Healthy, Skinny, Fit: My Long and Winding Road to Body Acceptance

Ooh, things are about to get real. As I grow more and more dissatisfied with the be-perfect-or-get-out nature of social media presence of countless health and fitness celebrities and #fitspiration gurus, my desire to raise my middle finger to this culture of perfection has grown proportionately. Today I want to talk about the battle that I’ve quietly fought for years, and why the time has come to put an end to it. If you’ve ever experienced anything similar, I hope my message reaches you.

If you met me in real life, you would never think that I am one of so many people in our Western society who has had history of struggling with their body image. I’ve never been particularly large, nor have I ever gotten so skinny that it would have invoked concern from friends and family. I’ve never been clinically diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia (although today a condition called EDNOS, or Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, is recognized by specialists). But one thing no one has ever noticed is that for as long as I remember, I’ve been desperately running away from the possibility of gaining weight. I have to admit that over the years, this mad dash has gotten tiresome.

As a person who blogs about plant-based nutrition and health, for the longest time I’ve subscribed to and promoted the idea that being healthy implied a certain degree of being fit. It never registered with me that one could be fit and healthy while looking anything other than a skinny fitness model. Was I brainwashed by the mainstream media? Looks very likely. In a battle for a perfectly skinny body, I spent years manipulating my food and exercising with abandon.

Satyrical Women's Health magazine cover rendition by David London

Everything that’s wrong with the mainstream idea of fitness and wellbeing for women, summed up in one place by David London (artwork used with permission).

I don’t remember when my obsession with being skinny started. As a child, I was a little bigger than most girls my age. I hated sports and gym classes, and would always rather read a book than run around with other kids. I hated how I got ridiculed for being the  slowest or the weakest kid in my gym class at school. Little by little, the idea that I needed to lose weight to fit in creeped into my head. I started working out at home at around 13, skipping dinners whenever I could to speed up the weight loss. At 15, I started attending aerobics classes, and my ‘baby fat’ was finally gone. Other kids and even adults took notice. I loved hearing compliments about my newfound slenderness, but at the same time, the fear of gaining the weight back and losing my newly obtained popularity became the new normal.

In the following years, I developed a formula for a ‘perfect body’: I would eat as ‘clean’ as possible all day, mostly low-calorie veggies with bits and pieces of ‘lean meats’ and dairy (that was before I went vegan). Then at night, I’d indulge in some decadent dessert as a way to reward myself. Right afterwards, I would feel guilty about it, and go to bed with thoughts of all the exercise I’d have to do the following day to combat those dessert calories. Every now and then I’d binge uncontrollably on various treats, usually late at night after a stressful day, and go to bed hating myself for the lack of willpower.

One thing that shocks me today is how our society’s obsession with thinness has become the new normal. The best compliment most women would love to hear is, ‘You’ve lost weight!’ It doesn’t matter if the woman started out on the bigger side or if she’s always been kind of skinny (my case). The culmination of of the “skinny = great” absurdity for me happened in my mid-twenties, when I was going through crazy stressful time, and somehow eating very little or skipping meals altogether started feeling comforting. My newfound obsession with running was also adding to weight loss. I reached my all-time low of 110 pounds (which was pretty low for my curvy 5’5″ frame) while running intervals 4-5 times a week and eating half a sandwich for lunch and another half for dinner. You wouldn’t believe how many compliments I heard from everybody who knew me! ‘You’re so skinny, what’s your secret?!’ I’d eat more food when out and about with friends, but would always follow with an all-out run the following morning. Only years later did I finally realize the unhealthy nature of my efforts to be the fittest and the leanest.

No matter how low my weight got, I continued to be critical of the way my body looked. I became obsessed with being able to fit into the smallest sizes of my favorite clothing brands, since size zero seemed the epitome of perfection. If the smallest pants wouldn’t zip up, I’d get seriously sad. ‘How much harder do I need to work out and diet to get a perfect body?!’  I believed that all I needed to do was a few skipped dinners, or a giant salad hold-the-croutons (carbs are evil, right?!). ‘You need to eat less fat. Less carbs. Less everything.’

Going vegan at the age of 28 changed my relationship with food. I’ll admit that originally I was attracted to the health and weight control aspect of eating plant-based rather than how my food choices affected other living beings or the planet. Little by little, my reasoning for being vegan shifted, but the same body image demons continued to creep up their heads. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you probably remember that last year I got bored with running and decided to focus on lifting weights. Except I told myself – and everybody – that I still wanted a challenge, a competition with other female weightlifters. Instead of wanting to show off my physical strength, my twisted logic decided that I needed to focus solely on the looks. I started training for a bodybuilding competition in the bikini division – and a total disaster followed. The stress of having to portion and weigh all my foods, stay away from treats, and being allowed only one ‘cheat meal’ a week weighed heavy on my mind. Once again I was feeling trapped by my own dietary choices. Eventually the pressure got unbearable, and I did something I never thought I’d ever do – I quit.

