real life

'After being bullied about my appearance, I became obsessed with working out.'

This post deals with abuse and sexual assault and might be triggering for some readers.

My abuser was someone I once considered a friend. We started our friendship at work where he glowed as a colleague with his funny and easy-going personality. We laughed a lot while we worked together; he really did a fantastic job of getting me to "let my hair down" around him.

After a few months of working at this firm, the entire office decided to go out drinking together after hours. It was here at the bar across the street from our office where my friend’s playful tendencies crossed a line. 

When he and I went to the bar to order another round, he said something to me about the way my body looked, and how I’d look better if I worked out. 

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"No offence, I just think your dress would fit you better if you gained some muscle."

I was humiliated. I stared at him, speechless. 

This was my closest friend at work. I knew he would never say anything to hurt me. Maybe I was just being too sensitive, I wondered. 

My face got hot, and I excused myself to the bathroom. I made sure not to sit next to him when I returned to the group. I said nothing, and neither did he.

At the end of the night, he offered to walk me to my car. I hoped he would apologise for saying something so insensitive, but all he said was, "I’m sorry if you were upset about my comment. I was only trying to help you. I think you’re so pretty. I won’t try to motivate you again."

I shrugged and said it was okay. All I wanted was to get in my car and cry.

But after that night, he made comments about my appearance regularly.

"I don’t think that’s appropriate Harry," I told him the next time he mentioned that my ass wasn’t as perky as the other girls’ butts in the office.

"But I’m not trying to hurt your feelings. I’m only trying to help a gorgeous girl look even better."

And because he was my friend, I believed him. 

He manipulated me into thinking that the rest of his derogatory comments were harmless or playful because he was my friend. He’d say them in a joking way, or he’d explain after blatantly insulting me that he was just trying to help me "feel and look better". And when I felt like crying, I reminded myself that I was probably just being too sensitive. 

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But over time, his comments turned abusive.

  • "Have you given any thought to working out? Don’t get upset at me, I’m only trying to help your image."
  • "You should wear lower tops since you have great boobs but a flat ass. What? It’s a compliment. I’m just being honest."
  • "If you wear heels, it would help your butt look a little bigger. Trust me."

Like many young women in today’s society would be, I was devastated by his comments. He was detrimental to my mental health. 

And from there, he crossed another line, and it wasn’t just a verbal violation. He sexually assaulted me in his office after most people had gone home. That’s how abusers groom their victims.

His words and the assault only confirmed all the horrible things I thought about myself.

I was always self-conscious of my body, even before I met him. I grew up with skinny little legs and bony thighs. And after I grew up, filled out, and gained weight everywhere else, I still had what the girls called me at school — chicken legs. And when I met my abuser, the things I’d heard all my life about my flat butt and skinny legs seemed to be confirmed.

Here was this man I really liked, and he’s telling me everything bad I ever thought about my body was true.

After I left this job, I hired a personal trainer. I’d like to say it was for personal reasons but deep down I knew I was determined to change my body because of my abuser. 

I became obsessed with changing my image. I got on a diet; I trained seven days a week, and I never skipped a leg day. After seeing what my body was capable of, I trained even harder; I ate even cleaner, and the muscles continued to grow.

After a couple of months, I filled out my dresses and skirts like a dream. For the first time in my life, I flaunted my legs.

No one could tell me that my butt was small now. No one could tell me that I didn’t fill out my skirts. No one will ever look at my body the way he did.

I worked out sometimes twice a day, and I skipped hanging out with friends or family so I could go to the gym. A few times, my friends gently suggested that I was taking this exercise thing a bit too far. But I ignored them. I hated my body when I wasn’t working out. And for that, I had to push myself as hard as I could.

And then life happened.

I got very sick and couldn’t work out. A week later there was a death in my family. I became depressed while attending two consecutive funerals, and I was barely eating. I lost about 10 kilos during all of this, and I lost the muscle I had worked so hard for. I felt weak, unattractive, and ugly.

Once again, I heard my abuser’s voice in my head when I looked at my body in the mirror. I heard his comments about how small my butt was, about how my jeans never fit me right, about how if I worked out, I’d be better looking. And I believed it all over again.

When I returned to meet my trainer after a month of zero exercise and minimal nourishment, he said to me playfully when I started stretching, "Oh man, we got a lot of work to do."

And I cried right there in front of him.

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I couldn’t hold back. My trainer apologised immediately, again and again. He didn’t mean to offend me; he said. And I know he didn’t. 

But the anxiety that came over me when I realised that someone else noticed my muscle loss sent me into a panic. The thought that someone else would think what my abuser once thought about my body was devastating to me.

I confided in my personal trainer and told him that I had been working out after our sessions together. I told him I’d passed out in the locker room a couple of times. I told him how horrible I felt when I skipped a gym day.

And he did the best thing for my health. 

He told me we were going to stop seeing each other for sessions temporarily and instead; he wanted me to journal about my mental health on the days where I wasn’t working out. He advised me to go spend time with friends and family.

I fought back, saying if he didn’t want to work out with me, I would just hire another trainer. 

I thought this would shock my trainer, but it didn’t. We were client/trainer more than we were friends, and I never imagined that he would be okay with me hiring a new trainer instead of him.

But to my surprise, he said okay. He said he couldn’t continue to train me knowing that I was pushing myself to the point of harm. He said he was worried about me.

And I believed him. So, I skipped the gym for a couple of days, practiced self-affirmations in the mirror every morning and slowly, I began to allow myself to live without obsessing over the gym. It has taken years, but I’ve learned to love my body as it is.

Many years have passed, and I’m still a dedicated gym-goer.

I love the gym. But even after all these years, I still train my legs more than any other part of my body. And it’s not for any Kardashian reason, it’s because I’m worried that if I don’t train my legs hard enough, someone will see my body how my abuser saw my body.

I’d like to believe that my healthy lifestyle is because of me - because I want to be healthy, look good, and feel good. But sometimes when I look in the mirror and overly criticise the size of my legs and butt, I wonder what kind of damage this man left on my self-image. Although I don’t dare give him the credit or power over my body after all these years, sometimes, I wonder.

Feature Image: Getty.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website,  here.  

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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