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Working in the fitness industry gave me an eating disorder

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

How my career in fitness put me on a diet of shame

Running into your boss in the grocery store generally isn't anyone's idea of fun, but that day changed my life.

"Hey Charlotte!" I looked up from my shopping list to see an über fit man, waving at me with one well-muscled arm and carrying a basket on the other arm, biceps bulging out from underneath his tight Under Armour T-shirt. He was the general manager of one of the gyms of the fitness chain I was working for. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me, but while I smiled and waved back, I secretly wanted to throw my body over my cart, praying he'd just keep going. Instead, he walked over to me.

"A cart, huh!" he grinned broadly. He patted his basket and added, "You burn more calories if you carry your food! The little things add up!" (He always spoke entirely in exclamation points.)

My face turned bright red. "Um, hey... how's it going?" I stammered. I was embarrassed and not just because I'd run into someone who sees me in skimpy spandex six days a week.

Then, as his eyes drifted down to the contents of my cart, I saw him take in the boxes of cereal and crackers, the fruit snacks, the bagels and the jumbo wheel of brie. I mentally compared that to his trim basket of veggies, lean meats and two green apples as his virtuous nod to sweets.

His smile slipped a bit. "You know, it's garbage in, garbage out! If you want to keep your machine running you've got to give it good fuel!" And then he was gone, presumably to hunt down chia seeds or something.

Wait! I wanted to yell after him. This isn't mine! It's for my kids! I swear I only drink kale smoothies! But, of course, that wasn't true. OK, the fruit snacks were for my kids, but I have always had a giant sweet tooth. Sugary carbs have been my weakness, my best friend, my downfall, my lover and my entertainment. And I daresay they control me more often that I control them — not something you usually hear a seasoned fitness vet say, but it's true.

After that, when I grocery shopped, I became obsessed with making sure my cart was "perfect," just in case I ran into anyone I knew. I even imagined the cashier was silently judging my food as it came down the belt and I want to get an A+. But, of course, I still ate treats. Now, I just ordered them online or shopped at weird hours, burying my ice cream under a blanket of salad and shame.

Being in the fitness industry for the better part of a decade has taught me how to do proper squats, how to create a well-rounded workout and even how to pose for workout pictures. But it's also taught me to be really paranoid. I can't lay all the blame at the feet of my job — I certainly had my own issues to begin with (which is probably why I chose fitness for a career?), but it didn't help me to be surrounded 24/7 with people who had all drank the sugar-free Kool-Aid. (Lie: They wouldn't even drink sugar-free Kool-Aid. Have you seen all the additives in that stuff?)

People have this expectation that trainers, fitness models and even fitness writers should look like they belong in fitness. They, understandably, want to see that you're practicing what you preach. Which, to most people, translates to hard bodies, flat tummies and a year-round tan. But, the reality of human bodies is far more complex than that. We're not all built the same, we don't all have the same metabolism, we aren't all the same age or have the same life experiences — good health doesn't look the same on everyone! And, the dirty truth is that a lot of people in the fitness industry struggle just as much with being as healthy as everyone else. Which is why I totally related to this xoJane essay, "I'm a personal trainer and my job triggers me to binge eat" by Kat Setzer.

"I entered the fitness industry thinking I would be one of those visionary women who tells others to stop worrying about that mythical six-pack or tricep definition or the girth of their thighs," Kat writes. "I became a personal trainer to help other people build healthier relationships with their bodies, but in the process, I was undoing everything I had done to help myself."

She started out exercising as a way to balance out all the treats she loved to eat. "Exercise started off for me as a give and take: burn as many calories as possible to make up for the cheese fries and Smirnoff Ice. I never skipped runs, sometimes went back for a second in a day, even when my knees hurt so much I could barely limp home or my feet burned with every step I took." She says she found herself hating exercise because it was the only thing that kept her from feeling like a total fraud. So, she could never take a break, never stop doing it.

Yet, after a long day of training clients and doing her own workouts, she often found herself running to an ice cream sundae — so ashamed of herself as she ate that she too felt compelled to hide it, hoping that no one she knew would see her. Finally, she was able to learn to be a little gentler with herself when she started training a co-worker — a "90-lb slip of a girl" who Kat learned also had her own issues with food and exercise.

"While 'thin' is now a bad word in the fitness industry, it has been replaced by 'lean' and 'strong' and 'healthy' in such a way that they, too, became binaries of judgment," Kat says. "People haven’t stopped talking about weight; we just talk about body fat and muscle mass as well."

And Kat isn't the only one opening up how her "healthy" habits made her less healthy. Jordan Younger, formerly known as The Blonde Vegan, recently made huge waves when she announced that her veganism was making her sick and she was returning to an omnivore diet.

For me, I ended up writing a book about how my professional interests devolved into an eating disorder and exercise addiction. I talked about my long road to recovery and self-acceptance. I wanted to blow the lid off the idea that fitness pros are these automatons with perfect will power and no struggles. A lot of us — perhaps most of us — struggle with the same food addictions, compulsions and feelings of failure. But, I don't think it makes us failures. I think it makes us human.

These days, I don't hide my grocery cart anymore. If people want to judge me based on that bag of SweeTarts jelly beans (because seriously they are little drops of heaven), then so be it. I'm there to show people it doesn't have to be all or nothing — that health is about so much more than appearances. Perhaps my arms are softer and my belly squishier now than they used to be, but not only do I have four kids, I get to enjoy the birthday cakes I make for them too. I'm happier, which in turn makes me healthier — even if I don't look like a fitness model.

More on body image

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