How Fitness Destroyed My Mental Health

And what I did about it.

Sidda Lee
Sidda Lee
Dec 14, 2020 · 9 min read
Photo by Lenin Estrada on Unsplash

When I fell from fitness grace, it had been a long time coming. Losing my child and the complications I had afterward, followed by the grief, only appeared on the surface as the main culprit. It was not. I had been descending for a while. Years of restrictive eating and behind the scenes berating of my body, fat-shaming from doctors and every other corner of the world, and destroying my already beaten and battered body were unraveling long before Eliot died.

This is a story of how I got here. A 100+ weight gain and then weight loss turned personal trainer, battled infertility, recurrent pregnancy loss, then suffered a stillbirth, gained some weight back, quit the fitness industry for good, destroyed my body and my mental health in the name of fitness and fertility, yet somehow lived to tell the tale about it. A culmination of the events that led me here, peppered with my regular life of living PCOS (poly-cystic ovarian syndrome) and military spouse, moving every 2 years.

First, women’s bodies (not men’s bodies) are so heavily scrutinized historically throughout our culture that entire books are devoted to this one subject. That isn’t new information. Marilyn Monroe changed the perception in the 1960s from the previous feminine and flawless standards. Her influence is one we still reflected today.

We are told what is beautiful, desirable, and attractive, leaving very narrow margins for bodies that are outside of this standard. Research suggests girls as young as age 12 begin internalizing this messaging and as a result, the self-shame cycle starts.

Health professionals fat-shame at a disturbing rate. This isn’t limited to women, but it is a cause for extreme concern. Research is emerging that estimate 60–83% of female patients are misdiagnosed or ignored altogether when they visit their doctor.

In the fitness industry, this is still reinforced. In best-case scenarios, body fat versus lean body mass is measured but the reality is most gym-goers don’t have access to these measurement tools and most trainers don’t focus on it. There are no feasible reasons to be in the gym that is not to “get skinny”. And to achieve true “womanhood” getting “skinny” is to achieve fertility, a desirable body, and that will ultimately bring happiness.

We equate feminine with a certain body type and womanhood with fertility. Success only happens with both these things. Our worth becomes tangled in this web of falsehoods and it’s reinforced in every corner of life.

I knew at age 12 that fertility would be an issue for me. Following emergency surgery, (the second “bikini cut”, the same incision used for C-sections in my 12-year-old life) to remove a large ovarian cyst, I spent most of my teenage years with regular pelvic exams in gynecologist offices. A fate that would not bestow my peers for a solid decade or more. Much to unpack in that trauma in a different story. I was given blind prescriptions for birth control with no discussion and no input from me. “You’ll never conceive own your own”, “Expect to require help”, and “Watch your weight”, were phrases I heard repeatedly. They were too big and too far away for my young mind to comprehend.

I was a skinny, curvy, healthy teenager. But all those comments about my weight left their mark. I didn’t eat much of the time. It’s cringy to me now to think about the years I spent eating nothing at all or existing on one meal per day. In college, the stress, the hormones from years of birth control pills, the minimal income, and cheap food showed up on my 5'2 frame.

When I lost all the weight, I did so with honest blood, sweat, tears, and hard work. I prided myself on doing all the work myself. I cut out sugar, alcohol, high glycemic index, and processed foods. I knew it was and would be harder for me with PCOS, a fun perk of having an endocrine disorder. I fell in love with powerlifting. The first sport that celebrated my naturally strong and non-runners body. When I chose to leave my corporate job for one in fitness, it was because I passionately wanted to show other women how strong they were already, regardless of what the scale or their clothing size tag said.

What I didn’t know at the time is that there is an extremely ugly, untold, underbelly made up of body dysmorphia, shame, self-hatred, eating disorders, and physical complications within the fitness industry and diet culture that leech out into society. Something much bigger and far more damaging than TikTok trends or the hottest, in-season fashion.

Beneath those beautifully sculpted, progress photos on Instagram and all those fitness accounts with recipes that are 99% recycled information is a huge failure. The truth does not sell, but having the perfect body and the perfect diet does. Scant bikinis, single-digit clothing sizes, and goal body weight. Fast fixes, easy to follow protocols, and “flexible” diets do sell.

Most of us buy into it whether we want to admit it or not. Coaches would not be peddling their programs over on IGTV if we did not buy into it, and women, including loss Moms like me, would not crumble under the pressures of having postpartum bodies.

Entire industries are built on the backs of desperate “fat” people, regardless of their life circumstances or other health factors.

As the weeks flew by and I managed to surpass the first-trimester mark, the place where every pregnancy failed for me, I panicked. I could not untangle pregnancy from the thoughts of “going backward” and regaining all 130 pounds I had worked for 10 years to lose.

I know that sounds ridiculous but detailing how deeply damaged I was from spending years in a profession that judged me on my body’s appearance would require a whole novel. With any endocrine disorder, but especially PCOS, you basically are working three times as hard as others for the same result. Insulin resistance is a real bitch and translates itself into creating a truly delicate bodily system. High levels of androgen hormones and cells that need sugar but are locked to the uptake make for weight fluctuations that can be upwards of 10 pounds or more, overnight.

