Arguing Semantics With Myself: What Shape Did You Mean?

There’s something I’ve been struggling with lately–struggling to live with and struggling to put into words.


It wasn’t until I started reading Caroline Knapp’s Appetite: Why Women Want that I started to formulate a way to express it:


She writes: “[a]ppetites for sex, for beautiful things, for physical pleasure–all of these can be baffling, and all of them can leave a woman confused about the most ordinary daily decisions. Are you eating that second helping because you’re hungry or because you’re sad? If you work out for an extra thirty minutes, are you heeding the call of health and well-being or engaging in a bout of self-punishment?[…] Where are the lines between satisfaction and excess, between restraint and indulgence, between pleasure and self-destruction? And why are they so hard to find…?”


I’ve been trying to navigate the borderline of the narrow crevasse between pleasure and self-destruction, and it is a particularly fraught balancing act because I am so invested in health and nutrition from an aspiration-ally professional perspective.


When I posted a picture of my National Academy of Sports Medicine personal trainer recertification on instagram, I had at least two people ask me if wanting to be a personal trainer was a good idea for someone like me.

NASM, National Academy of Sports Medicine, Personal Trainer, Certification, Recertification

I’ve had multiple people ask if this blog isn’t just another way of trying to justify disordered behavior, as well as if my current way of eating isn’t just as restrictive or disordered as any I’ve tried before.


As friends, family, and concerned licensed mental health professionals, they’re not wrong to ask those questions. But I don’t think they need to worry.


This morning, I had a thought: I can’t wait to get my cast off so I can get back in shape. 


And then I stopped myself and asked myself, what shape are you talking about? Because I realized that I don’t really care about what shape I’m in. I care about being fit and healthy. The terminology I’ve been using is wrong. I want to be able to squat and deadlift or finally do some pull ups again. While fitting into my old jeans is nice, I’m not particularly freaked out about the size of my thighs or if my abs are visible anymore.


But it occurred to me, while I was arguing semantics with myself, that even though I know where the line is, won’t I always run the risk of crossing it? Will I ever be able to fully disengage from the voices of ED all around me–including the parts of my own vocabulary that I have yet to change?


I really do want, more than anything, to be involved in the health and fitness community. I really do want to be able to go to the gym and train clients–but not because I want to help them reach some aesthetic goal. I want to help people learn how to love their bodies and make them stronger. I want to help people understand nutrition from a scientific, individualized perspective–so that they can make choices that keep them alive and disease-free for as long as possible. And while I think that fitness models are beautiful, I know that the way they live isn’t sustainable for real people. And I’m a real person.


I know that I’m very new to this journey toward self-love and acceptance, and I know that ED and I have only been separated for a relatively short time. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to go back to how I was. That doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to put in the work and learn a new vocabulary.


That doesn’t mean that I’m going to go back to “trying to get in shape.”


Library Book, Cast, Ankle Injury

The only chronic overexercise I’m doing these days is for my mind…

I think that I can make a difference as a fitness professional because, even though I may be surrounded by people who live in their own personal disorders, surrounded by broscience and eating clean and low-fat high-protein supplement-and-protein-shake nonsense, I think I’m becoming fluent in the true meaning of fitness and health.


It’s going to be hard, yes, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do it. Especially because I have this forum here, and all of you out there who will keep me honest.


It’s a challenge, but I think I’m up to it. My outlook, my mindset…they’re already starting to get in shape. And I think that’s pretty damn beautiful.


– K.


The scales tipped from “healthy obsession” to “obsessed with healthy” as soon as I got the May/June 2010 issue of Muscle and Fitness Hers. But before I go there, let me rewind:

I finished the semester (with perfect grades), but I put the Deans on notice of my potential departure from the university. I had begun seeing a psychologist at the University health center, and, let me tell you:  he was a real trooper. Because I was constantly on the verge of a complete breakdown, I went through a box of tissues (at least) every time I stepped into his office. He seemed, as the days dragged on and my mental state completely deteriorated, almost deflated. It was as if he was running out of steam trying to keep me from derailing. As summer neared, he suggested two things: a medical leave of absence and depression medication.

Unconvinced by either argument, I tried to keep chugging along with nothing but talk therapy and my morning gym sessions.

Part of my anxiety stemmed from my quickly dwindling finances. This last semester had completely depleted the last of my savings from teaching, and I was forced to take out more loans. I decided that, no matter what I did–whether I stayed and became a professional dramaturg or left and found something equally fulfilling to do with my life–I would need to find a job that would help me buffer some of the costs of living in the most expensive city in the US.

That was when I signed up for the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s Personal Trainer certification.

Finally, for a few hours every day–and even outside of the gym–I felt like I had a purpose. Studying anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and program design just…made sense. There was nothing subjective about it, no artsy interpretations, just science. And the kind of science that could be used to help other people, make them better. I loved it.

This was the good that came out of my obsession.

The bad? It showed up in the mail with my latest copy of Muscle and Fitness Hers.

Muscle and Fitness Hers May/June 2010

In the May/June issue, the magazine had an eight-week transformation challenge. Designed by a renowned trainer of figure competitors, the challenge had two four-week training periods, which mixed traditional resistance machines with stability exercises in week-long body-part splits.* All well and good. At least I had a progressive, prescriptive program to follow (instead of the bits and pieces I was cobbling together pre-NASM).

The problem was that the transformation prescription included a meal plan.

And if you’ve never followed a fitness competitor’s meal plan, then consider yourself well-fed. The gist? Egg whites, protein shakes, plain chicken breasts, fish, turkey, salads, steamed vegetables, and the occasional sweet potato. Limited fruit, carbs, fats…mainly protein, protein, protein. And there were numbers attached to everything. I could eat 1400-1600 calories per day, and every morsel had to be accounted for.

I, of course, knew that I could do better than that. If fitness models could eat clean, I could eat cleaner. I would do 1200-1400 calories per day.  I would eat only extra-lean protein. I would substitute real food with a scoop of protein powder. I would add extra cardio at the end of my transformation weightlifting routine.

In eight weeks, I was going to look like a fitness model and enter the transformation challenge.

The only problem with this goal was that the University gym closed for several weeks over the summer, so I would have nowhere to work out. And I was strapped for cash, so a pricey gym membership was very much out of the question. So I came up with a plan: I would go to every gym in the area and sign up for their free trial. One gym only had a three-day period, while two others had full weeks. I figured I would just have to be creative for the remaining days until I could sign up for a summer membership on campus.

Celebrating with my sisters and cousin, and hating that I wasn’t more “fit” for the picture.

And that was how I discovered Equinox.


*For the uninitiated, a “body-part split” is a way of designing a training program to emphasize specific body parts on a certain day of the week. For example, Monday might be a chest day with push ups, presses, and flyes, while Tuesday might be for biceps and triceps, featuring lots of curls and extensions, etc. Many trainers have moved away from this model of program design in order to follow a more dynamic, functional, full-body approach (or, conversely, a random, muscle-confusing, crossfit-y mish-mash of whatever they want to do that day). However, traditional lifting-for-hypertrophy (or muscle growth) tends toward this model.