There are very few pictures of me from when I was bigger, and I keep those that exist hidden away – untagged in the bowels of facebook, in a box at the back of a drawer that I never go into.
Its hard to look at pictures of yourself when you’ve lost weight – now that you know better, you can see that swollen version of yourself for what it really was: unhappiness, loneliness, fear.
I started losing weight in 2005. I’d had tastes with being a smaller size (living in India meant weight loss was inevitable), but it always came right back on and my low point came in Korea. I slipped on a subway staircase in the rain and broke my coccyx.
I spent the next 3 months sitting on a donut pillow in pain at work and then lying on my back watching television in the evenings feeling sorry for myself. It just so happened that the only English programme on was America’s weight loss reality programme The Biggest Loser where morbidly obese people compete to win $100,000 by losing the largest percentage of body weight simply through diet and exercise.
Their journeys, however melodramatic and hyped up for television were an echo of my own: the self-hatred, fear of exercise, the feeling of being overwhelmed and trapped in your own skin. I suddenly realised through my broken tailbone that I wouldn’t always be able to count on being healthy enough to exercise, that I had been taking my body for granted and abusing it in the process.
I vowed that when I was well I would get off the couch. If someone 100kg larger than me could get on a treadmill and try and run, so could I. I was through with ‘living in my head’ and decided to move into ‘my whole body’. I realised, at age 24 that I’d never be the girl I imagined if I didn’t draw a line in the sand. I joined a gym.
I didn’t know about crossfit then, but the programme I followed had remarkable similarities. I did two things: First, my mother sent me a book called Strength Training for Women which proposed the radical idea that putting on muscle would speed up your metabolism and that women need not fear ‘bulking up’ through a strength based programme. I started doing heavy back squats, bench presses and dumbbell curls. The first day, I couldn’t do a single lunge, let alone with weights – I was winded after the ‘dynamic stretching’ warm-up.
Secondly, I decided to learn to run. My first day required 6 intervals of 30 seconds running and 2.5 minutes walking. I literally had not run for at least 1o years (not even to catch the bus) and this almost killed me. I got off the treadmill and vomited, but I persisted.
Over time, the weight fell off. I was able to run (albeit very slowly) for 4 or 5 minutes consecutively – though this took months of work. Random old Korean ladies at the gym started miming that they were noticing a difference in my appearance (BEFORE YOU VEWY FAT-UH NOW YOU VEWY GOOD-UH).
These memories help me a lot, years later, when I struggle with a plateau. There was once a time I couldn’t do 5 air squats, I think. There was once a time I struggled to run for 30 seconds. It makes being annoyed that your back squat PR is still 70kg seem a lot less important.
I came to crossfit when I was struggling to maintain my weightloss. I noticed it creeping back on despite going to the gym 3x a week, and training for a 10k… bit by bit, it came back. This feeling is indescribable: to know you’re getting bigger and find the usual tricks you used to lose the weight in the past have stopped working. You can’t help but associate weight gain with ‘unhappiness’ gain and a trajectory towards a former version of yourself you don’t want to be anymore.
I always thought that once I lost the weight, that would be it, struggle over and I’d be happy for the rest of my life with better jobs, better boyfriends, better everything and I’d never think about it again. The long-term effects on my metabolism of being so heavy at a young age never occurred to me. But the reality is that I will have to be proactive in order to maintain my weight for the rest of my life.
At first, I got a personal trainer. With a few tweaks to food and a lot of squats I got back to where I wanted to be. But he was expensive and it was unsustainable. And then crossfit came into my life. I knew enough about plateaus to know I need variety to fight them. I knew enough about muscle to know I needed to be strong. I knew enough about cardio to know I needed to be able to move my own body weight. I knew I needed professionals who knew my name and cared to guide me through the rough patches. I needed all this for a reasonable and sustainable monthly fee.
What crossfit has given me is perhaps the final piece of the puzzle – both mentally and physically. Training is randomized and challenging to keep me from plateaus, but more importantly I aspire to greater things in crossfit than I would have ever hoped for in a high street gym. My focus is no longer on getting into a smaller jeans size or a number on a scale – it on my PBs, my overall health, how many full pressups can I do in a row. How many burpees in 10 minutes, or WILL I EVER BE ABLE TO DO A DOUBLE UNDER?
I used to think, in that strange gym in Korea where all the girls were given pink gym clothes and all the boys blue, that I was only doing this temporarily: I hated exercise so much that I would do it in the short term for long-term happiness. I didn’t realise that I was changing my life forever, that I had to change my life forever in order to become the me that I wanted to be.
Nowadays, when I speak about exercise I do so carefully. I don’t ‘work out’ or ‘exercise’, I train. When people ask me what I’m training for – a marathon? A triathlon? I usually give some bland answer about just enjoying exercise, but in my head I think “I’m training for LIFE”. I’m training to live, but I’m also training to ensure I remain fully and completely alive.