How does a person become a badass? Are badasses simply born that way, raising defiant fists from the moment they come into the world? Can anyone make themself into a badass by putting on the badass uniform—throw on a slick leather jacket, a pair of ripped jeans and call it a day?
Others may disagree, but I like to think a person becomes a badass by overcoming a struggle, or by doing something unfathomably rad.
In my eyes, I am a badass. But I wasn’t always that way. I had to overcome my own struggles to get there—struggles that live with me even today.
Throughout my life, I've had a pretty poor self-image. For as long as I can remember, I've hated my body type, my height, my weight. I've never felt pretty enough or skinny enough. To get to the core of it, I've always hated the way I look and everything about my body.
I had all sorts of strategies for dealing with my self-hatred. I would hide my body by dressing in baggy clothes; I tended towards hanging out with guys instead of girls because I never felt that I could play the "girly" part; I would put on a mask of happiness during my darkest moments to hide my true feelings rather than face them. But the most powerful tool at my disposal for handling my growing disgust with my own body was sports. When I was young, sports made me feel important; they gave me a sense of purpose. And to be honest, I was good at them. In a raging torrent of self-doubt, I clung to the rock of sports to keep from losing the only identity I could be proud of.
This combination, of molding myself into the image of a strong, tough, independent athlete and covering any sign of weakness with a veil woven from positive vibes, kept me going through high school. And then came college …
Away from the familiar surroundings of home and with few rules to keep my impulses in check, college gave me a freedom unlike anything I had experienced before. I took full advantage of that freedom: I drank more, partied more, and ate whatever I wanted. I had no conception of “healthy living,” substituting in its place the mantra “burn off more calories than you take in.” I played hard and I partied even harder.
There was peer pressure too. Among the people I associated with in school, the ideal female body was lean and sculpted, and anything less was a failure of willpower. Off-campus, the situation was equally toxic. I wanted to enter the glamorous world of fashion advertising. And in the fashion world in New York City during the early 2000s, I was expected to look a certain way if I wanted to be successful. I don’t know how much of that expectation came from the people around me and how much was self-generated, but I do know that the compulsion to look a certain way, to be a certain weight, was real. More than anything, I wanted to look the part of a badass fashionista athlete. I hungered for it. The goal of transforming myself into the woman I wished I could be became my obsession.
Driven by that elusive obsession, I developed an eating disorder and for years after I struggled with bulimia. At first I would only purge when I felt like I had overeaten, but as the years wore on I began to use purging less like a scalpel and more like a sledgehammer. Stressed out? Purge. Out of control? Nothing like a little purge to put myself back in the driver’s seat. What had begun as a whisper telling me that I was fat and ugly had turned into a full blown scream that drowned out any voice that dared contradict it.
The decay was slow but persistent, corroding all that was good in my life. Like waves against rock, my eating disorder wore me down mercilessly until only a shell of my former self remained.
My coping mechanism had become an addiction, and my mental state spiraled downwards into the murky depths of depression. When college ended, I lost another of the anchors that had provided some measure of stability in my life. Feeling adrift in the world and trying to find a path for myself, I started smoking cigarettes and continued abusing substances. I stopped working out and lived ever more recklessly. I would do anything to keep my mind moving—to avoid the pain that came with self-reflection.
Always waiting to console me in my times of need, there was the purging. According to mentalhealth.org: “For many people with bulimia, food is a way of coping with distressing emotions and feelings. Many people report triggers or negative emotions occurring before a binge. For some people, their eating disorder becomes a way to deal with difficult emotions or triggers." And that aligns precisely with my experience: I knew that I had an eating disorder; I knew that what I was doing wasn’t healthy. But I could no longer stop.
I tried counseling, but after a few visits I realized that I simply couldn't afford it. Being a recent college grad during the peak of the 2008 recession, I just didn’t have the money. Beyond that, I was brought up with a “suck it up and deal with it” mentality. I could solve my own problems. Better yet, I could ignore them entirely. At that time, I lived by the motto that the less people know of your struggles, the more they will like you and the more they will respect you—and damn did I want to be respected. So I kept up the purging and self-loathing. Most importantly, I sucked it up and kept my struggle to myself.
