want. Follow Elettra Wiedemann on Twitter and Instagram at @ElettraW. The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.