For as long as I've been overweight, I've been unhappy with the way that I've felt and looked. It may be a serious faux pas to speak on this in the age of body positivity, but this is my truth. I felt held back by that weighed down feeling, and I was concerned about the impact on my health. I had a vision of myself that didn't match what I looked like, and it wasn't just about aesthetics. I wanted to be slimmer, yes, but I also wanted to be fit. To be able to move freely and uninhibited, to be flexible and nimble and anything but what I'd become.
It didn't bode well for me mentally, either. I'm naturally introverted, but the more weight I put on, the more I wanted to hide myself. I hated taking pictures, and I'm not gonna lie, I still kinda do. I was so dissatisfied with how I looked in my senior portraits in college that I didn't even bother purchasing them. I don't think I ever even showed my mother. I just felt this urgent need to free myself from the physical weight and the mental weight that came along with it. Though I'd tried and failed so many times prior, I decided to try and lose the weight for good.
I was doing so well. A few years after I'd reached my highest weight of 242 pounds, the bulk of which came from stress eating throughout high school and college, I was seeing real improvements. I'd spent quite a few years improving my diet (I hadn't yet committed to being vegan) and working out a ton, but I felt that I needed something more structured & consistent to really kick my workouts up a notch.
Me, circa 2012
In late 2015, by some cosmic Universal alignment, my husband's schedule finally allowed for us to start working out together. He had already been powerlifting for several years and I'd always found it quite fascinating. I was super excited to try it out - and try it out I did. For over a year, I spent grueling (yet so awesome) late evenings and weekend mornings side by side with my husband, gaining strength and power. I watched in amazement as my body transformed in ways I never thought imaginable. Pockets of fat had dissipated and strong, lean muscle had grown in its place. I wasn't yet where I wanted to be aesthetically, but I was beyond pleased with how strong and athletic I'd become.
I was so in love with the process that I eventually decided to become certified as a personal trainer. I wanted to help others to achieve what I was achieving, to help them fall in love with fitness and change their lives for the better. As noble as my intentions were, however, they might have been a bit premature. See, I was quite fit and knowledgeable about fitness, but mentally and emotionally, I wasn't ready. I had quite a few unresolved emotional issues that would soon come bubbling up to the surface.
Funny enough, it all started with a trip to Jamaica. My mom realized that even though it was her place of birth, there were many parts of the island that she had never actually seen. She decided to embark on a road trip around the island and urged me to come along. Long story short, it was a seriously life-changing journey. It was such a beautiful experience that giving a short description in the middle of this post just wouldn't do it justice. I discovered so much about myself and felt a connection to my culture and ancestry that I'd never felt before.
It was so wonderful that I wasn't at all prepared for the reverse culture shock that would hit me once I came back to New York. At one point, as I hung out in the middle of the city passing time with my husband before our friend's improv show, I slowly began to devolve into a panic attack. The noises, the crowds, the cold, towering skyscrapers that I'd been around for most of my life all of a sudden became way too much to bear. We were forced to head home before the show ever even started.
This was the beginning of a resurgence of mental health struggles that would last for months. Up until then I thought I'd conquered them; powerlifting was a natural mood booster that had given me such confidence, but it wasn't the final fix that I thought it was. When fall came around our schedules no longer aligned, and I found myself suddenly powerlifting on my own. Things that I now consider trivial, like being stared at by random men in the gym, were way too much for me to handle. I felt fragile, and I was slipping back into a constant state of panic, anxiety and depression that I thought I'd left behind.
Soon, I was no longer lifting. I was no longer working out at all. The days were getting shorter, darker and colder, and the depression was only getting worse. I was eating ridiculous amounts of pork, something that my now vegan self looks back at with terror and disgust. The fit, slightly sculpted body that I'd spent a year working for was gone within a span of about five months. In the blink of an eye, I'd gained 30 pounds.
I began therapy during this time, and for the first time in my life I'd begun to unpack the roots of my anxiety and depression. Going back through my childhood traumas and really digging deep into my darkness is what allowed me to finally start healing in a way that I wasn't able to by just lifting weight. Therapy was absolutely pivotal, because it was what placed me in the mindset to truly embrace the idea of going vegan. It was the beginning of a healing journey, and I was ready to do what I needed to do to improve my life.
