When I reached my heaviest weight—193.7 pounds—I was 5'4" and 20 years old. Growing up, I was pretty active, which made this unwanted milestone even tougher to accept. Although people told me all the time that I didn't look as heavy as I was, I couldn't help but see a lot of weight.
I remember looking in the mirror with disgust, wondering how I had managed to get here. I was angry at myself for all the times I'd turned to food to ease my boredom and depression. I was always more physically mature than my peers, and I think going to predominantly white schools for middle and high school also damaged how I viewed myself. As a black girl, my body didn't resemble my classmates', and from a young age, I'd developed the habit of looking at the image in the mirror with repulsion.
So there I was, looking down at the scale in disappointment.
A prolonged breakup my freshman year led me to comfort myself with food, but I also knew I could only really blame myself for my weight gain. I immediately called a friend who chartered a health and wellness organization. I sent her pictures of myself and asked for a diet plan. I'd never done anything like that before—I was desperate for change.
She gave me meal plans and workout guides to do at my local gym. That day, I cut out sugary drinks and exchanged them for water and cold-pressed juices. The first day of the workouts, I'd never wheezed so much in my life. It was difficult, but I was determined. At the end of the first week, I had lost 11 pounds. I felt an extraordinary sense of accomplishment.
But losing weight became my obsession.
I worked out six days a week, every week, for the next four months, which sometimes meant passing on social engagements or missing class. But I was determined to get to my body goal. However, 11 weeks into my fitness journey, I overworked myself into the emergency room.
The night before, I was meal prepping and packing my gym bag for my next two-a-day workouts. It was late, and I knew I needed more rest, but I refused to compromise my exercise schedule. The following morning, I did cardio for an hour, then two hours of strength training after a long day of classes and work. I went to bed feeling accomplished and happy.
But the day after that, I could barely get out of bed. I had terrible stomach cramps, and my body felt weak and achy. After hours of feeling nauseated, dizzy, and weak, I was taken to the ER, but before a doctor could see me, I threw up on the hospital floor and nearly passed out.
"No exercise for at least two weeks," the doctor said, as I looked at him in horror. "You need to rest."
His instructions should have been a forceful warning to stop running my body ragged in the name of attaining a thinner, more toned physique, but I didn't listen.
Nobody's opinion mattered but my own, and my love of visible, tangible results was fueled by my obsession to become as slim-fit as possible. Five months from my start date, I was down 47 pounds and felt I looked better than I had my entire life.
But it was never enough. One sunny evening in June, before going out for my second workout of the day, I looked in the mirror and took a picture. The outline of my abs could be seen through my size-medium tank top, and the tag on my shorts showed how I'd dropped from a size 12 to a size 8. I beamed with pride, and my self-confidence was at an all-time high. But moments later, my eyes readjusted, convincing me that the outline in my shirt wasn't defined enough—and I started to create new goals.
As I looked in the mirror at my thin, muscular reflection, I thought, "You know what's better than a size 8? A size 4."
I ran six miles that evening.
I'd created a monster.
On some level, I knew I was taking it too far, but stepping on the scale and seeing smaller numbers kept me hooked on losing more and more weight. Family and friends who were unaware of the extent of my obsession praised how lean and muscular I looked. Instead of correcting what I saw in the mirror, these compliments fed my drive to keep going and get even smaller. I turned my original desire for a healthy lifestyle and passion to eat well (and often!) into a race to achieve perfection.
My love of visible, tangible results was fueld by my obsession to become as slim-fit as possible.
At this point, I was under the illusion that my life couldn't be any better. I'd bought a new wardrobe to decorate my newly muscular shape and gave away all my old clothes. I had no desire to eat junk food and was faithful to my two-year-old pescetarian diet.
Men who barely acknowledged me in college started showing interest, and women I admired were asking me for tips on how I managed a 180-degree lifestyle change. My social media presence developed into that of a budding health-and-wellness influencer as I shared my journey, and I considered making a brand out of my success. It was like the old me—depressed and overweight—never even existed. I finally felt good.