That was in October of last year, and in the months that followed I did a lot of soul-searching trying to figure out why I imposed so much pain on myself with food and fitness. I started seeing a therapist, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done at the time for my physical and mental health. I read a lot about feminism, and embraced the idea that the substance of one’s personality is so much more important than what one’s outer shell (the body) looks like. I changed my approach to fitness from being focused on looks to seeing what my body could actually do. I switched from a regular gym setup with multiple machines, treadmills, etc., to a functional training gym (kind of like Crossfit) that my friend has recently opened.

How I overcame body image issues and learned to accept my strength2010: At 25 (non-vegan), my weight went down to 110 pounds as I restricted my food with occasional binges and all-out exercise almost every day. 2016: At 31 (three years vegan), I’m more than 20 pounds heavier while eating whatever I want and lifting weights 3-4 times a week.

My current workouts include mobility work, Olympic and powerlifting moves, metabolic conditioning (shorter, high-intensity cardio workouts, often with weighted accessories). Friendly atmosphere and zero judgement inspire me to come back again and again. There are no wall-sized mirrors at my new gym, so the satisfaction from my workouts comes from my new PRs and not from how I look in my fancy workout pants. In fact, I’ve gained about 10 pounds in the recent months, but I view this change in a positive light because my new muscle mass allows me to lift heavier than ever!

This has been one of the hardest blog posts I’ve ever written. I rewrote the whole thing at least three times, and a few times got very close to deleting everything. In an effort to be honest, I kept finding more and more unresolved issues from my past that keep me from making peace with my body image. I would have loved to say that I’m completely cured from being negative towards my food and my looks, but honestly, it’s a work in progress. I try to keep my thoughts balanced, and whenever my inner conversation about my body shape gets negative, I try to talk myself out of jumping down that rabbit hole. There’s no bottom there, and it will only get darker the deeper I fall.

So why am I telling you all of this today? I’m here to promise that from now on, whenever I talk about health, I’ll be focusing on the way being healthy makes us feel rather than how it affects our weight. Whenever I talk about fitness, I’ll be talking about what our bodies can do rather than what they look like. Health and fitness stereotypes need to be set aside if we step on the path of self-improvement. Measuring pounds and inches can only go so far. And what’s the point in pursuing progress anyway if this pursuit leaves us miserable?

As a vegan, I believe that our food choices go beyond what’s on our plate and how they relate to our health. I stepped on this path as a self-described plant-based diet enthusiast, but in the three years that followed, I’ve embraced the much deeper idea of veganism as compassion towards everyone. That compassion goes out not just to other living beings but to ourselves too. Kindness doesn’t care what the number on the scale says.

So please be prepared if I interrupt you when you start putting yourself down for gaining a few pounds over the winter. You are f*cking gorgeous right now, no matter what the scale says! If you’re with me, let’s raise our middle fingers high and proud to the conventional body image perfection!

Further Reading:

‘The starvation study that changed the world’ – how the dieting mode may change our mindset and lead to disastrous consequences. From Refinery29.com.

‘This is what my eating disorder looked like’ – a former professional fitness model describes her body image lows during the height of her career. From SarahVance.com

‘What I’ve learned from training for a bikini competition’ – my own experience in the world of looks-based fitness, plus 5 things every aspiring bikini competitor should know. By yours truly.

Know someone who would be interested in reading this post? Please share it with them! And stick around for more awesomeness – you can follow Vegan Runner Eats by subscribing in the top right corner of this page, or by following the blog on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram!

About Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats

Alina first made a switch to a vegan diet in 2013 to optimize her athletic performance as a marathon runner. Being vegan eventually opened her eyes on the issues of animal welfare, environmental protection, human rights and feminism. Alina hopes that her blog will help its readers on their path to making this world a better place.

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17 Responses to Healthy, Skinny, Fit: My Long and Winding Road to Body Acceptance

  1. Brenda says:

    Good for you and thank you for that is an inspiring message!

  2. Angie S says:

    GREAT post and very timely for me. I’ve made drastic changes in my diet (vegan as of 7/24/15) and fitness routine (didn’t exist prior to 3/2014) over the last two years – and it shows! I love the compliments, but they were always centered on how much weight I’ve lost, not what I did to get there – which I feel is what it SHOULD be focused on.
    I’ve only just come to realize that because of a anemic issue I was having, I was still weak (NOT vegan related but people loved to try to play it that way, so I’d bring up terrible fibroids and period problems and they’d quickly STFU!) and could only do so much at the gym. Now, I have my energy back, added more weight, and GAINED on the scale, but feel amazing.
    Screw the number on the scale, I’m now focusing on how I feel, not a number.

