A single word so enormously present in our daily lives. Pressure to be smart, well-liked, and attractive; pressure to be funny, selfless, and involved; pressure to get 500 likes on Instagram; pressure to be a good daughter, a good mom, a good brother, uncle, friend… pressure to be perfect.
It should seem obvious that it is impossible to be perfect, yet society tells us differently. So – we try. We form unrealistic goals, setting ourselves up for failure, because most imperfect things that happen in life are simply out of our control. But, there is one pressure that tends to convince us that it is vital to control to perfection: the pressure associated with physical appearance.
This is not all that surprising, considering the fact that we cannot even escape a grocery store without being bombarded by magazines of impeccable (photoshopped) abs and flawless (fake) complexions. They leer up at us in the checkout line, urging through their superficial pages that we look like them. And we (just trying to buy our pretzels in peace) are persuaded by them. Persuaded by a 2-dimensional lie in the form of a photo. For many individuals, these external pressures eventually take their toll.
The Toll It Took on Me
Growing up as a dancer, I was constantly in front of mirrors. I was forced to stare not only at my own reflection, but also at hundreds of other beautiful girls to whom I constantly compared myself. Although I was never at risk of becoming overweight, my mind suggested otherwise. It was not uncommon for my thoughts to be racing with made-up reasons that I needed to lose weight, along with plans to accomplish it. I am blessed to say that I never drastically acted on these plans in grade school or high school.
My first semester at UNL was characterized by relatively low stress levels. I made tons of amazing friends, was involved on campus, and enjoyed classes (#nerd.) My only two setbacks were the remains of my awkward phase (which I sometimes wonder if I’m still in the midst of), and some low-key dance withdrawals. The latter is what introduced me to group fitness classes; Cardio Dance filled the large void in my life that my Omaha studio had occupied for 16 years. After that, life was awesome. I was so happy, so carefree that I almost forgot about the pressures of looking perfect.
It was late in the fall semester of 2015 when I was in my dorm, looking intently into the mirror. My brain’s false perception of my reflection convinced me that the 5 pounds I had gained looked more like 25, and in that moment, I hated everything about my body, everything about my appearance, everything about the fact that I was “not beautiful.” I cried for the first time since my family dropped me off in August.
This night was the beginning of a steep downward spiral.
Over the next 6 months, I rapidly lost weight. My life became completely consumed by irrepressible thoughts of food and exercise. Every decision I made was influenced by the number of steps it would add to my Fitbit. I spent less time with friends, more time sick, and was sleeping an average of three hours each night. Food became my biggest fear; the scale my only source of approval. I weighed myself at least once daily, and if it was not lower than the day before, I panicked.
It wasn’t until the following summer when I finally accepted that these behaviors were not healthy. The continuous stress on my mind and body led to a strenuous cycle of severe anxiety and depression, paired with many physical repercussions. Attempts to seek help through counselors and
dietitians were not enough, and in November of 2016, I made the decision to be admitted to the Eating Disorder Program at Children’s Hospital in Omaha. My life was a treadmill, and I was fighting to keep up – both figuratively and literally.
Slowly but Surely, the Pressures Fade
The progress I made at Children’s was slow, but it was progress nonetheless. About halfway through my time in the program, I posted a video of myself dancing to “Let it Go” in my basement, casually dressed in a tree skirt, garland, and jingling antlers. (Fashion.) I will never forget all the comments I received, each projecting the same message: “She’s back.”
I slowly began to realize that “perfection” is subjective, and that feeling happy is more important than looking happy. I realized a nutritional balance is essential to well-being, and that sometimes it is okay to break free of the rigid norms of society. But most importantly, I realized that I would never regret the distress of the journey; rather, I had a compelling urge to use the experiences to impact lives in the future.
Group Fitness and Recovery
The unhealthy habits of excessive physical activity I had developed made almost any thought of working out unbearable. I drove myself to a point of hating exercise; it had been a part of my life because I had to do it; not because I wanted to.
However, soon after returning to school, I began reattending Cardio Dance classes. It was immediately clear to me that this was not the same physical activity I had conditioned myself to dread. The group fitness environment saved me; it allowed me to remember how much I loved dancing, focused me on the benefits of exercise unrelated to burning calories, and re-kindled a spark of confidence that had been extinguished for over a year.
As a group fitness instructor, this is all I want for my participants. During my classes, I keep lighting in the room to a minimum. I do this in hopes that for just one hour, I create an environment in which their reflection is not the focus. For just one hour, they can be themselves and not worry about people around them.
For just one hour, they can forget the magazines, forget the comparisons, forget the pressures. For just one hour, they can appreciate the beauty of what their body can do, rather than what their body looks like.
I tell this story not to elicit attention, sympathy, or applause. 12 months ago, I was embarrassed to be seen in public, scared to leave my room. 12 months ago, the thought of wearing a swimsuit was agony, the thought of meals, exhausting. 12 months ago, being a group fitness instructor seemed impossible.
I share this story to help you believe: pressures can fade; anything is possible.