Last weekend I presented in Brisbane at the first Get It Girl event.
The event was aimed to inspire, empower and educate like-minded women on how to best achieve their own health and fitness journey, and my task was to share a little of my own story and insight in doing so. Here’s what I shared...
Firstly, I want to start with asking you this: do you think that right now, in all honesty, that you are healthy and happy?
Unfortunately, I only had about 3 women out of a room of 85+ raise their hand to declare that they were. I’m also guessing that if you’re reading this, you probably wouldn’t have been one of them either, and neither would I.
It has taken me almost my whole life (24 years!) to figure out what healthy and happy means to me, and I’m only just coming close to getting there myself now. My journey has been full of ups and downs to say the least; tiny steps forwards and many steps back, lots of lessons learned and a wavering sense of determination. I’ve made myself proud, but I’ve also let myself down, and I’ve progressed and self-sabotaged on and off without ever giving myself a chance to consistently and sustainably live a truly healthy lifestyle.
Here’s a snapshot
Phase 1: Overweight
For most of my childhood and teen years I was overweight, bordering on obese. I was young and naive, but that didn’t excuse me from looking after my body, especially as I hit my late teens. I had no concept of nutrition or exercise, no desire to prioritise it and as a result, I completely neglected the importance of my body and health.
As a child, this never really caught up to me. I was happy because I just wasn’t basing my happiness, self-worth or perception of myself on my appearance - I was basing it on how hard I could make my best friend laugh, how proud I could make my parents or teachers with my homework and just how much I could fill my days with the things that I loved, not necessarily the things that made me feel good - let alone look good.
Unfortunately, that really nice, ignorant bliss and naivety didn’t last once I reached high school.
All of a sudden, looking good became so important. I wasn’t ’Steph', I wasn’t ‘kind’, ‘funny’ or ’nice’, I was just ‘fat’ and that alone was enough to qualify me as less than worthy of my skinnier, prettier friends. I was bullied daily (not always in obvious ways either), hurled insults and subtly made to feel inadequate, unattractive and worthless. My sense of humour, my grades, my hobbies and interests….none of those things defined me anymore. Only my body did.
I mistakenly learned from a very young age that my appearance determined my happiness, and obviously my appearance wasn’t good enough. So I berated myself, lost any sense of confidence or self-love, and started to internalise a lot of hatred and unhappiness.
By the end of year 11 I had developed anxiety and depression. I would barely speak up in conversations, I wore layers of clothes in the warmest of Summer days to try to hide my body, and I became fixated on how I could change my body so I could ‘fit in’ and be as happy as the people skinnier than me were.
All of the energy I’d previously channelled into my school work, my hobbies, my friendships and just my life in general, was now thrown into a desperate pursuit to lose weight and 'be healthy’.
Phase 2: Underweight and disordered eating
By the final year of high school I had started dabbling in the world of health and fitness. I took the simple approach of eating less, eating ‘clean' and training more - and didn’t really overcomplicate it more than that.
Soon, I began to see results from the simple lifestyle changes. Everyone began complimenting and encouraging me for my weight loss, and I became hyperaware of the fact that every gram of body weight I lost earned me an extra bit of support, attention and validation.
This played upon a vulnerable part of my brain chemistry that was a little ‘off’ and my Type A personality, and everything just fed into that inherent need in me to be in control, to succeed and to push harder.
My brief stint with what probably was a healthy start of health and fitness, soon became a diet full of restrictions, minimal food and a lot of ‘no thank yous’ at parties and at lunchtime.
Within months I lost over 15kgs without ever really understanding how this couldn’t be healthy. If anything, I thought I was becoming healthier than ever - because health had become to be equated with “tiny” and “disciplined” and “in control” and nothing more.
Looking back, I remember how normal it seemed that I felt compelled to do burpees straight after Christmas lunch instead of spending time with my family.
I remember fighting back tiredness to do my strict ab routine I had to do every night.
I remember my mum catching me doing these sneaky bursts of exercise and looking at me with not only disappointment, but also so much fear that she couldn’t stop her youngest daughter from torturing herself.
I remember declining every piece of ‘junk’ food offered to me by my friends, and counting every single ‘no thank you’ to food as a victory.
I remember having fights with my family whenever they tried to make me eat something ‘dirty’ or make me deviate from my strict routine.
I remember watching my mum cry to her sisters on a family holiday she should have been enjoying because she was at an absolute loss at how sick I’d become.
It wasn’t until I suddenly realised I’d gone a whole year without my period that I went to my doctor for advice. After a weigh-in, a few psychological tests and questions…I was diagnosed with an eating disorder on the spot.
Honestly, I had no idea that I’d ever reached this point. I had never seen myself as ’sick enough’ or had consciously accepted the mental health issues I’d come to be consumed by - despite the concern my family and friends were showing for me. Again, I was so naive about just how far ‘gone’ my mentality had become, and I wasn’t really prepared for what was to come for me during my recovery. Thanks to the support of my parents and sister I sought help, and started what would turn out to be 2 years of weekly psychologist sessions, nutritionist appointments and a daily battle with an illness that I never even realised I had.
Phase 3: Orthorexia
That was 6 years ago, and I honestly wish that I could say that after that initial reach for help, that the past 5 years were filled with a positive story of recovery.
Unfortunately, for me, being diagnosed and seeing help only made me more aware of my disordered thoughts and my ‘identity’ as anorexic. I latched onto the idea of a ‘sick, tiny Steph’, and as people tried to take it away from me, I through myself into a facade of ‘health and fitness’ to try to appease them.