But I was ignoring some major problems.
My Caribbean family loves Thanksgiving and Christmas and always celebrates with enough food to feed a small nation. Fried fish, curry goat, jerk chicken, steamed veggies, plantains, rice and peas, shrimp pasta salad, sorrel—my favorite Jamaican holiday brew—and my aunt's headlining macaroni and cheese always fill our homes and bellies.
For two years, I ate just half a plate of food at the holidays. I wouldn't allow my family's Top Chef aspirations to get me off track. But this year was different—the scent of lovingly prepared dishes awakened something in me… and I indulged. Not with one or two plates, but four. The next few weeks were filled with food guilt.
Following a three-day juice detox and a limited caloric intake of only fruits and veggies, I worked harder than ever to reverse what I'd done over the holiday. After an intense session of weight lifting, I went to the shower to clean up. There, I took a long look at myself in the mirror and finally broke.
Why am I even doing this anymore? I asked myself. I thought over my journey since the start of 2015—the weight loss, the new clothes, the recognition—and it finally clicked. I'd been refusing to acknowledge a simple truth: I'd changed the external image, but the Imani from my chubby teenage years was still there. The obsessive working out, strict diet, and constant need to push myself made sense—I was finding validation in who I was building myself into but ignoring the emotional healing I really needed. I thought altering my appearance would fix all the pain I'd bottled up since childhood, but it turns out that was just a Band-Aid on an open wound.
I thought I'd been avoiding body dysmorphia but finally understood that's exactly what had been fueling my weight loss.
I'm a religious person, so I had to have some hard conversations with myself and God. I had to give Him all the mess I thought I'd gotten over and be honest about the fact that I wished He had made me differently—more athletic, taller, longer hair, smaller waist, the list goes on. My issues spanned beyond my physique. I had to be vulnerable enough for Him to teach me how to love how He made me. I had to let go of my desires and exchange them for His.
I'm now 23 years old, and since that pivotal afternoon, I've had a few cycles of weight gain and loss, but I've never felt more emotionally whole. I attribute most of my growth to the internal makeover I received through my relationship with Christ.
The remainder of my growth came from deleting my social media pages and starting fresh. I felt like all eyes were on me at all times, which pressured me into perfection. It seemed like there was little room to be completely transparent about my struggles, change my mind, or decide to do things differently. I thought of all the people who shared how my journey inspired them to make changes of their own, and I didn't have the heart to let anyone down.
I've detached my ability to stay fit from my worth.
In hindsight, that mentality was more self-imposed than anything, but taking a step back from social media gave me the opportunity to regroup in private. I was able to figure out what I wanted to do moving forward without the subconscious pressure of keeping the world updated. I could figure out who this Imani person was, and I didn't have to let anyone into areas of my life that were fragile at the time.
Now, my Instagram addresses physical health but centers more around the importance of understanding who you are from the inside out. This journey has taught me that even though physical health is important, it's almost impossible to uphold if you don't have the emotional wellness to sustain it.
I still work out and eat well, but my motives are much healthier now. I work out because it's fun, and I love the outdoors. I drink lots of water and keep unhealthy, fatty foods out of my diet because I like the way I feel without them. But I'll have a slice of pizza, fries, or a piece of cake when I'm in the mood.
I'm working hard to erase my "I've arrived" mentality. My push for perfection ruled my life and forced me into sacrificing foods and time that I would've enjoyed if I were mentally healthier. Now, I acknowledge and celebrate who I am as a whole. I've detached my ability to remain fit from my worth.
In the end, health and wellness mean more than simply having a toned body, going to the gym, and regulating your caloric intake. True wellness means loving every part of you and improving yourself out of love—not out of self-hate.
Imani Spencer, born to Caribbean parents, is an Atlanta-based writer. She recently graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism and emerging media from Kennesaw State University. She provides ghostwriting and ghost editing services for nonprofit organizations and builds social media accounts for companies and entrepreneurs. Visit her website sweetsharpsaved.com.