A Former Model’s Journey to Self Love
By Stephanie Schwartz, Founder of NamaSteph
Standing barefoot in my skivvies on the cold metal plate of the scale, I waited with baited breath for the news to come. I knew it wouldn’t be what I wanted to hear, what with the way I had been eating like a maniac for the past couple of months. Squeezing one eye shut, lips pursed, I winced as the doctor told me the news. “159 pounds,” she remarked casually while jotting down my weight on her chart. My eyes widened in disbelief as my mouth fell open. And then, just a moment after, the strangest thing happened. My head tipped back and I heard myself laugh.
“You’re laughing at a time like this?,” my hyper-critical inner voice asked in horror. And before I could stop myself, I turned toward the voice, and matter-of-factly replied, “Why yes, indeed I am.”
You see, weight has never been a laughing matter for me. I grew up tall, and I was always aware of how much larger I was than the other kids in my class. Unlike a lot of fitness buffs, I was far from an athletic kid, and my lack of coordination left me feeling oversized and clumsy next to my teensy female friends. Needless to say, my body image as a kid was far from ideal, and even as a prepubescent 10-year-old, how I looked was always on my mind. I casually experimented with dieting and calorie restriction on certain days, always wishing I could make myself look like the models in the clothing catalogs that came to my house.
As I got older and continued to grow taller, I eventually slimmed down, and evolved into a lean and lanky teenager. Despite the fact that I still considered myself “fat” (terrible, I know), a residual mindset from my chubbier childhood, I finally fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming an editorial model, signing with one of the world’s top agencies when I was 16.
I’ll admit it – I’m a perfectionist, and getting signed turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for me to spiral into a full-fledged eating disorder. I wanted nothing more than to please my agent, the casting directors, and the photographers I was going to be working with. I wanted to be ready for lift-off, with no reason not to take flight in my modeling career. I was convinced that I needed to be thinner than I was to “make it” as a model, and that the best way to make that happen was to starve myself.
And just like that, a model was born. Except, not really. Because a strange cycle begins when you starve your body of food. You lose your power, your vibrancy, your mojo, if you will. Without nourishment, you become a gaunt ghost, a shell of the vivacious go-getter you were before. You lose confidence, and energy, and vitality. In the depths of my eating disorder, I was so busy saying “yes,” trying to please the people controlling my career, and failing to take care of myself, that I lost my own inner light – the very vibrancy that helped me get signed in the first place. So it’s no surprise that I rarely booked jobs during that time – there was nothing to me!
So while I may not have found myself on the runways of New York, Paris, or Milan, I did get myself sent to a psychiatric hospital to deal with the mess I had created in my futile attempt to be perfect. Eventually the pressure to stay thin became too much for me to balance while also working to recover from my disorder, so I ended my contract and chose to stop modeling for a while while I got myself together.
Up until that point in my life, I only considered exercise as a tool for “getting thin.” I didn’t do it because I loved it. I exercised because I believed that I had to. I had no intention of becoming strong or powerful. Those words were just synonyms for “fat” in my mind. During my post-hospital days, I learned to exercise in moderation, but it continued to feel like an obligation and I rarely enjoyed it. While my eating habits and body image slowly improved with time, my gym sessions loomed over me, an albatross that I was resigned to carrying for the rest of my life in order to maintain an “acceptable” body weight.
A few years out of college and into recovery, I joined a marathon team to raise money for an eating disorder facility. In the years since my stint in the clinic and as a model, I had become pretty passionate about promoting healthier body image in girls and women, and this cause was dear to me. Unfortunately, distance running proved too harsh for my body, and after it was over, I knew I couldn’t run for exercise anymore. I was panicked – what would I do instead? I decided to turn to the at-home fitness world for help.
Within a few short months, I was hooked on strength training via DVD. I had never worked out like this before – in a functional, engrossing, focused kind of way. I was in love! And I soon began to notice changes in my body that I had never seen before or believed were possible for me – from sculpted arm muscles and a perkier pair of glutes, to a lean and toned core – and all from healthfully working out and eating right! I grew to love the burning sensation of a challenging exercise, relishing the accomplishment of conquering a new move.
When the program was finished, I dove into another, and then another. I had to admire how strong I was becoming externally, but another change was happening internally as well. For the first time, I was happily building myself up, instead of diminishing. Rather than becoming less to be more, I was pushing myself to grow both physically and mentally!
I became a full-blown fitness queen at that point, trying any new workout I could, and for the very first time I started to listen to my body. I’d do yoga when my muscles felt tight and needed a stretch. I’d turn to strength training when I felt stressed and needed more resistance. I’d jaunt into a cardio class when I was hyper and needed an intense energy release. And I realized that by keeping myself well fed, I could do more of what I loved, better.
Fitness turned me from a depleted people-pleaser into a powerful, confident woman, a force that I once would have feared, preferring to shrivel away than embrace my massive potential for greatness. Exercise relit the flame within me, and I came to see and believe that powerful is beautiful. I grew to respect myself, my power, and especially my strength.
So when my doctor weighed me the other day and the scales sang that I had gained weight, it didn’t faze me the way it would have seven or even five years ago. Sure, I felt a twinge of something like anxiety creep into my body for a moment, but it was gone as quickly as it came. I didn’t dive headfirst into a tailspin of self-blame and starvation. I didn’t cry or come undone. I laughed… because I’ve finally come to understand that I am worth so much more than a number on a scale. Fitness showed me that I am a strong and beautiful woman for many more reasons than the way that I look, and living (and sweating) that truth means so much more to me than walking a runway ever could have.
Stephanie Schwartz is a lifestyle blogger and healthy living advocate living in New York City. Her blog, NamaSteph, is an honest and earnest voice for healthy and balanced living amongst millenials. She is currently working on obtaining her Holistic Health Coach Certification in order to continue to spread the message of sustainable, lifelong health through balanced diet and exercise. She is a self-proclaimed fitness fanatic, a recovering perfectionist, and a lover of all things dog. She credits her Midwest upbringing for her balanced mindset and her Jewish roots for her neuroticism. Visit her site to read more of her work!