How It All Started

It didn’t take much. He was tall and lanky; I was not. But at 5’2” and 100lbs, I was far from overweight. All he did was wrap his hand around my arm, and then do the same to his own. An alarm sounded in my head — but on the outside, I didn’t move a muscle. I knew exactly what he was doing: he wanted to see if I was bigger than he was. I turned away very calmly without a word and left the room.

The following day began as usual. I hung around my 13 year-old peers, giggled my way through class, and turned in assignments late. Then lunchtime rolled around and I simply sat there. “I’m just not hungry,” I told everyone. The truth was, that friend from yesterday was sitting too close for my comfort. I couldn’t let him see me eat.

And so began the beginning of my dark days. As the months rolled by, I continued to skip lunch. And as I began to drop weight off of my already-petite frame, the compliments started rolling in. You’re so pretty. You’re so skinny. How do I get a body like yours? I loved it. No – I relished it, and I craved more. My breakfasts soon consisted of a few quick bites of whatever was on the table, and dinner was cut in half. My stomach growled on a constant basis, but that only made me feel strong. I have the power to resist the food; I can do anything.

It wasn’t just the eating, of course. As the star of my school’s swim team, I was pressured to perform. I was also on the varsity cross-country team at the time and my days consisted of long distance running followed immediately by two hours of grueling swim workouts. To that, I added a daily regimen of 200 pushups and 500 sit-ups every evening. I felt so accomplished.

Fast forward to six months later, and I was sitting at 92lbs. I ran into a friend’s mother who hadn’t seen me in almost a year. She gasped in delight, cooing over how much more attractive I’d become. “You’d look better if you dropped just a little more weight,” she said. “Maybe another five pounds or so.”  My heart dropped. What I was doing was not enough. People were still not happy with me.

“You’d look better if you dropped just a little more weight,” she said. “Maybe another five pounds or so.”

 

I think something went off in me that day, and I went just a little bit crazy. I cut my food even more, and my exercise regimen became obsessive. I worked my way up to 300 pushups and 5,000 sit-ups. I spent my Friday evenings peddling away for a full three hours on the bike instead of hanging out with my friends like I so often had done. After all, it was the perfect opportunity to burn more calories, right? I was a social butterfly no more. I stopped laughing, I stopped smiling, and my thoughts revolved exclusively around food and the next time I could exercise. I went from being a mediocre student with the occasional C’s to straight-A perfectionist. Everything had to be exactly the right way; everything had to be planned out in advance, practiced until flawless.

Later in the summer, my family went out for lunch. I was vehemently opposed to this idea – I hadn’t eaten out in months, and who knew what could happen? – but was forced against my will to sit and eat. I felt nauseated because I could feel the food sitting heavily in my stomach. I’m going to gain all that weight back, a voice screamed in my head. Once we returned home, I walked nonchalantly to the bathroom and quietly closed the door. I wasn’t even thinking. I bent over, stuck my finger down my throat, and promptly threw up. I blinked. Then I smiled to myself as I wiped my vomit-stained mouth. Well, that was too easy. And that’s when bulimia entered the picture.

I smiled to myself as I wiped my vomit-stained mouth. Well, that was too easy.

 

I was shipped overseas a few weeks later to attend summer school. It was the first time I was away from home for an extended period of time. I took advantage of that opportunity, and in my unhealthy state of mind, I delighted at the fact that my eating would not be monitored. I plunged deeper into my anorexia as I stopped eating almost entirely, only wolfing down food every third day, only to throw it all back up. My hair fell out in clumps, and I had long since stopped menstruating by then. I ran for 90 minutes every day with no rest. I made no friends that summer. I returned home teetering just over 80lbs.

 

 

Summer of 2003. I may be smiling here, but inside I was crying out for help.

 

 

High School Years

9th grade was a transitional year for me. Entering the high school scene was challenging enough, and add to that my struggle with food. I continued in my extreme, obsessive, restrictive ways for a number of months, but then something happened.

