This is not a before-and-after weight loss story.

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My first EVER gym selfie. Ahh!

Just over a year ago, I had my first sit down with my trainer, Coretta. Through my tears, I told her that I had gained 40 pounds since my mother died, and could no longer recognize myself. Depression and a string of injuries had made it impossible for me to train like I always had; as an elite athlete. Not to mention, years of vacillating between extreme calorie restriction and binging had wreaked havoc on my metabolism. I was constantly in pain, and terrified of losing control of my health and dying far too young, like my mother. As much as it pained me to admit, I needed help.

I was nearing my 30th birthday, and was having so many joint problems that I honestly didn’t know what I could even do in the gym anymore. I knew my body needed activity. I knew that getting stronger would improve my mental and physical well-being. But all of my favorite workouts (basketball, soccer, rugby, spinning, and running) were off the table. I hated the gym and resented working out for any reason other than to improve my performance on the field. No longer being an athlete was (and remains) a sore subject for me, and I was resistant to accept that I would need to find a way to love fitness without playing sports.

As soon as Coretta said the words, “it sounds like it’s time to get back to you,” I knew I was in good hands. I had hope.

In the past, I would have jumped immediately into strict “clean eating,” and exercising 6 days a week. Most of my previous weight loss efforts have involved punishing my body by beating it into shape. Those efforts were driven by an external goal — a number on the scale that I randomly deemed my “ideal.”

This time, I started my training out slowly, doing two days per week: one day in the pool and one day on the floor. At first, I hated the pool. “That’s for old ladies!” I would exclaim, with an air of superiority. I wanted the floor. I wanted to lift heavy! I wanted to get immediately back to being the athlete I once was.

But wants and needs are two different things. “You need the water,” Coretta insisted. “You need to recover and build the foundation for bigger things. You need to walk before you run.”

I was a reluctant grasshopper, but I trusted in her deep knowledge and kind heart so much that I fought my (terrible) instincts and followed her instructions. My inner self-judging perfectionist was screaming at me to do more, to push harder, to kill myself to be thin if I had to. But in my heart, I knew that slow and steady would win.

Over the months, I began to shift my perspective and started viewing working out as self-care; one of the most loving things I could do for myself, rather than a punishment for being too large. I have learned to LOVE going to the gym, and the feeling of strength and balance that it affords me. I have learned that maintaining a love of fitness isn’t about before and afters — it’s about the journey, and celebrating every single little gain along the way. I stopped beating myself up with the “shoulds” and started listening to myself instead. My workouts with Coretta became non-negotiable me-time, rather than just another appointment to keep on my calendar. I’ve slowly added more days at the gym each week, and have even incorporated yoga (an exercise I previously deemed “not intense enough” for me), which has helped me tune in and listen to my body.

What a difference a year makes. Today, Coretta had me running sprints for the first time since I started this quest of getting back to me. I should be able to play sports again quite soon, which I’m really looking forward to. But even if I could never play sports again, I am amazed at how much I have learned and how far I have come. I am now the strongest I have ever been (yes, including when I was a college athlete) and I have never been healthier. My joints feel a thousand times better. My resting heart rate is down a whopping 20 BPM from this time last year. And most importantly: I have stopped trying to disappear.

The funny thing is that I haven’t lost a pound. I have lost inches and body fat percentages and a pants size, but not a single pound. The lack of movement on the scale has been very frustrating and discouraging at times, especially when I’m doing everything “right” and still don’t see the numbers drop. My exasperation is compounded when I see friends posting their incredible before-and-after transformations on social media. But one of the biggest lessons that this whole experience has taught me is to stop looking over my shoulder at everybody else and to look within me. Their success is not my failure. Everyone’s journey is different. Every body has different needs. I am only hurting ME by holding myself to ridiculous standards and comparing myself to others. That is what got me into this mess of abusing myself in the first place!

So today, I choose to compare myself to where I was a year ago, and more importantly, to celebrate how far I have come. As I was stretching after my workout, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and for the first time in years, I saw the “me” that I recognize: tall, broad-shouldered, beautiful and strong.

And I had nothing but love for her.

Confessions of a Former Calorie Counter: Why I’ll Never Do it Again

As a child, I was unusually large. Doctors predicted I would be 6’1 based on the size of my hands and feet (er, rather my “paddles” as my mother would jokingly refer to them). I was also quite the athlete, relishing being tall and strong and sturdy. I excelled at basketball and soccer, and my impressive size allowed me to dominate most girls my age. It was not uncommon for my parents to pack my birth certificate with us to tournaments in case of Chelsea Birthers — other parents who just couldn’t believe I qualified for my age group. More than once, a parent or coach demanded to see documentation of my age, as though 11-and-under-soccer was serious enough business to warrant going through the trouble of defrauding the system. In truth, their skepticism at my prowess gave me great amusement and pride.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. I can’t remember the exact moment when it became painfully clear to me that being larger than the other girls was no longer to my advantage, but eventually, cultural messaging, bullies, and my own family urging me to watch my weight kicked in. I learned that a new currency was worth more than athleticism, strength, skill, or even intelligence. The new currency was thinness.

Something I do distinctly remember: being twelve, sitting in my best friend’s room, covering for her while she hung out her window to smoke a cigarette. Her walls were adorned with posters of the Backstreet Boys and silly pictures of our friends. That’s when I noticed something new that I’d never seen before — a note tacked onto the wall, signed by our other best friend. In part, it read “Chelc is annoying, too fat, and needs 2 learn 2 wear makeup.”

With my heart in my throat, I made a quick excuse of why I needed to go home. I spent the rest of the day drowning in tears and self-loathing. If my very best friends were calling me fat, what were the others saying?