  3. Susan Kelley says:

    Great post. I think with social media that this issue is far more prevalent than we realize. My hope is that– like your post– a vegan lifestyle isn’t held to blame. Congratulations on your journey to health. The world needs more strong women!

    • Alina says:

      Thank you Susan! Yes, I’d like to emphasize that unlike many ex-vegans, I don’t blame vegan diet for making my food restriction habits even worse. I’m healthier now that I’ve switched from focusing on skinny to being strong, and I’m more convinced in my vegan ways than ever!

  4. Lori says:

    Alina,
    I can’t emphasize enough how much I loved this post! Like you, I have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder (although I’ve probably gotten close to the criteria for bulimia) but have suffered from ‘disordered’ eating since I was about 13. As a skinny teenager, a few adults in my life (probably with low self-esteem of their own) jealously complimented my flat stomach and skinny legs; this left me with weight expectations that were impossible to maintain past puberty. I have always been fit and a healthy weight, yet I still consider my ‘real’ weight to be 10 pounds lower than I am now (even though when I was there I was grumpy and exhausted). I think the more eating disorders, especially EDNOS and BED, are studied, the more we will realize that there is truly an epidemic of disordered eating particularly among women in this country. People (like you!) bringing it up helps the public understand the magnitude of this problem.

    Putting pressure on researchers and media institutions alike to promote healthy body image rather than “healthy” body size goes a long way. To me, the most frustrating defense of body-size obsession is the obesity epidemic, especially considering that the greatest predictor of binge eating is having recently been on a diet. People who love their bodies take care of them–that’s what we need to teach, not fear of fat.

    In addition, I think we have to recognize the power of families and communities in perpetuating body-damaging stereotypes. When so many girls in America grow up with their mothers on strict diets, and when the best compliment you can give to a girl is that she looks skinny [or has lost weight], it’s only natural that she’s going to grow up counting calories along with the rest of us. Low self-esteem is contagious.

    Good luck with your continued health journey–you are strong and awesome 🙂

    • Alina says:

      Lori, thank you so much for such a great comment! Good luck on your journey to squash skinny stereotypes for good. I especially agree that we need to stop talking about dieting, etc. around children, because even a few words in that direction can do irreparable harm. I’ve known quite a few adults who had heard weight-related comments at a young age and who ended up with a whole shebang of issues around food and exercise.

  5. Michelle says:

    Thank you. This week I really felt like God has been telling me to let my dad idea of my body image go. While talking with Him I remembered a time when I was a little kid and some girls cornered me on the playground and started saying, “give it to Miley, she’ll eat anything.” From that moment on I was trapped in the belief that something was wrong with me. Even after running a marathon, when I was a the best fitness level of my life, o only thought about how overweight I was. God, in our conversation, reminded me that I am made in His image and that is beauty itself. Your blog couldn’t have come at a better time– a time when j feel like I can finally be free. Thank you for your encouraging and uplifting words!

  6. C. G. says:

    Alina- I’ve been quietly reading your blogs for a couple of years now. Let me tell you, you are an inspiration. I’m a runner, myself. And there is so much pressure in the running world to fit into a body mold! I see so many people, male and female, fall into unhealthy eating patterns, all in an attempt to reach a new “racing weight.” Thank you for reminding us that we’re beautiful, and our bodies are powerful in what they can do and in the miles they can take us.
    Cheers!

    • Alina says:

      Thank you, C.G.! I appreciate that you’ve been reading my blog for a while. I am myself surprised sometimes to see that I suddenly developed this thorough dislike for fitting into molds. Let our freak flags fly! 😉

  7. yarrr says:

    I just came across your blog and I am moved to tell you how much I appreciate this post! Thanks for having the courage to share a very common/connecting story (I recognize my own thoughts in a lot of it) in such a positive way. I recently lost a bit of weight due to a few factors and was really perturbed that (a lot of!) others felt it appropriate to comment on it. It made me feel very exposed and vulnerable… and I will likely put the weight back on in a few months anyways and I feel like that’s my business and no one elses. Why the commentary?!!? Anyways, rant over and kudos to your wonderful work!

    • Alina says:

      Hi Yarrr! Glad to hear my story resonated with you! I agree that the commentary on our weight loss we hear from our close ones is often overwhelming. I guess they’re just trying to express that they have positive thoughts about us, right? And yet it does often seem like it’s a violation of our private space. Thank you for stopping by my blog!

  8. Joyous says:

    Can relate so much to your post and experiences. Thank you for bravely sharing your story!

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