My body was royally pissed off at me. I wanted to continue starving myself, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. What happened to my will power? Was I getting weak? I felt defeated as I slowly increased my exercise even more to compensate for the food I was inhaling. Although I was purging on an almost-daily basis, my face, my legs, my entire body started to fill out again as I slowly began to put the weight back on. I felt constantly bloated and the shame was never-ending.*

By 10th grade, I was no longer anorexic but the bulimia still loomed ominously overhead. I was back to a healthy weight of 103lbs. I couldn’t seem to go more than a few days without binging and purging. It was such a vicious cycle: the anxiety-ridden urge to inhale as much food as possible, the panic as I forced myself to throw up, the vowing to never let this happen again as I brushed my teeth and tried to get the smell of vomit off of myself, the hiding of the bloodshot eyes, the feeling that I’d failed… only to do it all over again. If I so much as laid eyes on a plate of crackers, I had to eat the entire thing. And then I’d purge. If I was offered a few Wheat Thins, the whole box would be devoured within an hour. And then I’d throw up.

I wanted to be anorexic again, I really did. I yearned for it. But my body had had enough, and the feeling of my stomach eating away at itself was no longer something I could ignore. The incredible rush I’d once experienced from not eating for more than 24 hours stopped coming. I felt like I’d failed myself because I couldn’t make myself stick-thin again. Although I’d stopped my daily ritual of pushups and sit-ups, I still exercised for months and months at a time without taking a day off.

Protein? Carb? Fat? I had no idea what they were at the time, and I had no interest in taking the time to learn. I thought it was a waste of time and that I’d be better off continuing my miserable ways. In my mind, there was no way out. I was trapped forever, and the rest of my life was going to be more of the same. Dissatisfaction with my body, and consequently, myself as a person. I was never going to be good enough.

When It All Changed

One day during my second semester of 12th grade, I stumbled upon Oxygen magazine. I know it’s cliché, but where else are you likely to find a flock of athletic, lean women? At first I fell for a lot of the typical hype out there: eat bee pollen, plié squats only, take X Y Z enzymes, these fat burners, and this specific protein powder. I combed through The Eat Clean Diet** as though it was the bible and sucked in every word. I’d come across something that I’d never heard of in my life: you can eat food and not feel guilty or get fat? You can exercise and actually enjoy it? I’d long since given up on the idea that that was feasible, so to read about women who were doing it – and doing it well – shook my entire world.

Almost overnight, my mindset switched from starve, run, binge, purge, starve, run, binge, purge to lift, eat, lift, eat.  I spent every minute of my free time devouring information on bodybuilding.com and other fitness websites. I designed my own training programs (poorly made at the time, mind you) and began to lift on a regular basis. I cut down on my cardio, increased my protein intake, and was no longer afraid to eat healthy fats. Oatmeal became a staple in my diet, as did brown rice, fruit, chicken, protein powder, fish oil, nuts, and vegetables.

 

Almost overnight, my mindset switched from starve, run, binge, purge, starve, run, binge, purge to lift, eat, lift, eat.

 

I hired an online trainer the summer after I graduated from high school, and the bulk of those months was spent adding more valuable tools to my fitness toolbox. I learned about compound movements, proper technique, the importance of rest, and corrected many of my misconceptions about what constituted proper nutrition.

Since then, I’ve undergone two off-seasons to build muscle mass and have made some sizeable strength gains in the gym. While my journey hasn’t been necessarily smooth sailing, I can now say that I have been in recovery from my eating disorder for some time. There’s no guarantee that I won’t fall back to my previous ways. But every day I make a thousand and one decisions, and each time I choose to respect my body, I am winning. And as long as I continue to win more days than not, I think I’ll be all right.

 

Where I Am Now

Today, I’m the strongest that I’ve ever been, both in mind and in body. It’s been a long time since I’ve graduated from the Eat Clean Diet days. I’m no longer afraid to eat real food – heck, I’ll even enjoy an avocado cheeseburger with onion rings (my favorite) every once in a while. In terms of training, I’m currently aiming to bench 120, squat 200, and deadlift 225 in the next few months. I can do unassisted chin-ups, which is something that I’d never dreamed of being able to do. While I’m far from being the strongest girl you’ll come across, I think I’ve come pretty damn far.

Fitness has become my passion. Over the years – through the depression, the breakups, the uncertainty of my life, the drama – fitness has been the one thing that I could always count on. I’ve competed in the NPC bikini division (now nationally qualified), received my NSCA certification, attended a fitness entrepreneurship conference, and I’ve also become connected to a myriad of individuals in the fitness industry. My heart still races whenever I think about lifting later in the day. I read fitness blogs as I sip my coffee every morning. I get excited when people ask me about training and nutrition. I argue with others about the best tasting protein powder out there (Gaspari Myofusion milk chocolate, hands down). I keep a training log to keep track of my progress and aim to push myself just a little more each week. I understand the importance of rest and exercise it (get it?) on a regular basis. I practically live in my workout clothes. Perhaps most importantly, though, I’ve fully embraced my past now and I’m not afraid to speak out about it.