Factor in those two c-section cuts I had. Then factor in the repeated pregnancy loss. The years I watched my friends fall pregnant and then repeatedly return to their small, six-pack ab, selves while I continued to carry a “Mom shelf” without being a Mom felt like torture. Leaving that first-trimester window was terrifying to me. The added levels of high amounts of estrogen that my body naturally does not have anyway tanked me into a spiral of the hell that is prenatal depression.

An entire lifetime of feeling the weight of failing at fertility, failing at having the perfect or even healthy body, while being more dedicated and depriving myself of nearly everything I loved, coupled with some trauma from my past seemed to seep out of my expanding body. It was as if everything that had ever happened in my life that I thought was behind me, suddenly wasn’t.

Six months after Eliot was born still, when the physical complications cleared me to return to fitness, I couldn’t. I would pick up a barbell, maybe push out a few reps, and then burst into uncontrollable sobs. I thought I had lost interest in all of it. Telling myself that it happens because it does. You grow and change through life. I missed it but found myself being overwhelmed at the idea of writing out a meal plan, calorie tracking, and having a training plan for myself. I — a trainer, and nutritionist — overwhelmed with it because I am a human experiencing real life, too. I paid money to other people on the internet who promised to help me deal with my eating disorder. It failed. Why? Because none of the ones I could find had their own personal experience with it.

Instead, I created my own “protocol” (on accident) that worked for me.

I unfollowed every fitness account.

If you have ever lost any amount of weight or gotten into a gym program, you likely follow some, if not many, accounts on social media of the gurus in that sphere. Whatever worked for achieving a desirable “fitness” goal is now an IG account full of promoting whatever it is. MLM weight loss products, diets, surgeons, workout programs. Now, here we are with massive amounts of “fitness” accounts from self-made experts.

Despite knowing how to discern fact from Instagram, and perfect body fiction, it was still difficult to navigate. What they served to do instead was make me feel like I was failing nearly every second of every day. How could I ever get back to any of that? I was convinced I never would and never could. (And I know that if it happened to me it happens to all of you, too).

I unfollowed them all. Including my long time friends.

I ate whatever I wanted.

When I felt like it.

When you spend literal years in a caloric deficit via point or container systems without having a professional or the knowledge to calculate proper macronutrients and intake needs for your body, you will damage your metabolism. I did not know this in the beginning years but even after I learned, it was still extremely difficult. My body always reverted to undereating or giving off few (if any) hunger cues during periods of stress. The idea of meal prepping and tracking felt too overwhelming to me, so I didn’t.

It took many months before I did not have extreme food anxiety over this. The panic about what I was putting into my body, how it would show up on the scale, how far back would it set me ate me alive (pun intended). So, in moderation, I ate whatever sounded good to me. There were truly no good or bad foods for the first time.

I moved my body in whatever way felt good to me.

This meant taking long walks or hikes or doing some heavy squats or deadlifts until it no longer felt good anymore. This also meant I was much less active than I had been previously and sometimes, I did not move it at all.

I spent years dedicating between four and six days a week with a training plan of some kind. My rest days were what we call “active rest” days. Meaning that, even on days without a set plan, I was still gently active (re yoga, walking, hiking, biking, rowing). It took a massive amount of self-restraint to not fall into a trap of feeling like my “training” was pointless when operating at minimal levels like this but eventually, absolving myself of the pressure to perform was a much needed mental break.

I ditched my Fitbit.

The thing is, there is little to no science behind 10K steps per day. They are inherent estimates and, therefore, often incorrect. Stirring a pot of soup on the stove can be registered as steps regardless of how expensive your fitness device is.

Either way, it is not any measure of self-worth, and I have had many clients also fall victim to this mentality too.

I shifted my definition of fitness.

Most people, including too many in the industry, think of fitness only as physical health. This ideology is how women like me fall into this trap of achieving weight loss, exercise, and then “falling from fitness grace” after a pregnancy, loss, or because life just happens. But fitness is all things with a small mindset shift. It sort of went like this: instead of training sessions, I started viewing my therapy appointments as my workout for that day.

Because…

Fitness is living now. No fluff. Fitness is mental health. Fitness is self-care. Fitness is balance. Fitness is connecting with friends. Fitness is enjoying life in the body you have at this moment.

Not when you lose 10 more pounds. Not when your 1100 calorie diet allows you to purchase those smaller shorts or gifts you a “bikini” body. Not punishing or berating yourself for working out or for not working out.

If you have experienced this burnout or fall from the good graces of all the things that fitness as an industry is, please know it is not a reflection of you or your self-worth.

You can heal. You can love yourself again. You can wear whatever you want and eat whatever you want, too.

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Sidda Lee

Written by

Sidda Lee

Resident black sheep. Generational trauma explorer. Survivor. Advocate. Old enough to have a skincare routine.

The Virago

We are a community of strong women who share our personal stories about how we’ve survived and thrived in our lives. We share our messages to heal and help others learn from our experiences

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