I spent the most part of my life despising my body, being immersed in chronic dieting and dealing with emotional eating disorders. I hated the way I looked and strove to achieve a ‘barbie doll’ figure – the ideal body type in my mind. Now at the age of 26, I am a National and World Powerlifting Champion. I do not have a traditional ‘model’ body. I am of tall height, broad shouldered, with a muscular and athletic build. I look fit and athletic when my body and I are getting along, but I do not weigh in at a featherweight number, ever. In fact, I am approximately 12 stone 7 pounds. Heavy right? Before I would have freaked out knowing I was that heavy, but I have learnt to accept and embrace that muscle weighs heavier than fat. I have realised over the years that no one particular body is perfect – we are all unique, with different a genetic makeup.
Some people are made broad (like me), while others slim and petite. Yes, you can change and improve what you have been born with, be it fat loss or muscle gain. But, it’s pivotal that you accept the genes that you have been born with – you cannot change science! After years of wanting that petite look, I have learned to feel comfortable in my own skin, to feel love for my body, and embrace my emotions as a real part of myself. I cannot change my genetics, my bone density, or that fact that I am broad. I have had to learn to accept it.
I now feel good about my body most of the time. And when I don’t, I know that it’s just a temporary fluff, not the actual truth. Unlike before, I now have the tools to reset, ‘recharge’ and realign my mental state when I’m having a really bad day. My most powerful tool and coping mechanism being the obvious… going to the gym, pushing myself both mentally and physically to the limits by lifting ridiculously heavy weights. I lift like a ‘beast’.
This is the inside story to my body image experience – why and how my disordered body image led to the development of an eating disorder. With years of feeling lost, I have found an outlet in exercise, weightlifting to be precise. It is my crutch and what gives me the motivation, determination, power and strength to stay mentally focused and healthy.
Where It All Began…. 15 years old 9 years old I have struggled with body image issues my entire life. I can remember clearly when I first started to really dislike my body – when I began to feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I was 16 years old, in my final year at Secondary School and I saw photographs of myself - a 13 stone 7 pounds pudgy teenager. I was horrified. All I could see were big legs, a chubby face, a spare tyre around my stomach and curves in all the wrong places. From that day on, I fought with my body - like two contenders in a boxing ring, my mind in one corner, my body in the other. It was from this point on that my struggle with my body image, self worth and confidence began.
I had fought such a tough personal battle that by 19 years of age I had developed an eating disorder – bulimia – a serious mental illness. But, before I delve into that, let me put it into context by taking you back to my childhood experiences… 17 years old: my Debs night I spent all of my school years being overweight. I was always the chubby one, the one who had to be fitted with a L and XL uniform, the one who was slagged by boys for being fat.. for being a ‘pig’. Although I took part in P.E., it was always my least favourite subject – purely because I found it difficult to complete many of the activities that the teacher assigned or taught us.
I remember on one occasion in Primary School (I must have been about 8 or 9) the teacher was doing a gymnastic style class with us, where we had to tumble over a gymnastic pole. Guess what? I couldn’t do it. Actually, I tried but got stuck half way. I remember my face going tomato red and I felt really embarrassed (although none of my classmates laughed or sneered, thank god!). As the years went on, and as my weight rose, I refused to take part in many physical activities at school. Perhaps my childhood experiences haunted me unconsciously? I don’t know. I just know that I really disliked when it was time for P.E. class. Sports were just not my thing. Sometimes I would pretend not to have my P.E. gear with me so I wouldn’t have to partake. And on other occasions, I would write a note from home excusing me from P.E. and sign it with my mother’s name on it.
I had fallen into a habit of being lazy and inactive. Up until my final year in Secondary School, I don’t remember ever having a serious mental issue with body image. And although I had been bullied numerous times throughout my life for being overweight, it wasn’t something I was overtly worried about. Yes, it got me really down, but I got on with it – I cried, ate for comfort and then put on a brave face. My mam and brother also fought my battles for me, which made it easier. I think perhaps I ‘mirror fasted’ too – that is, I very rarely looked in the mirror. But, once I hit sixth year, it became a whole different ball game. As a 16 year old, everyone around me at school seemed to be trying to shed a few pounds for that special end of school party, the coming of age night… the Debs! Everyone seemed to be eating a lot less junk and exercising a little more. With everyone else on the bandwagon, I started following Weight Watchers and began to do a 30 min exercise video every night before bed. I was determined to lose as much weight as I could for my Debs as I felt I wouldn’t look beautiful if I didn’t shift the flab.