 

 

Placing 2nd in A class at the 2011 NPC Contra Costa in May. This one’s a real smile.

 

 

I can’t tell you with full certainty where my love for fitness is going to take me at this point. For now, I’m doing what I love to do and having fun. Isn’t that that the point? Do what makes you happy, and everything will fall into place. That’s how I try to live anyway.

The moral of the story here is three-fold. First, I want to reach out to others, share my story, and let people know that fit is hip. If you’re in a dark place, know that there is a way out. I’ve been through hell and back, and today I am thriving. You’re not alone. Second, if you suspect that someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to him or her. Sometimes all it takes is one person to save a life. Have the courage to be that person. And third, lifting weights is certainly not just for men, and ladies, I promise you it won’t make you big. I’ve never felt so confident about my body, and that’s all thanks to the iron plates.

Notes:

* You may notice that I never mention receiving any kind of professional help – and that’s because I didn’t. At the time, I didn’t even know what an eating disorder was and it never occurred to me that I was a victim. Unfortunately, given the culture that I was living in, my behavior was not uncommon and so nobody called me out on it. Seeking help would have saved me years of turmoil and anguish. I urge you to find the strength to reach out to others who may be suffering; you just may save someone.

** As a starter book, I found this perfectly adequate. I’ve even given this as a gift to a friend who was interested in becoming involved in fitness. At this point, however, there are many parts of the book that I disagree with and hesitate to recommend it to those just starting out.

See  part II HERE of this article, which will cover the science behind eating disorders.

 

 

One week after my show. I should have chosen lighter dumbbells to hold for the shoot!

 

 

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29 Comments
  1. fairlane 8 years ago

    How inspiring. I applaud your success in triumphing over your eating disorders.. Never hide yourself from the ones you love because they’re the ones most apt to stick with you when things go to shit..
    Good luck in all of your endeavors.
    Philip

    • Author
      Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Hi Philip – thank you! When you’re going through hardship is also the time when your TRUE friends show themselves. I’m proud to be where I am today.

  2. Gina 8 years ago

    If you do not recommend the “Eat Clean” series of books anymore, are there any that you do recommend?

    • Author
      Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Gina – to be honest, I don’t really keep up with any of the health-related books anymore to give you a solid recommendation. Just about everything I’ve learned about training and nutrition have come from online fitness blogs that I read religiously. If you join my fan page, http://www.facebook.com/SoheeLeeFitness, I’ll be updating there frequently with good articles, tips, and videos. Thank you!

  3. DougM 8 years ago

    Hi SoHee,
    Y’know, I posted that first reply, on facebook, and then got some blowback that was quite negative, enough so that I deleted the post. There was something there that was a bit PUC, and let me apologize up front for any possible offence, to you, or others.
    Then something funny happened. I got a “like” response from Will, and another “Like” response from someone else, and now I see I got a message reply from you. Sooo, apparently, on facebook, when you delete a posting, it deletes it from your view, but the whole rest of the world can still see your original posting. Word to the wise! You get what you pay for!!
    So, sadly, there is no way for me to see your reply. But I hope you take the positives of my post to heart. You’re a superstar in taking a disorder all the way to a Stanford graduate expert in the opposite. As for my other comments, my feedback confirms the age old unchangable fact that any comment on women and their fitness will result in a black eye to the man offering it. So, keep up the good work. Counting on women like you to help other women discover the benefits of iron plates, extra protein & other intelligent nutrition, and the quest for good weight, instead of no weight.
    Bless You,
    – Doug

    • Author
      Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Doug, don’t worry about it. I wasn’t offended in the least by your comment. And yes, you will get flamed when you put yourself out there, no matter how well-intentioned you are – especially on the Internet.
      🙂

  4. Annette 8 years ago

    Sohee,
    Amazing story. Amazing that you conquered your eating disorder without professional help. Amazing resilient metabolism considering the roller coaster you put you mind and body through. You are beautiful. Stay strong!