That day, I vowed that I would lose weight, no matter the cost.

“Just eat 1,200 calories a day, and exercise,” they told me. “Calories in, calories out — it really is that simple!” I was already exercising a minimum of 15 hours a week with my rigorous basketball training schedule, which at times included two practices a day. So, the only real option was to eat less. Way less.

And so it began.

The first diet I remember being on was Slim Fast, during my Freshman year of high school. I would skip the cafeteria and sneak into my mother’s classroom during lunch to drink my shake in secret, so that nobody knew I was trying to lose weight. That would have been like an admission that I knew I was fat, and my pride would not let me view myself that way, even if others did (example: somebody in my high school created the super complimentary AIM screen name chelcisafatass to harass me). It also helped to hide in my mom’s office so that I wouldn’t cave and order more food because I was SO fucking hungry all the time. How could I not be hungry subsisting on a 200 calorie shake that was supposed to get me through 7 hours of learning and 2 hours of basketball practice?

The rest of high school and college were a blur of low-calorie/low-fat yo-yo dieting. I continued to train hard for basketball, and then rugby, and vacillated between starving myself and eating everything I could get my massive paws on. Throughout it all, there was a constant — the floating number in my head: 1,200 calories.

If I couldn’t live on 1,200 calories a day, I feared I would be fat, unhealthy and unhappy. Nobody would ever love me, and I’d never achieve any of my goals. Why couldn’t I have more self control?!

I did everything that the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry wanted me to do — I subscribed to magazines that shamed me about my body and encouraged me to disappear, rather than to get stronger. I ate horrifying diet foods like egg substitute and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” SPRAY (hilariously, I was afraid that the solid version of this fake butter would be way too many calories). Most disturbingly, I spent far too much of my precious energy and brain power obsessively tracking every morsel of food that entered my mouth and debating things like, is this brand of unsweetened almond milk worth purchasing, with a whopping 40 calories per serving, rather than the brand I normally buy, which they’re out of, that only has 35 calories a serving?! 

I bought the first two Hungry Girl cookbooks, and made myself close barely recognizable approximations of the salty and fatty foods I had grown to love and turn to for comfort. But I never felt satisfied.

I was a hungry girl, all right. I was hungry, depressed, and I was becoming increasingly more sickly and injury-prone. With every crash diet that took 10 or 20 lbs. off my frame, I gained back nearly twice as much.

I was in an endless cycle — practiced insanity — where I honestly thought, and said out loud, “calorie counting is the only thing that works for me.”

I’ve got news for you, Past Chelsea: If calorie counting was working for you, you’d be thin by now. You’d be maintaining your weight, rather than fighting an endless battle to lose it. You would be thriving, rather than breaking your body to reach an unattainable ideal that promises to give you worth. If calorie counting was working for you, Past Chelsea, then you would be able to sustain the habit long-term. Please take my advice — calorie counting isn’t working for you. Oh, and your beloved Hungry Girl? She must call herself that because, honestly, who could ever feel satisfied while barely filling their stomach?! And with imitation food, no less!

Well, Past Chelsea is no more. Today, I’m happy to say that I’ve given up calorie counting once and for all. Through years of food education, I’ve learned to eat (and love!) real, wholesome foods, and to cook healthful meals for myself from scratch, without fake food substitutes. I’ve learned that it’s ok to eat full eggs with yolks and avocados and yes, even butter — that the calories and fat will not in fact kill me. I’ve learned that a half cup of full-fat Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked is a hell of a lot more satisfying than an entire box of Skinny Cow ice cream bars.

Admittedly, I am heavier than I was in my calorie counting days. Part of my weight gain can be credited to the trauma of losing my mother in 2013. Another part can be attributed to a few chronic injuries that keep cropping up as a result of taking poor care of myself throughout my youth. And I think that the rest is probably my body adjusting to getting more food — a result of my steadfast commitment to finding balance after years of yo-yoing between deprivation and binging.

Though I’ve gained weight, I’ve never been healthier or happier with myself. Sure, I would love to lose some inches, but my weight does not define my health or my worth. According to my most recent bloodwork, and the fact that I haven’t been seriously sick in nearly two years (Fun Fact: I used to call myself the Pokemon trainer of flu viruses — had to catch ’em all!), I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, by a long shot. I look younger, my skin is softer, and my hair is longer and healthier-looking than it’s ever been in my entire life. So suck it, health trollers! I’M DOING JUST FINE.

But I’m also a wee bit vain, so I’m currently trying to lose a few inches and build some muscle (I do live at the Jersey Shore now, so I really have no choice in the matter!) for summer, and just generally for health/life/being comfortable in my jeans and whatnot. I even entered a weight loss challenge at my new (hopefully forever!) all-lady gym. Last night, I went for my first training session, and had an absolute blast pushing myself. I explained to my trainer that my goal is to lose the weight the right way (for me): no calorie counting, eating mostly clean, and working out with both consistency and variation.

As I was leaving the gym, a member of the front desk staff stopped me; “you get this book as part of your training package.” She handed me a copy of 1994’s “The 1200-Calorie-a-Day Menu Cookbook,” replete with low-fat recipes, including “ingredients” such as light margarine, reduced fat cheese, fat free mayonnaise, and my old frienemy, butter flavored spray product. I wanted to tell her no thanks, that I would not be partaking in the 1200-Calorie-A-Day lifestyle which almost ruined me, and that the low-fat “health” advice offered in this book is so antiquated that even the U.S. Government has updated their dietary guidelines and evolved beyond using it. But then I thought, better not. And hey, to each their own.

Besides, sometimes, realizing just how far you’ve come really is enough.