I thought that because I was seeing help, eating “loads” of clean foods and getting into strength training that this was enough for me to be healthy and recovered.
I even had myself fooled.
I really only accepted that I needed to recover from my eating disorder if I could fixate on doing it in the ‘healthiest’ way possible.
I probably googled “how to gain weight healthily” every single day, and I was so determined to achieve this really ‘attractive’ and ideal transformation from “skinny to strong” that I saw all across Tumblr. In reality, I actually just went from one form of disordered eating into another, and developed body dysmorphia worse than I even had at the height of my restrictive eating disorder.
At this stage I was so desperate for a healthy body that I became like a sponge - I just absorbed any information/advice/fitness ‘hacks’ I read that told me how I could be healthy and happy. When I then joined Instagram, I easily opened myself up to what has been in some ways the best, and also the most destructive environment for me to ‘recover in’.
I think the biggest reason why I want to share my story is to warn people how easily a ‘health’ journey can spiral out of control when done for the wrong reasons, or utilising the wrong methods to achieve it.
There is SO MUCH information out there about what is ‘healthy’ for us to be doing - and chances are 90% of it is bullish*t, not a “fact” and by no means should be done by every single one of us in order to ‘be healthy’.
There’s also a lot of misconception about what “healthy” even means, because let’s face it - it doesn’t mean the way we look, our weight or our body shape.
I remember throwing myself into Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Guide because I wanted my legs to be as thin as hers. I couldn’t understand how hours of high reps and cardio wasn’t making me ‘lean and fit’. Then I came across the “girls who lift” movement, and all of a sudden I became consumed with living up to the ideal of being “strong not skinny” and tyring to gain weight solely through gaining muscle.
In either case, my body was never good enough, and I was still constantly fighting against it to achieve a ‘look’ I thought would bring me health and happiness. The entire time my mental health was neglected too, because all I was invested in was creating an outward image of ‘health’. If anything, my mind was deteriorating more and more as I threw myself deep into the #fitspo world.
Phase 4: Acceptance and health
As far as I’m concerned now, I spent more than 5 years living under the illusion that I was letting my body and my mind recover because I was doing ‘everything I could’ to ‘be healthy’. When honestly, I was driving myself further and further into illness.
I’m ashamed to say that up until 4 weeks ago, I still couldn’t prioritise my bone density, my heart health or my goddamn hormones and ability to have a child above my ’need’ to be lean, to feel in control and to stick to the routine (read: hell) I’d built for myself.
I was still desperately forcing my body into submission and trying to do everything that I thought was ‘right’ without ever once listening to my body itself. I still felt compelled to be in the gym for 2 hours, 6 times a week and training intensely, I still doubted the amount of food I was eating to the point where it would consume hours of my day, and I was harbouring a lot of negative emotions toward myself. I was exhausted, drove my adrenals to the ground, skyrocketed my cortisol levels and got to a point where entire body aches, chronic daily diarrhoea and weekly anxiety attacks had become all I was accustomed to within my ‘healthy lifestyle’.
That only ended 6 weeks ago, and looking back now, I don’t know how I had myself fooled so devastatingly for so long.
I was literally trapped in the pursuit of physically aesthetic ‘healthy’, not an internal, happy healthy.
As a result, I’ve done a lot of internal damage to my body and sacrificed a lot of life experiences.
Im turning 25 years old this year, and I’ve hardly travelled by myself (god forbid I have to go without the gym or eat different food), I’ve never had a proper boyfriend (nor had any desire to up until recently), I’ve worn a bikini only a handful of times, I’ve chosen to disappoint some of my closest friends just to avoid eating out or missing a workout, and I’ve had way too many days at work where I’ve been unproductive because my mind has been so consumed by food and exercise. I’ve hardly existed in many ways, and that honestly breaks my heart.
People tell me they wish they could “find the strength” to get out of this trap like I’m doing now, and here’s my take home message: you never simply ‘find’ the strength. It doesn’t just come to you one day so you can free yourself easily.
You fight for it.
You work for it.
You build it.
Nothing about rewiring your brain, rebuilding your routine and admitting that what you’re doing isn’t healthy is easy. Over the last few weeks, I have pushed through some of the hardest mind games I’ve had. I’ve broken out of some of my most rigid and long-standing behaviours, I’ve FINALLY accepted that what my body looks like isn’t the point of this whole being “healthy” thing, and I’ve adopted a growing sense of inner peace and acceptance with who I want to be as a person - far beyond what my body looks like.
I’ve learned that even if you’ve put on the weight you need to - or lost the weight you wanted to, gained some definition or muscle, and adopted a diet that you think is ‘right’ for you - you are still not healthy if you can’t miss a workout without panicking, if you can’t eat the foods you want out of fear, if your body can’t have a natural period, if you’re experiencing ongoing digestive issues, hormonal imbalances or fatigue, and if you spend every minute of your day thinking about food and training or checking your reflection for some kind of answer.
Your body honestly doesn’t care if you’re doing everything under the sun to be outwardly healthy.
It cares about how you’re listening to it, respecting it and honouring it’s needs to be internally healthy.
That means having stable energy levels, a strong libido, a regular period, a consistent sleep pattern, a comfortable digestive system and a thriving social and work life. Not shredded abs or killer glutes.
So please know this simple fact about being healthy: you can’t fight against your body, hate yourself or stubbornly ignore all the signs that your body is throwing at you in the pursuit of what you think is healthy.
Deep down, you’ll know if what you’re doing is making you feel and be healthy or not, and only you can own up to yourself and take the steps necessary to get your life back and achieve a truly successful "healthy journey".