Body image insecurities and disordered eating have accompanied a majority of my young adult life.
Though I was never formally diagnosed, I can say with certainty there were times those recurring problems with food and exercise and body image could have been defined as a full eating disorder.
From an objective standpoint, I'm naturally slender and feminine. I do fit traditional beauty standards and reap the advantages. Yet the thing about an eating disorder is, it doesn't care about the privileges and advantages you already have—it just convinces you that whatever you do have isn't enough and does everything it can to obtain more control.
I've been an active person all my life. One of the worst things about this illness is how it has tainted the act of exercise. Though exercise for the sake of getting fit was never something I loved pre-eating disorder, doing those things so vigorously in the depths of it ruined any chance of casual participation. Cardio for the sake of cardio was never something I did much of before, so any attempt to try was a slippery slope.
Previously, when I was still trapped in the vicious back and forth of relapse and recovery, I had to get creative when I wanted to stay active in the good moments. But it seemed that no matter what I tried, nothing was enough. When living with an eating disorder, it feels like you have three choices:
3. Spend the rest of your life in the miserable and endless cycle of relapse and recovery.
While every new activity I tried helped me in its own way, not one was important enough that I felt the need to make a choice.
So, I didn't.
In September 2018, I finally gave aerial classes a try after eyeing them for a while. I was expecting to try something new and challenging—and, maybe, have some fun. What I didn't expect was to find something that saved me.
Photo courtesy of Sophie VanSickle.
At the first studio I attended, before you could take any other aerial classes, you were required to take a few classes that focused on foundations and strength. A little intimidated and unsure whether my body could handle it, I prepared for my first class by eating what I thought was enough, something I never did.
Sometimes, I'd force myself to have a snack before a barre class to ensure I could make it through without collapsing, but I never tried to eat enough. What I realized quickly: Even while eating enough food, aerial was hard. I was having so much fun. I was mesmerized by the things I might be able to do one day. But it was hard.
I thought to myself, "If this is this physically demanding when I am eating, there is no way I could do this if I'm not."
I returned the next week. And the next. The more I learned about what my body was capable of, the more I wanted to keep trying. For the first time, I had to make a choice: I had to get better or I had to quit.
Spoiler: I didn't quit.
Where many fitness methods miss the mark is in the message they're sending about fitness. Aerial did something for me when it sent a new message. It reframed my focus away from what I looked like and toward how I feel--and that was a game-changer. Aerial takes all my strength, creativity, and concentration and funnels it into one place.
There's no room for me to think about my size, weight, or insecurities, physical or otherwise. The more time I spend in these moments, the less those things matter to me. What I care about is getting stronger, so I can continue to learn new things and move my body in new ways.
I'm a writer because I want to create beautiful things. Aerial has become another way for me to do that.
I still have work to do in terms of how I view myself. But the negative thoughts I encounter are no longer accompanied by the compulsive need to act on them—or the version of myself who was begging to feel literally anything other than guilt and shame.
That's kind of a miracle.
Sophie VanSickle is native to the Grand Rapids area. She graduated from Calvin College in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in English and Psychology and spends a majority of her free time writing books about troubled young adults who find healing in each other. Shortly after graduating, she spent two years working with a start-up company in Montana, and it was there she discovered aerial fitness and immediately fell in love. Though she sometimes misses the mountains, she's glad to be back in Michigan surrounded by her family, friends, and all the lakes West Michigan has to offer.
Main photo courtesy of Zeal Aerial Fitness.