The Portrait of a Body Builder, Part I: Learning How to Love Myself [Again]

It wasn’t until very recently that I realized much of what I do and how I spend my time in my adult life is a reflection of my desire to ‘prove something’. I am not really sure what exactly it is that I feel like I need to prove or why I feel that way, but there’s this insatiable void deep within my heart that feels like I am never good enough, strong enough, pretty enough, or just enough. So when I set out a few months ago to reclaim my body, I thought body building would be a great way to leave my mark on this world exclaiming, I have arrived! While my hope in body building was to initially acquire a slamming body, what I learned through my dieting and training was more than I could have imagined. Some of the most transformative lessons of my adult life happened in the wee dawn hours before the sun slipped above the horizon to wake the world. Body building gave me a purpose that I desperately longed. Perhaps most importantly though, it gave me the self-confidence to find myself again and the permission to finally and truly love myself.

Throughout my fitness career, I have been blessed with abundant opportunities to teach for incredible companies and studios while maintaining my fulltime position as an LAUSD English teacher. And for years, while my schedule swelled with group fitness classes, I constantly defaulted to simply teaching my classes and then heading home after a long day. Depleted mentally, emotionally, and physically drained from my work as a teacher in so many capacities; I told myself that I couldn’t possibly build myself up to work out. I just didn’t have it in me. I was completely empty. What I also told myself was that there wasn’t enough time for my own workouts—I mean, after all, I work full time,  teach multiple group fitness classes and formats a week; when was I going to workout? Certainly I wasn’t going to workout in the morning because, well [enter yet another excuse and insert eye roll here]; I’m not a morning person.

Sound familiar? Sound like you and every single other person we all know? Plagued by excuse after excuse, I dimmed my own light. Like so many others, I stood in my own way preventing my light from shining bright. In spite of this, I have concluded and now believe we intentionally thwart our own success. Yes, we actually willingly do this to ourselves. Honestly, I think it’s because we are just afraid of our power. I really do. I think we are afraid that if we unleash our true potential on the world that we’ll have something to uphold and live up to. So rather than aiming high and striving for excellence to constantly improve ourselves; we hold back and restrict, constrict, and suppress our greatness in favor of mediocrity because it’s just easier that way. More safe, more secure, more ordinary rather extraordinary. But for me, committing to a body building competition was my way of telling myself enough of this bullshit—you are better than that. It is your time.

Like most things I do in my life I don’t have any breaks. I just jump in fully and commit absolutely, full speed ahead. I took to my 6-day a week training regimen instantly and never skipped a day or workout. This sometimes meant after a day filled with traveling, hungry, and jet-lagged; I still made it to the gym. Other times it sometimes meant finally getting to the gym as late as 10, 11, or even midnight! I even attended my own birthday party and drank water. I sat through countless family gatherings with chicken cutlets, homemade pizza, and BBQ’s munching on chicken breast and broccoli. I totted a cooler around NYC, onto airplanes, and to friends houses. I made no excuses because this time I was going to do this right; I wasn’t going to give up or quit on myself.

Photo credit: Jen Rosenstein Photography

Photo credit: Jen Rosenstein Photography

The more I trained, the less it became about the outcome. Sure, placing in my first show would be really great but I had to detach from that. The work I was doing wasn’t to achieve any sort of external validation, it was only for me. A means to use my body as a vessel to tell a story for the world. To inspire others to find their path and to walk it. To prove to myself that I was so damn worthy of greatness. And perhaps on a level to tell that little chubby girl inside me—the one who haunts me every time I look in the mirror that you are beautiful, smart, talented, and so much more than the number inside your jeans. This journey was about me taking control of my life [for real], taking ownership, and finally proving to no one other than myself that I am effing fantastic. This was my battle cry shouting to the world that I indeed have nothing to prove.

As my training progressed, my yoga practice waned as lifting and cardio started to fill my time. While I may not have been able to practice as much as I typically do or would have liked, my yoga never disappeared. For yoga is so much more than asana (poses). Yoga is something celestial that lives within your heart and the fibers of your being. It’s not really something that you can quantify as it’s an awareness of your body, mind, and spirit—it’s simply just a part of you. My ritualistic yoga practice of staking out my spot in a yoga room, unrolling my mat, and moving my body to my breath was replaced by meditatively portioning out my supplements, packing my gym bag, and pushing, pressing, and pulling weights to my inhales and exhales. So you see, I never abandoned my yoga practice, it transformed.

With my yoga practice nestled closely to my heart, I started to experience something I never could see nor find in a yoga room. Well, actually let me refine that. What I initially found when I discovered yoga was I felt beautiful while practicing. It didn’t matter how big or small I was (as my weight tends to fluctuate pretty drastically). I was boundless on a yoga mat and no one could strip that from me…Until I became a yoga teacher. The competitive nature of the yoga industry, the body shaming, the handstands, fancy arm balances, and the age of the Instagram Yogi made me nauseous. The things I loved and felt while practicing seemed to be replaced with the need to nail an inversion somewhere cool to post on the Interwebs with the hopes of gaining more followers. I found myself swept up not even in the hub-bub of it all but feeling inadequate and frankly, empty on the inside. But body building gave me back something I was seeking and lacking: self-love, acceptance, and it made me feel invincible. Nothing could touch me when I was lifting. No one could hurt me when I was lifting. And no one, and I mean no one made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of something when I was lifting. It was just me, a barbell, and some plates. No bullshit about it. No staging of my photo. No stressing on the perfect alignment. Just grit and determination.

Photo credit: Jen Rosenstein Photography

Photo credit: Jen Rosenstein Photography

So if you’re wondering what I learned from training for my body building competition, I learned that I don’t have anything to prove to anyone or myself. And most importantly, I don’t need to proclaim to anyone that I’ve arrived because well, I have purple hair and you can’t miss me. No seriously though, what I’ve taken away from this all is regardless of my placement in the show; I had already won.

Stay tuned for my second installment of The Portrait of a Body Builder, Part II: Finding Your People. Remember if you don’t already subscribe to my blog to do so by clicking here so you don’t miss a post!