Self-destruction is a fickle beast. One day you make excuses for your negative actions and say to yourself "what I'm doing isn't all that bad." Another day you swear them off and tell yourself "tomorrow, I'll stop." Some say that the hardest part is admitting that you have a problem. I think the hardest part is not JUST acknowledging that you have a problem, but figuring out how to fix it; and then following through, day after day, with the siren song of your addiction constantly playing in your mind, calling you back and telling you that it would be easier to just give in.
After a few years of living recklessly, I started to miss order. I missed structure, and I missed sports. I left the bright lights of New York City and the dark connotation they now carried for me and returned home. Back among familiar surroundings, I joined a gym with a welcoming community that helped me to rediscover my passion for fitness and competition. Things weren’t all rosy by any means. I was still smoking, still drinking, still partying hard—above all, I was still purging. It was this contrast—between the healthy community of the gym where I spent so much of my time and the destructive impulses that still plagued my thoughts and controlled my behavior—that forced me to face the grim reality that a gym membership couldn’t cure me of all my ills. I want to emphasize this: I thought that I could erase my broken past with a gym get-out-of-jail-free card. I had to find out the hard way that there was so much more work to be done. I realized that to heal fully I needed to dedicate my entire being to the cause. I needed to kick my bad habits, start loving myself, and fix my relationship with food.
I started with the bad habits. While going to the gym hadn’t stopped these habits in their tracks, it had made them (just a tiny bit) less appealing. After all, it’s no fun to go do a workout with ten of your best friends when your head is pounding from the effects of a hangover. “Maybe I can find something else to help me stop smoking,” I thought. It was around this time that I started to enjoy long distance running. Starting with 5 and 10–kilometer races, I quickly made my way up to half marathons and soon enough I got into marathons and ultra running. Running and smoking are an awful combination, and the more I ran, the less I smoked. Long distance running gave me more self-confidence, too. And so, in place of the self-destructive spiral that had dragged me down in New York City, I was now in a cycle of positivity that was lifting me back up.
For the first time in years I felt okay, physically and mentally. But the scar remained. You can’t just snap back from years of deep despair like waking up from a bad dream. Though I felt better, I still wasn’t me yet. Then, I met the man who flipped my fallen world right-side up. My husband (who at that time was just a hot ticket at my gym) lent me his eyes, and through them I saw myself as he saw me—a flawed, but fundamentally beautiful person, with a heart full of compassion if only I would open it. With him, I finally opened up to someone other than a therapist about my eating disorder. And in return, he taught me my self-worth. He was gentle and kind. He neither judged nor ridiculed, but instead helped to nudge me back on track when that rush of self-doubt, which was now more often a trickle than a torrent, threatened to knock me off. He told me I was beautiful when I felt my ugliest and made me feel safe in my own skin. Sometimes we all need a helping hand to guide us out of the dark. My husband Sam was that beacon for me. For that, I am forever grateful.
As the damage I had done to myself started to fade and my love for myself grew, my relationship with food began to improve in kind. I started to appreciate food as fuel—delicious, wonderful fuel—without worrying so much about what it might do to my weight. I stopped binging and purging to regain control, because through the healthy habits I had developed and the self-love I now practiced, I could control myself now. Feeling more comfortable in my own skin, I was able to enjoy the experience of eating and the pleasure that comes with sharing a meal with loved ones.
One thing about eating disorders is that they never fully go away. My bulimia will always be with me; it is a part of me; the voice will always be there. I still have moments of weakness where I think "I could just run to the bathroom and no one would know." But now, thanks to my own efforts to build healthy habits that displaced unhealthy ones and to the support system of friends and family with which I’ve surrounded myself, I have the strength to say no. I have the strength to speak up and to tell the world who I am and what I struggle with. I have the strength to tell myself that I am enough; that if I can overcome bulimia, I can overcome anything.
I am a badass. And I am proud of it.