When I was heavy, I would stand in front of the mirror constantly. I’d examine every inch of my body and dream about the day I could wear clothes smaller than a XXL. Sometimes, I’d picture myself on a beach, confidently wearing a bikini. I weighed 300 pounds at the time, and those visions felt like they would never become a reality.

I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life. I was chubby as a child, then hit full-blown obesity by age 14. I would start fad diets, lose 20 pounds, and gain back 30. Nothing worked. Relatedly, I had very negative opinions of myself. I hated myself for getting so big. I would avoid hanging out with friends because I was afraid they were ashamed of me. I hated going out in public because I worried strangers would judge me. Rather than embracing who I was, I let the idea that I needed to be a certain size hold me back in every way.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school—when a new gym opened close to my home—that I got serious about losing weight. I started waking up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym with my mom and do a half hour on the elliptical. I started gradually losing pounds by exercising and following a simple, healthy diet.

When people ask me what made me decide to lose weight at that moment in my life, I don’t really have an answer. It just clicked. It could’ve been because high school was ending and I wanted to “start fresh” for college or because adding exercise to my daily routine genuinely got me excited to get out of bed each morning.

After joining the gym, I felt like I had more of a purpose. Exercising felt like a little secret I had—other people didn’t see my results quickly, so every time someone made a comment about my weight, I would just think to myself, If only they knew how hard I worked on the elliptical this morning.

By the end of high school, I was down 50 pounds. My diet consisted mostly of protein, fruits, and veggies, with occasional, healthy carbohydrates. I cut out soda and fast food. The weight continued to melt off, and I followed my routine through the first year of college. I even started to run and do some strength training. Before I knew it, it was sophomore year, and I was down 130 pounds.

Rather than embracing who I was, I let the idea that I needed to be a certain size hold me back in every way.

You might assume that I felt great at this point. I’d completely revamped my wardrobe, after all—I even bought myself that bikini I’d always wanted. But something was off. Where there used to be fat and plumpness on my arms, stomach, and thighs, now there was loose skin. I felt defeated.

Instead of being proud of myself for losing all the weight, I beat myself up for getting so big to begin with, causing this extra skin to hang from my body. I thought I would be beaming with confidence, but instead, I just wanted to hide all the time. I even kept all my pre-weight-loss clothes because they still felt more comfortable than my new jeans or the bodycon dress my mom bought to congratulate me on my weight loss.

I spent the next two years visiting doctors, personal trainers, and spas to try and get my skin tight. Strength training didn’t help, lotion didn’t help, even the weird Saran wrap thing I put myself in for an hour every weekend didn’t make a difference.

My doctor told it to me straight. “You’re going to have to get surgery to get the skin removed. You can’t fix it on your own.” But plastic surgery freaked me out, so I figured I would just live with it. I’d find a way to become comfortable with my body—excess skin and all.

It wasn’t until I started dating someone that I realized how much I needed to work on my self-esteem. I cared a lot about what he thought, I discovered, and I had a constant fear of not looking good enough or having my “imperfect” body touched. Starting this relationship gave so much anxiety I started going to therapy.

My first session was tough. My therapist told me I grappled with fear of intimacy, and after I told her that I wouldn’t even let family or friends touch or hug me, she explained that I was too scared to be vulnerable with someone, in either a romantic or platonic way. I was holding myself back in a lot of areas in my life—jobs, friendships, relationships—because I just didn’t feel good internally.

My therapist also suggested I really look into skin removal surgery because it could give me the confidence boost I needed to feel comfortable in my own skin, so I gave plastic surgery a second thought. I tried to tell myself that people should love me for who I am, no matter what size, but if I wasn’t happy with myself, how could I ever show my true self to people?

I was holding myself back in a lot of areas in my life—jobs, friendships, relationships—beacuse I just didn’t feel good internally.

So after six months of research and consultations with plastic surgeons, I got a tummy tuck. It was supposed to be the first of two surgeries—I was going to do my arms and legs next. But then something changed, and I started to view myself in a different light.

I stopped thinking, I will be happy when… and started thinking, I am great the way I am now. I read books by Gabrielle Bernstein and Jen Sincero that helped me work on myself mentally and emotionally. I continued to exercise, but in a different way—I signed up for races, tried different classes like boxing and CrossFit, and worked out with intention of reaching fitness goals, rather than losing weight.

Instead of focusing on my looks, I’ve now started to focus on positive things in my life, like having a supportive family, great friends, and a blossoming career. When I feel down, I journal, go to therapy, or meditate. I’ve even gained back a little weight, and it doesn’t bother me. I’ve learned that I am so much more than my size.

It took me eight years to realize that being a certain weight doesn’t fix all your problems or make your life easier, and I’m almost ashamed to admit that I used to think the way I did—I would never want anyone else to think their value lies in how much they weigh. In the end, my weight-loss journey has been more about changing my self-perception than my body—and the emotional journey has proven much harder, and more rewarding, than the physical one.

Alexa Pipia is a social media editor in New York City, and received her master’s at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. When she’s not writing, you can find her honing her boxing technique or running a race. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.