How do you define ‘healthy’? Are abs a part of that definition?

As a dancer turned fitness professional, I’ve seen my body go through drastic and not-so-drastic changes over my career.  In 2008 I was an average sized girl who booked her first professional job.  In 2009 I was told I needed to ‘work on my fitness’ to be rehired at that same job. I discovered strength training and changed my body without changing my nutrition.  Three months of heavy ‘beginner’ lifting 3x/week altered my body composition and allowed me to drop a decent amount of fat, although the scale stayed pretty much the same. Some would say I finally lost my ‘baby fat’ but I know it was weights.

 Cardio only. BEFORE strength training.

Cardio only. BEFORE strength training.

In 2010, I leaned out incredibly while on a dance contract in Aspen.  I was dancing in only 5 shows a week, but they were intense (imagine five-75 minute HIIT sessions while going through the emotional roller coaster of your most volatile relationship from start to finish including but not limited to lust, sex, drugs, break up, and make up…think about THAT next time you hit your plyos).  I wasn’t actively trying to lean out, but I attribute my weight loss to the show, strength training workouts, outdoor activities like hiking and cycling, and altitude. Again, I never limited my nutrition, though I did try to go vegetarian for a stretch in there…a month later I was craving a cheeseburger so badly, I knew vegetarianism wasn’t for me, but I digress.  

 VICES at Theatre Aspen

VICES at Theatre Aspen

For the next few years I did what made me happy. I danced. I lifted. I taught and took classes at a boutique fitness studio that promoted functional strength and cardio training.  I moved to California. I kept doing what I was doing. There were some Radio City seasons that I lost a lot of weight, while there were others that I lost little. There was even a stretch in there where I was dealing with a knee injury, but my body physically didn’t change much despite the lack of activity. I considered myself healthy and I didn’t even think about my relationship with food or health.

In 2014 I decided I wanted to compete in a bikini competition. As a dancer, you grow up learning to push your body to its physical limits.  Perhaps it’s in my genetics, or perhaps it’s the overachiever in me, but I wanted to see what else my body could do…so I got a coach and embarked on a 16 week weight loss journey to get my body as lean as it could possibly be. Well..it leaned out alright. I lost a TON of weight. My stage weight was less than I ever remember weighing…ever. I saw abs. I saw definition in my arms that I had NEVER seen before. I saw veins and bones and muscles that I had only seen in my anatomy class in college looking back at me in the mirror.  It was awesome.  And it was terrible.

 One week out from NPC competition

One week out from NPC competition

I never did the competition to ‘get skinny’. I wanted to experience what it was like to train my body to reach a new limit. I wanted to set a goal and achieve something.  I swore to my concerned friends and family that I was doing it the healthy way and it’d help build my business and once the 16 weeks was done, it’d be over. And here I am a year later still dealing with it.

Prior to this experience, I had always felt decent about my body, I always felt healthy.  Sure there were things that I didn’t like about myself like almost every female on the planet, but those things never dominated my thinking.  I liked that I was the girl who could ‘eat with the guys’, and that my husband and my earliest memories together involve me finishing his meals more than once.  While I never considered myself a ‘thin’ girl, I considered myself a fit girl, a strong girl, a healthy girl, and that worked for me for a long time. 

But then the fitness competition happened and things went downhill. Imagine 16 weeks of measuring every ounce of food, spending countless hours in the gym, and obsessing over how much change you’d see in weekly progress pictures.  Then imagine receiving praise solely based on your appearance.  The more your abs popped on social media, the more likes you get.  People offering to give you discounts on workout apparel simply because ‘those abs deserved leggings’…It was great and all, but then the 16 weeks were over. I was starving, and exhausted, and depleted. I forgot what ballet class felt like, I forgot what fruit tasted like, I forgot what balance felt like, and I forgot what healthy looked and felt like.

People THOUGHT I was healthy on prep. People THOUGHT my fitness level was through the roof while on prep. Was I healthy? Did I feel fit? No. I was not healthy, I had somehow given myself the socially acceptable form of disordered eating and I was a miserable human being.  I stopped taking dance class and going to auditions because I was exhausted.  I barely had enough energy to walk my dog.  I cut out healthy, nutrient-rich fruit because it had sugar in it (cue crazy sound effect).  THAT, my friends, is not healthy. Having visible abs does not equal healthy.

Ok, so maybe you already know this…congrats to you my friend. But for those women and girls out there that would kill for visible abs, I ask you to pause and reflect.  What is your definition of healthy? Be honest. Last summer if you asked me to create a mental picture of what ‘healthy’ was, I probably would have envisioned my ideal physique. The end.

And now I’m redefining…

This summer, I think healthy and I don’t see a particular muscle. I see activity. I see happiness. I see life. My image of healthy is enjoying a bbq with family stress-free. My image of healthy is having the energy to run after my dog at the dog park. My image of healthy is nourishing my body with nutrient-dense food (and yes, this includes fruit and no, it does not include a food scale). My image of healthy is lifting weights, not because I have to, but because it makes me feel like a strong badass.  My image of healthy is taking ballet class, not for an audition or a job, but because it makes my soul happy.

It’s time we redefine what healthy is.  Emotional happiness should be a part of our vision of health. Yes, let’s set goals and aim to better ourselves, but not at the expense of our emotional wellbeing. Let’s throw those weights around the gym to gain strength. Let’s do some plyometrics to keep our cardiovascular system in top shape.  Let’s feed ourselves whole foods to fuel our bodies so they can perform optimally. And let’s be fit, strong, badass women who support one another because being healthy is a lot more fun than being alone and hangry.