For the first few months, weight was falling off like crazy. I was super active, running several times a week, and eating pretty spectacularly. As fall came around again, I decided to get back into the gym so that I could remain active through the season. I was quite diligent and consistent, though I wasn't working out nearly as hard as when I had my husband there to support and challenge me. Without my trusty spotter and all-around bodyguard, I didn't feel comfortable enough to lift as heavily as I used to, though I did still do some light lifting. I did, however, make serious use of them cardio machines - I'm a beast on the arc trainer ;).
Now here's the part of the story where things are supposed to go amazingly. This is the part where the happily ever after is supposed to come in, where I lose the rest of my unwanted body fat, gain that sleek, toned body that I've been seeking, and become this super fit athlete with an Instagram booty. Yeah... nah. I mean, the booty is there - a well appreciated gift from mama Africa and weighted squats - but fitness model I am not.
Me after an awesome cardio session a couple months ago.
I've been in a maddening plateau. For months. I've cursed my scale more times than I can count. My body weight fluctuates like crazy. One day I'm feeling lean, the next I'm feeling bloated to all hell because my hormones are raging and my body is hoarding water like it's expecting a drought. I watch as my husband achieves his desired body seemingly with ease (though it'd be disingenuous & just wrong to deny that he doesn't too have his body image moments - we all do) and I grow frustrated and annoyed.
I've had moments of anger and frustration. I've cried. I've had days where I go so hard during my workouts that the next day the soreness zaps all motivation to move. I've cleaned up the nooks and crannies of my diet, removing unnecessary oils, having the salad instead of the (vegan, of course) burger, and increasing my fiber so much that I have a date with my toilet several times a day (which, isn't necessarily a bad thing - that waste needs to go!). None of this has been particularly painful, because I still eat delicious food, but I've definitely gone the extra mile to clean things up.
Some days, in spite of what the scale says, I see progress. I see muscle growth that probably explains away the two or three pound increase on the scale. I see the contours of my body changing in ways that are reminiscent of what I'd achieved during my heavy lifting year. But those days are fleeting, and the next day, as if someone has changed the lenses over my eyes, I see all the ways I haven't improved, and all the struggle that I have yet to overcome.
Post-gym selfie from about a month ago.
I'm writing all this because I know that I'm hard on myself. I consider fat loss to be a part of my healing, and healing is a day by day process. I've seen so many improvements in my health over the past year that really can't be glossed over. My hormones aren't anywhere near as erratic as they used to be, even though they aren't yet perfect. My digestion is the best it has been in my entire life, I seriously poop like a well-oiled machine. My skin has cleared up for the most part, though I really wish these hyperpigmentation scars would hurry up and fade. But these marked improvements can be easily forgotten when I start obsessing about what I look like.
I'm learning to be patient with my body. It isn't going to simply change just because I will it to. It needs time, because healing takes time. I'm learning to stop comparing myself to other people, and to stop allowing my perfectionist tendencies to cause me to view myself in a negative light. I'm not saying that fat loss is no longer a priority for me, because it is. I don't believe that the excess weight I carry is healthy for me, and from a purely practical level, I can't perform the way I want to athletically while dragging around extra weight, I just can't. I'd be a liar if I didn't say aesthetics don't matter to me, because after spending the majority of my life overweight, I want to see what my body looks and feels like when given a chance to not be these things.
It's not necessarily about fitting some narrow standard of beauty, that's not my goal at all. But I do want my body to achieve a level of health and fitness that it's never seen, and I won't apologize for that. But I do put too much pressure on myself, as I do with all the goals that I want to achieve. I'm slowly learning to trust myself and the process, and to love myself through it all because happiness isn't going to come from achieving the body I want for myself. It's going to come from the feeling of accomplishment that comes with smashing the goals that I set forth for improving myself. I'm eager to reach my destination, but I'm learning to embrace all parts of the journey - the good, the bad, the painful and the beautiful.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. Proudly hailing from the Boogie Down Bronx. My lifelong passion for social justice issues led me to earn a BA in Sociology from Columbia University. Currently I'm an NASM Certified Nutrition Coach & Personal Trainer with a love of all things plant-based. I'm just here, eating my plants, minding my business, and trying to find a peaceful path in a hostile world.