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Running because of fear: when the internal struggle is based on the external

I nearly ran myself to death because of an overwhelming desire to be accepted. I don't want others to experience a similar fate.
The author, circa November 2012, circa 150 pounds.

The author, circa November 2012, circa 150 pounds. /Beth Steenwyk

The author, circa 2010, circa 225 pounds, far right.

The author, circa 2010, circa 225 pounds, far right. /Beth Steenwyk

The GoBoldly photo

The GoBoldly photo /Bri Luginbill

Mine is the story of a modern-day slave.

I’m six-foot-two. When I began running three-ish years ago, I weighed approximately 225 pounds. Today I weigh around 180.

In December of 2012, I weighed 150 pounds.

The skin was stretched over my limbs and my muscles were non-existent. I struggled to open swinging doors.

I degenerated into a wraith, an animated Caucasian stick-figure.

All for acceptance.


The Beginning


I was overweight and unhealthy when I began running. My brother and sister are both runners, so when I decided I wanted to get in shape I had leaders to follow. I eased into exercise at first, and slowly I began to get healthier and to feel better.

I began running as a way to combat my weight and to get healthier. At first, I felt great. Running purified my system and gave me a sense of accomplishment.

But a series of interactions encouraged me to make my running habit the sole focus of my life. I noticed that people were noticing me, people who had ignored me before. Suddenly I was more popular in my social circles and people constantly told me, “You’re looking great!” As I continued to exercise I skimmed through tidbits of health information on Livestrong’s official website and discovered that calories are the X-factor when it comes to losing or gaining weight. 

I had attended the same church for six years. After I lost 30 pounds, a girl who had gone to the church as long as I had approached me after the service with a smile.

“Are you new here?” she asked. She had never spoken to me before.

This situation, along with many others, seared a terrible message in my brain: People like you now because you are thin. Being skinny equals being noticed. You are the sum of your calories.

I was terrified of losing the attention I had found.

I began to run farther. I began to eat less. Over the course of a few months my fat decreased until it was depleted. Then my muscles began to shrivel. For breakfast, every day, I ate half a cup of oatmeal and two eggs. Lunch was a small tuna sandwich, twenty almonds and a banana.

Dinner was non-existent. I developed a phobia of every kind of fat, and I wouldn’t allow anything outside of my stringent diet to enter my system.

One night I attended a banquet for my sister’s cross-country team. I was around 160 pounds at the time. Lasagna was served, and as a social duty I ate lasagna with everyone.

I had to leave the banquet early because I was overwhelmed with shame and fear about the repercussions of my indulgence. I left on a run as soon as I got home – 7 miles, my longest run to that point, in a fit of anxiety, confusion and fear amidst torrents of rain.

The rain on that dark, wet night masked my tears.

I had become a slave to my appearance.


The Breaking Point


Remember when I said at the beginning I got so skinny I couldn't open doors?

I reference that because I ran into a door in November of 2012. My muscles didn’t have the strength to push open the door in front of me, so I ran face-first into the glass pane.

In a Burger King. In front of my boss. Smashing my glasses.

Running into that door was my light bulb moment.

I feared gaining weight, but I realized that if I lost much more weight I would be dangerously close to death. So I began the long, bitter journey toward recovery.

Eating disorders are weird, vicious monsters that inhabit your psyche for every waking second, masquerading as your friends, convincing you to abuse yourself as a means to an unachievable end.

They can live forever.

I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder and I hated thinking I had a “disorder.” I called it the “eating thing.” The “eating thing” ruined my life.

I started battling my way to a healthier body, but as I slowly and fearfully gained weight I also gained an unhealthy self-image. Suddenly the fat that I had been so proud of avoiding appeared on my waist. I wondered how long it would take before people began ignoring me again.

As I forced myself to eat more, the pride and confidence I had gained by depriving myself at meals vanished. A complete meal with dessert would trigger frustration and anxiety in my mind, making me binge. And purge. And binge. And purge.

I don’t remember much of the binge cycle. I remember it was awful. And that peanut butter tastes awful coming back up. And that I never experienced greater hatred for myself than after my stomach was in the toilet and I was still mentally calculating calories.

There was a period of several months where I thought about nothing but food. You might have talked to me, but I wasn’t entirely there. I was thinking about how many calories I had consumed that day and dreaming of losing weight again.

I needed people to tell me that I was, regardless of weight or height or race or gender, an all-right guy. I needed people to convince me that I was more than an increasing number on a scale.


The Recovery


I found some people who are really good at loving others when I started attending Love Feasts at the Boiler Room in the summer of 2013.