In my mind, I did not match the current template of ‘beauty’, which at the time was a slim, thin, little waist, with big boobs. We’re talking the early 2000’s here, the era of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera who both had that ideal body type. Britney was my idol – in my eyes, she had it all – the body, the hair, the face and the voice. Her ‘Slave 4u’ music video was my most favourite music video of hers. However, while she flaunted herself around the TV screen in a tiny bikini top and very low rise leather pants, abs and boobs on show, I on-looked with a sheer desire and passion to look like her. Each time she came on MTV, my initial thought was ‘I wish I looked like that, she has the perfect figure.. She has it all. Why can’t I look like that? It’s not fair!’. It is a known fact that the impact of the media in the Western world can fuel a desire for or obsession with the idea of becoming a ‘Skinny Minnie’. In the media, thinness is often associated with success and popularity, which may cultivate and encourage the idea of being slim, especially among young, naïve teenage girls. Just think of all the A-List stars in the US, how many of them are overweight or have an average body type? Apart from the likes of Adele (who was slated for being overweight), very few.
Take Pop Idol winner Jordan Sparks for instance. She swore blind that she would never change to fit in with the norm. And hey guess what? She miraculously lost 50 pounds in 18 months. Why? Because skinny sells! Jennifer Hudson is another prime example, having lost 80 pounds. She is the marketing tool for Weight Watchers’ ‘Because it works’ campaign. Yeah she lost weight; a low calorie diet REGARDLESS will do that. I wonder what her body fat percentage is though… Anyways, my point being is - what is the result of all this media coverage of weight loss – from fat to skinny? Young girls can develop unrealistic expectations for their body image and place an overemphasis on the importance of being thin and skinny. If uncontrolled, this of course can act as an incubator for an eating disorder.
Among other reasons, this was one of the root causes of my unhealthy eating habits. My Super Skinny College Years, I had lost a good amount of weight by September 2004 (age 17), and I felt on top of the moon! But no way in hell was I going to stop there. My mentality now was ‘Woo lets loose even more weight Danielle!!’. The looser my clothes felt, the more of a buzz I felt… My fixation on weightloss and dieting became completely out of control once I began studying in UCD. Having attended an all girls Primary and Secondary Catholic School, it was a shock to the system to see so many boys in my lectures (lots of cute ones too). At that age, I of course was becoming more interested in boys. It’s only natural! But being more aware and conscious of the other sex triggered my low self-esteem, confidence and body image issues.
With slim girls floating around the college (and I mean super thin girls), I noticed myself beginning to worry a lot more about how I could change my weight, how to make myself look better, how to look more appealing… to fit in with the ‘norm’. That’s what the boys seemed to like, or so I thought anyways. Every morning before getting dressed, I would think of ways to cover up my body and camouflage my “problem areas”. Each time I’d meet new people at college I would wonder if they were judging me for my body and how I looked. I also developed a fear of eating in front of people (especially boys), thinking if they saw me eat they would think I was a ‘pig’ or eating way too much. I was conscious of my weight every, single, minute of the day. I’d would wake up thinking about it, and go to bed thinking about it. It began to affect every aspect of my life, especially in social situations. For instance, when I’d be chatting in social circles, my mind would be elsewhere. What would I be thinking about? The amount of calories I had eaten so far that day. I’d be calculating in my head, reiterating it over and over again like a parrot ‘right, you had ½ point for the apple at breakfast, 2 ½ points for the popcorn at lunch, so that leaves X amount of points for the day’. At times I wouldn’t even know what my friends were chatting about!
