Jessi Kneeland I’ve never shared the story of how I found fitness and why it means so much to me. To be honest, I was kind of hoping my passion and message would speak for themselves. There were times I wished I had a more cut-and-dry body transformation story to share. I somehow thought it would make me more legitimate and inspirational if I could say, “I used to be fat and unhappy, but now I’m fit and love myself!”

But alas, I am what I am. And this is my story.

I grew up healthy and confident. Thanks to my incredible parents, I always believed that I was beautiful, worthy of love, and capable of anything. I wasn’t very athletic—the understatement of the year—so my body was soft and curvy, but I mostly liked it that way. Sure, I felt like a complete idiot in gym class, and my friends labeled me a klutz, which kind of sucked. But I just figured we were each dealt our hand and mine was to be an indoor kid with my inhaler (yep) and my soft hourglass body.

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Despite having zero athletic prowess and getting sick a lot (and I do mean a lot), I actually felt like a secret superhero. I was gifted in many ways, and I knew it. I felt special. Like any teenage girl, I was self-conscious and insecure sometimes, but in general, I felt beautiful, lovable, and like I mattered. I felt like I knew who I was and where I belonged.

I even felt guilty about my strong sense of worth at times. I didn’t know any other girls who felt this way. It seemed unfair. I felt too lucky. With an aching heart, I observed again and again how painful and dangerous it was for someone to believe they weren’t inherently worthy of love.

I wanted to save those people. I still do. But at the time, I couldn’t make anyone understand that they didn’t need to change in order to become worthy. I couldn’t reach the girls who needed it the most, the ones who were engaging in frightening and dangerous behaviors to change their bodies. I found it impossible to connect to them.

It All Came Crashing Down

Then I went abroad for a semester.

I graduated high school early so I could spend six months in Chile. I loved the idea of being immersed in a new culture, and even though it was terrifying, I felt really proud of how brave I was. I was paired with a host family for my stay, and almost immediately my host brother, who was a few years older than me, was super flirty and protective of me. I went along with it, since he always seemed to be looking out for me—taking me places, trying to translate, and making sure I wasn't hungry. He was sweet but also kind of pushy about us being more than friends. When I didn't like that, he said he couldn't help it—he was just so attracted to me. He said I was so hot that it made him act crazy. Somewhere along the way, becoming more than friends just seemed easier than constantly explaining why I didn't want to.

To the outside world, we looked like a happy couple. He showered me with gifts, notes, and grand gestures of his affection. But he also held a deep resentment for the time I spent with anyone else. I felt trapped, and with no support system, my world crumbled. I was never in physical danger, but everything in my life was controlled and monitored. He was a gifted manipulator and made me really believe it was my fault when things upset him.

I took what was left of the Jessi I knew, locked her up in a box he couldn’t touch, and played pretend until it was over and I could go home.

One time, on a rare occasion that I hung out with a friend, I didn’t text to tell him where I was. When I got home, there were rose petals all over my bed and candles lit around the room. He sat on my bed crying and asked me what he had done to make me so cold, mean, and uncaring about his feelings. I said I was sorry, but he didn’t let up until I promised that I wouldn’t go places without him anymore.

By the end, I was counting down the days until it was over, a prisoner of the situation and a shadow of the person who had arrived there half a year before. After a certain point, I took what was left of the Jessi I knew, locked her up in a box he couldn’t touch, and played pretend until it was over and I could go home.

I let that boy break me. I had no idea that could happen to a person. It was devastating. I unlearned every good thing I had ever believed about myself and found myself battling a powerful instinct to shut myself off emotionally from everyone and everything I used to care about.

Picking Up The Pieces

When I came home, I signed up for a full-time dance program. In my rush to graduate high school early, I’d half-heartedly applied for a few theater schools. I didn’t get accepted anywhere good, though, and I was determined to give myself a real chance. I loved musical theater, but I had very little dance experience, so I decided to spend a year bringing that up to speed.

I knew an amazing dance teacher, Sean McLeod, from swing classes years earlier, and I knew his studio felt safe. At the time that was my absolute top priority. So I showed up to Sean’s studio one day, broken and angry (I had just chopped off all of my hair and was covered in piercings), and I told him, “I want to learn how to dance, and I want to have somewhere to go every day.” He hugged me and said, “Welcome home.”

Getting stronger on the outside was a daily affirmation that I wasn’t weak inside.

Over the next few months, I was dancing between four and eight hours a day. My body changed so rapidly that I barely recognized myself. I learned I wasn’t a klutz. I could be graceful and athletic, and I was still capable of being powerful, purposeful, and trusting. It was the first time I had ever given myself to something physically challenging, and the process offered me reprieve from the emotional hell I had been living in. Getting stronger on the outside was a daily affirmation that I wasn’t weak inside.

I believe dance saved me. I don’t know who or where I would be without it. At the end of that year, I left home to attend NYU for theater. I was still hurting and still full of anger and hatred, but I also knew that I would be OK.

Finding My Purpose

Jessi Kneeland

A few years later, I started training and lifting weights, and I took with me that unshakable belief that movement is about more than fitness. Movement is a vehicle for transformation, both inside and out.

I now teach lifting weights as my main form of movement because it’s easily accessible and effective. I launched Remodel Fitness to empower women through getting strong. As I often say, fitness is a feminist issue and being physically strong tends to transfer into every single other aspect of our lives.

I haven’t felt “whole” since I was 17, but I no longer feel broken. The way I was raised gave me a unique gift: a foundation of automatic self-worth, love, and autonomy. I was also given a passion and calling to help others find the same. But that wasn’t enough because I couldn’t relate to anyone who didn’t already feel “whole.” So the universe broke me.

I am grateful for my gifts and my foundation. But I am equally grateful to have been broken. Being broken led me to movement, strength, fitness, and my life’s purpose.

Part of that purpose is to share with you that fitness can, and should, go beyond looking good and being healthy.

Fitness can rebuild what’s broken. It can make you feel powerful, help you love yourself, and affirm your worth. It can teach you self-care and how to offer yourself a gift when you most need it. It can help you re-learn autonomy when you’ve forgotten. And most importantly, it allows you to shed old layers of yourself that no longer serve you, so that you can become the You you are meant to be.

This post originally appeared on JessiKneeland.com. To learn more about her, follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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