    • Author
      Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Thank you, Anette! Strong is beautiful, right? 🙂

  5. Deb 8 years ago

    I understand your battle. Well done for getting to a place you are at now, a better place, a healthier place. Education about how the body works in relation to nutrition really makes a difference to everyone, especially people with eating disorders. In fact because of the intense focus they put on food, they would be the first to absorb all the information about it. Many thanks for sharing your story. You are truly courageous and inspiring.

    • Author
      Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Yes, true. It makes me sad to think about all that time I spent thinking about food – and it only lead me down a spiral of obsession. Food is fuel (and fun) :). Thanks for reading, Deb.

      • Will Brink 8 years ago

        Well it’s all relative. I have plants and workout clothes older than you are, so you didn’t waste THAT much time 🙂
        But seriously, don’t be sad kiddo, we would be different people without the hardships and crap we have faced, and people that have faced no hardships lack character in my experience.

  6. Will Brink 8 years ago

    Almost 500 FB “shares” and counting. A BrinkZone record! It appears, as expected, this article really speaks to a wide range of people.

  7. Chuck 8 years ago

    The beginning of your story rings so true for me… thank you for posting this. I’m not where you are yet, but I’m so much better than those really dark days.
    Always keep smiling!

    • Author
      Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Keep it on the up and up!! 🙂

      • Mike 6 years ago

        Really inspiring. Good to see you blossom.

  8. Heretic 8 years ago

    So, basically, you did change nothing about your unhealthy self-loathing view of yourself, but rather changed the “source code”-like routine from “eat, puke, starve” to “eat minimum, lift maximum” but didn’t even question the “fitness”-dogma insanity you call “bodybuilding” at all, yet you claim it is a success?
    In what imaginable circle of Dante’s Inferno could this story (essentially saying “Yeah, you can conform to an insane beauty ideal that is given to you by a mad society treating you not for the human being you are and what good deeds you perform but for the weight and shape of your ass that is objectified not by YOU but by the people surrounding you! You can be “accepted” if you are to dehumanize yourself by sacrifying all your self respect by submitting yourself to a hermit’s diet and a rigorously ridiculous training regimnen that may, or may not include the use of annabolica and several other medical components!”) be taken as a means to recover from anorexia by anybody suffering that condition?
    What the hell is wrong with you people?

    • DougM 8 years ago

      OMG! Who is this troll who has nothing better to do than to search out fitness blogs and make some pitiful case for how there is no merit to seeking fitness. One can only imagine and be sickened by his own physique.
      Dude, she’s sculpting the physique of her own choosing, she’s wise enough for that choice to be left to her, and it’s certainly none of your damn business to condemn the positive found here. And futile to try and drag others down to your level of wasted failure.
      But I like your name “Heretic”, in the classical sense of someone who knows nothing of God, or anything else good.
      Following Will’s guidance, in 2011 I lost 35lbs of useless and ugly and health depriving fat. Go ahead, tell me how shallow and misguided that is. Make my day.

      • Will Brink 8 years ago

        Doug, I was going to remove Heretic’s post, but I liked your response so much, I’ll leave it up for others to see what loser/trolls exist, what they are willing to say to others they have never met, and expose their ignorance, and in Heretics case, obvious psych disorders. You do a fine job there.

    • Will Brink 8 years ago

      “Heretic” if you post here again, your posts will simply be removed and your IP banned. Please slide back under your rock and find another place to troll.

      • Annette 8 years ago

        Keep the post up Will. This person obviously is hurting and is deflecting his/her hurt on the author. This is a sad case indeed and I feel sorry for “heretic”. This person is obviously seeking attention and is exposing his/her ignorance and self-loathing. We see it clearly. This person’s comment does not detract from the wonderful story of the author. Heretic is trapped in “Dantes Inferno”. This person needs help.

