Before Health: My Idea of “Healthy” as a Child

>> Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What I haven’t really delved into much on the blog is my personal health story. Yes. I’ve given you snippets here and there. I’ve told you about how I hated running as a 17-year-old. I’ve shared with you some of my stories about how running has changed my life. I’ve shared that I was once somewhat obsessed with working out to an unhealthy degree. I’ve hinted at having unhealthy eating habits in my past. I’ve shared with you the lessons I've learned and the the wisdom I’ve gained through my struggles and triumphs.

I’m going to put everything together in a series of posts over the next couple weeks. I’ve thought of the different ways I could organize my Healthy Life Timeline, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
  • Before Health: My Idea of "Healthy" as a Child
  • Running: What Changed Everything
  • Finding My Way: Struggles and Successes
  • What Changed Everything . . . Again
  • Healthy Ashley (Not THE Healthy Ashley, though she’s lovely -- but ME)
  • The Future

My Idea of "Healthy" as a Child and Young Adult

It's easy to share my story now because it's all behind me. But it's this part of my Healthy Life (or not-so healthy, really) that has impacted just about everything that makes me who I am today. Including this blog. Yup. Everything you're about to read has a huge part in all the posts, recipes, and fitness advice I give.

When I was younger—we’re talking like 12-years-old younger—I equated health almost 100 percent with how much people weigh. If someone was heavier, I assumed they were the least healthy. Skinnier? The most healthy. Though I was a dancer (I took tap, ballet, jazz, and acro/gymnastics), I didn’t think of myself as an athlete. I didn’t think about the link between activity and health that much at all. All I cared about was how I looked and how others thought of me.

Then I tried out and made the cheerleading squad in 7th grade (people who know me laugh about this – Ashley, a cheerleader? Seriously?), and my feelings turned into more of an obsession. I was constantly comparing myself to others. Worrying about my too-big hips, thighs, butt, too-small chest, and general lack of cheerleader hot-ness. Looking back, I have no idea what I was thinking. I was always a thinner girl. At the beginning of 7th grade, I was around 5 foot 4 (didn’t hit my final growth spurt yet) and maybe 95 pounds. Actually, I don’t even remember my exact weight. But I DO remember I wore a size 12 (in the kid’s section, people).

Anyway, some of my friends would skip breakfast. Some would skip lunch. I experimented with this diet method, too. I remember sitting in my reading class, listening to my stomach’s fierce and angry growl. I was so terribly hungry. I’d inevitably binge on some kind of Little Debbie snack before afternoon classes started . . . and then be totally zonked out for practice and games.

It was a vicious cycle fueled entirely by my distorted body image.

Because I was small, I got to be the one thrown at the top of different stunts, pyramids, etc. And I liked that quite a bit. The leo in me liked all that attention. The gymnast and dancer in me liked the challenge. If I got heavier, I’d have to be a base. And I didn’t want that, I had worked too hard. 7th grade is really a blur, but I "became a woman" that year. I grew almost 3 inches. I stayed slim but didn’t escape my view of myself. Without glossing over too much, eventually, my interests changed and I gravitated more towards music. I quit cheerleading in 8th grade and started eating a vegetarian diet (because I always hated meat). For whatever reason, it helped me eat better. A bit more healthfully.

OK. It helped me eat . . . period! Ever since I can remember, I've been vegetarian. Even as a baby, it'd spit out my Gerber meat.

As the years passed until my graduation from high school, I struggled with my body image despite my diet change. I had completely retired from all activity and devoted myself to singing, playing instruments, and performing. Though I ate, I didn’t eat the best foods. A lot of chips, ice cream, sodas, pizza. Basically everything I try to avoid now. And I would go through periods of binging, purging, and starving myself. It’s shocking to think about . . . and quite honestly hard to admit . . . but I know now that it was tightly linked to my emotional state. High school kids deal with so much: Rigorous coursework, boyfriends/girlfriends, peer pressure, college admissions and SAT pressure, extracurriculars, friend spats . . . and often these stressors manifest themselves physically.

I was definitely not immune.

I started to get the link between fitness and health when I had to run The Mile my senior year. I was so horribly out of shape. So unhealthy from my eating habits and lack of physical exercise. My head was buzzing most of the day from my lack of calories -- I felt lightheaded and blacked out whenever I’d stand up. After The Mile, I started to see that being skinny didn’t equal healthy. Especially with how I felt. I was tiny -- even my parents were starting to notice. I weighed less than 105 pounds. My skin was dull. I had bags under my eyes. I had absolutely no energy.

This was no way for a young woman to feel.

At my high school graduation, I weighed the least I have weighed my entire "adult" life. My white graduation dress under that big robe was a tiny size 0. And I remember feeling fat in it. I also passed on the opportunity to get ice cream after the event. It's funny the things you remember.

I continued struggling through my first year of college (all those same pressures, just amplified by being away from home for the first time and eating a diet mostly made up of pizza, tequila, and other junk foods), mostly eating a lot of crap because I worked in one of the dining halls on campus.

I gained at least 10 to 15 pounds that year (I kept loose track, but didn't have a scale). I remember feeling so ashamed looking at myself in the mirror. Not from the weight as much, I knew I needed to gain some weight, but because I just looked unhealthy. My face was puffy, my eyes were bloodshot. I didn’t get enough rest. I hardly drank water or ate vegetables. Technically, I weighed what I should weigh, right around 125. But at that point, being a "healthy" weight didn’t mean being healthy either.

Something had to change.

So, at the beginning of my second semester, I signed up for a yoga class because I thought it would be cool. Looking back, I remember my legs feeling like jelly when I did the warrior poses. Though I had tremendous flexibility from all my years of dance, I couldn’t relax one bit because yoga took strength. Yoga took energy that my bad habits didn't allow me to store. But I admired the girls in my class. Their feet were firmly planted in the ground. They could hold headstands for more than a fleeting second. They were healthy girls. I started going to the gym around this time, too. I started with 10 to 15 minute breath-less sessions on the elliptical. A few jaunts on the treadmill. Exercise definitely felt like work. And work I’d rather not do. I couldn’t keep up my workouts because my heart wasn’t in them.

I continued with my yoga practice. Went to the gym when I could . . . blasted music in my CD player (yeah, you younger girls -- we used to have clunky CD players strapped to ourselves back then!). My diet slowly shifted toward veganism. At first, quite admittedly, it was mostly because it seemed to be the thing everyone was doing. You see, I was also in the environmental group on campus. And Ithaca College is situated in a town (Ithaca) that is hyper vegan-friendly. I even moved to a vegetarian/vegan co-op during the summer after my freshman year. So, my diet changed. And what started as something I did -- at first -- to fit in became a lasting passion. Through eating vegan foods, I discovered my love for cooking and baking. I started substituting ingredients to make recipes healthier. The healthier I made my foods, the more I wanted to eat.

Yup. I had fallen in love with healthy food. And it was also during this summer that I fell in love with running. But that’s a story for another day . . .

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