Love Feasts have a simple concept: anyone and everyone is invited to share food and conversation in the 5th Street Hall every Wednesday night at 6 p.m.

Anyone and everyone typically shows up: people from all backgrounds, races and social scenes hang out with one another and break bread. You’re as likely to sit beside a homeless guy, as you are a wizened father of five, as you are a former drag queen.

The Boiler Room community struck me as radically different from the other ministry communities I had been involved with. They actively practice an inclusion of each and every person that is diametrically opposed to the alienation I imagined I would encounter with weight gain. My mind began to heal as I hung around the Boiler Room community.

But it wasn’t just the members of the ministry community that helped me heal. It was the neighborhood folks who showed up to Feasts, who slurped soup and slugged coffee with me in the dining hall, who shared country songs they liked with me, who invited me to come to their homes for holiday meals. They laughed and danced and sang and cried with me (seriously, all of those are common at Feasts). They relied on me to join them in their joys and in their sorrows, not because of my appearance - because I was another person and I was there.

Of course, I can’t speak about recovery without speaking about those who’ve had the most influence on my life. My family has always been there for me, and I have an extended family of friends who are always ready to laugh and dance and sing and cry with me. My friend Chad is a saint, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. I could say the same for Amber, Matt, Kegan, Abbi, Casey and so many more. I think the easiest way to recognize your own beauty is to hang around beautiful people who are willing to admit they aren’t perfect.

My mind is still healing. When I see or hear advertisements I’m often tempted to believe their subversive message: a perfect body equates to confidence. But then I hang out at the Boiler Room or with my family or with my extended family of friends and I know that there is a different way to approach life where people are beautiful because they are people.

My families, the Boiler Room and the wonderful folks who hang around Love Feasts have proved enough consolation for me.

But there are others.


Why am I writing all this?


I was intentionally up front with friends and family as I struggled to gain weight. At first I thought I was the only one who struggled with body image.

The more I learned, the more I wished I was alone.

I was appalled at how many of my friends (many girls, but some dudes) came to me and admitted that they struggled with body image, too. Their stories had a common theme: someone had told them their bodies weren’t good enough, and no one had said that wasn’t true.

The young boy who ran himself to death because his brother called him fat.

The young girl who believed a boy who said, “You’re pretty, but you would be prettier if you were thinner.”

The dear older woman who still struggles daily to avoid binging, even when the grandkids are over. 

They starved and abused their bodies for acceptance and love.

Thousands of people struggle with negative self-image every day. The epidemic is exacerbated by cultural messages enforcing the lie that to be confident your body must conform perfectly to society’s definition of beauty.

The Boiler Room, my family and my friends have helped me to believe that I am more than a number on a scale. I desperately wish this belief was more common, and that all the people who’ve confided their stories to me would suffer no longer.

When I saw Bri Luginbill’s article addressing the “Go Confidently” plastic surgery billboards on I-196, I contacted her immediately and offered to help in any way I could. She kindly asked to take my photo for her GoBoldly campaign, and I was the first male participant. I was honored to be part of her efforts to promote healthy self-image.

But I want to do more if I can. I don’t believe these negative stereotypes are going to change easily, even though I believe the majority of people would agree that they should change.

Active protest, where we speak about the negativity of cultural stereotypes regarding our bodies, is the only way to change common perceptions about self-image. It isn’t enough to passively think that the stereotypes are wrong: we must be vocal in our opposition. Silence equals acceptance.

Active protest looks different for everyone. For some it might mean holding signs that encourage people to love their bodies, like the GoBoldly campaign did under a “Go Confidently” billboard last Friday. For some it might mean seeing those billboards on the highway and talking about their message with the other people in the car. For some it might mean smiling at people that don’t look as if they receive many smiles, or giving someone a hug, or telling someone that they are loved.

There are endless ways to actively protest this problem. As for me, I’m frustrated enough with how the problem has impacted those I love to share how the problem has impacted me. Writing this is scary. I’ve never felt so vulnerable before. But if I can share what I’ve been through and it can save someone else from going down the same path, it’s worth all these words. My weaknesses are useless unless I can somehow use them to help others - then they are strengths.

I still run. I still advocate exercise for health and wholeness. I just won’t let running or calories or stereotypes define me any longer.

I urge every reader: don’t let your confidence stem from your appearance and don’t buy into negative stereotypes about self-image. Find people that you enjoy being around, people that are willing to laugh and dance and sing and cry with you. Don’t be afraid of not being perfect, because people are imperfect and beautiful nonetheless.

In other words:

Go confidently.         


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