    • Author
      Sohee Lee 8 years ago

      Hi Heretic – First off, I’m flattered that you’ve contributed to the view count of this article. Thank you for taking time out of your life to read this. That means a lot to me!
      I believe you must have read my writing too quickly and accidentally interjected bits of your own subconscious into the piece. That’s okay – it happens to the best of us. Never did I say I “eat minimum” (though to be correct, it’s really “eat minimally”); in fact, I eat. A lot. Just ask any of my friends. And I do not “lift maximum” (again, it’s “lift maximally”) but rather lift heavy while keeping safety as my number one priority. Does that clear it up for you? And where do I mention that I am a bodybuilder? Dear reader, I competed in the bikini division. Google “female bodybuilder” and see if the images that come up are anything like what I look like.
      Forgive me, Heretic – I didn’t realize that taking care of my body and my health was deemed dehumanizing. Would you recommend that I instead help contribute to the obesity epidemic? This was no hermit’s diet. I ate sugary cereal, dairy (ice cream!), and candy regularly while preparing for my competition. Yes, my training was rigorous, but it was not ridiculous by any means. I lifted 4 days a week and had one day of steady-state cardio, if that clears up anything for you. I never have and never will take “annabolica”; I quite like my feminine traits, not limited to but including: female-sounding voice, lack of prominent Adam’s apple, curves, and lack of manly facial hair.
      For years after I stopped my anorexic tendencies, I was still petrified of food and thought it was my enemy – until I discovered lifting and learned that food is actually good for me. I also scaled back on my exercise volume and embraced rest. I think that may have helped me recover. What do you think?
      To answer your question, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” – I’m not sure. People like reading stories of personal triumph because, when it comes down to it, we’re really not all that different from each other. Everyone faces some sort of hardship, and it’s inspiring and motivating to know that someone has been in a bad place and has found a way out. So all the “you people” who have given a nod of approval to my article – yeah, what the hell is wrong with them to like that I’ve replaced my extremely unhealthy behaviors? It baffles me.

      • Will Brink 8 years ago

        I think you gave that troll far more time and thought than he deserved, but it was enjoyable to read and may help others see into your experiences, etc. Good work.

      • DougM 8 years ago

        Sohee, You take such a high road here, I feel a bit embarassed to’ve been dragged down in his direction, in my response. We can all take a breath and know that but by the grace of God, go any of us. Hope he sees a better light some day. Plenty of it here. Having said that though, and with Will’s nod there, I can’t say I regret any of my visceral response. 😉 Thanks again.

  9. taranaki 8 years ago

    Wow, I’m very impressed by your honesty and how you managed to overcome your difficulties!

  10. Annette Boulden 7 years ago

    I related to your story so much and would love to chat with you. I am registered Dietitian and personal trainer through ACE. I’ve competed in BB and Figure and once in Bikini. AT age of 48 fitness, the weights the gym is my happy place.
    I wish you the best in all your dreams 🙂
    Annette

    • Sohee Lee 7 years ago

      Thank you, Annette! I admire you for doing what you do at your age. I wish everyone – especially women – loved lifting weights as much as we do.
      You can feel free to contact me at sohee@soheeleefitness.com. Look forward to hearing from you!

  11. bridget 7 years ago

    soHee,
    WOW you and i are so alike. I use to weigh 213 pounds and i amnow down to about 115-119. I told my boy friend i would not get below 120 and kept lying saying i was 120. Until my eyes were sinking in, im depressed, i have air bubbles pop in my stomach, i tell myself its okay not to eat and your not hungry. I work out a lot bette now. I cut back from an hour walk, 3 hr gym session, 45 min walk and then working in a restaurant, to about 1.5-2 hrs work out cardio lifting and working in the restaurant. I get comments now all the time about omg your so tiny and omg you look great but deep down im not happy. I want to be 120. i want to be healthy. i want a life back. I dont want to wake up any more and first thing i think is o FREAK what am i going to eat today?
    I will work out almost everyday but have been doing better with just 5-6 days a week. I am just afraid to eat that one thing that when i go to bed, i will wake up 213 pounds size 18 instead of 118 size 2.
    i was always chunky but let it get out of control. What do you tell yourself who works out like we do that it is okay? i am suppose to eat 1800-1900 cal and i eat about 1100 but burn about 700 a day…i want to change just need those words of encouragement to do it. I tell myself its okay but to get my hand on the food to my mouth is beyond hard. Im scared of what damage i have done to my body and what will happen if i dont eat more…….am i on the wrong track completely? can you please help me
    Thank you
    bridget
    ps you are my hero

    • Tdiva1 6 years ago

      Hi SoHee,
      The hardest thing to do is to change, I applaud you for your effort. Your story is not unique, but it could have ended tragically. I am so glad that you made the change and can help others. Bodybuilding has hepled me to keep my temper in check, and balance my emotions. It is the only thing I have right now that is mine alone. I own it and look forward to reading about other women who find strength in building their body, spirit, and soul.
      Keep pushing

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