I was overwhelmed by a small trip to the shop - a sense of anxiety would come over me knowing that I’d have to choose something to eat, and, in front of other people too! My thoughts were ‘What can I eat? How many calories and points are in that? If I buy that, do I look like a pig? What will people think?’. I was definitely en route to very dark world, and yet it was something that was completely out of my control. I did not have the mental stability to help myself, nor did I have the power to ask someone for help. To me this was normal; I had conditioned my mind and body to it. I thought this was normal because surely anyone that was slim did the same? So what did I do? I hid it from everyone. I had developed this completely negative and worryingly unhealthy representation of my body in my head.
I’d look in the mirror and what would I see? FAT FAT FAT. As I said, this mental representation began to have a strong influence on my behavior, mannerisms and actions. I was consumed by it day in and out. And because I had followed Weight Watchers for two years, I knew exactly how many calories were in the food I chose to eat. I obviously chose the lowest calorie foods to consume. I remember at one stage I was living off boxes meringues because they had only ½ a point in each portion – about 30 kcals to precise, and I’d throw in some low kcal fruit like plums and oranges if I was hungrier than usual. (It’s funny how to this day I still remember how many points are in certain foods). I was eating so many meringues daily that I ended up developing a cavity in my back tooth and needed a filling. The dentist later informed me that it was from eating too much sugary foods. Other foods that I believed were ok to eat included plates of free vegetables as they had no points - they were calorie and fat free.
Sometimes I might have a small turkey breast which had about 1 ½ points. I also became a ‘cardio bunny’, slogging it out every day on a treadmill, no matter how tired or weak I was from the lack of energy. I didn’t care – I aimed to burn more calories than my daily intake so I could become even skinnier. By the age of 19, I had dropped from 13stone 7pounds (UK size 14/16) to about 10stone 4-7pounds (UK size 8/10). But I was undeniably unhealthy physically and mentally. I’d had even came to the point where I was even taking diet pills and fat burners. Anything out there, you name it, I had tried it. I was working in Zara Clothes Store part time and saving every penny to buy these pills. And yet nothing seemed to work! I was barely eating enough calories to keep me functioning in lectures or studying in the library.
Other times I convinced myself I wasn’t hungry – filling up on coffees and an apple. If I felt I had eaten too many calories, I would make sure to burn off the extra calories later that day, be it an hour or two on the treadmill or cross-trainer. I would not leave the gym until I had reached at least 1000kcal doing cardio – OCD or what? Sometimes I’d go jogging twice a day, or do my hourly long cardio sessions in the morning and go to Curves in the evening. I believed that the skinnier I became, the happier and more confident I would feel. Quite the contrary happened – no matter how skinny I became, it was never ever good enough - in my eyes I was still a ‘fat pig’. I remained unconfident and awkward in my own skin. There was always some area of my body that I needed to improve. I remember standing in front of my bedroom mirror (my hip bones were quite protruding) and thinking ‘I look disgusting”. I wouldn’t mind, but I was so bloody slim! While everyone else noticed how skinny I had become, I didn’t see it. This ongoing preoccupation with and distortions of my body image eventually (and not surprisingly) became a driving force in the development of an eating disorder – bulimia, which has been scientifically proven to be assuaged by chronic dieting and calorie counting.
This of course fed my anxiety levels, with me becoming severely stressed all the time. When I felt I had eaten too much food, I would make myself sick. When I ate something on impulse (like bread) and then later regretted it, I would make my sick. When I felt I had eaten something too calorific or ‘bad’, I would make myself sick. Media had a huge part to play in all of this. I bought magazines regularly, especially those that included page long spreads about stars who had lost lots of weight. I remember on one occasion I cut out a photograph of a Victoria’s Secret model - who was voluptuous and yet really skinny – and pinned it to my wall. I’d look at this photo everyday to keep me inspired and motivated. If I woke up and felt too tired to go on my hour long run, I’d look at that photo and by hey presto my runners would be on like a light! As a Secondary School Teacher of young girls, I can see that although generations have passed, nothing has changed.
Girls still think the exact same way - media and boys remain as detrimental and harmful to the mindset of young girls. I’m actively involved in healthy living in my school. After speaking with many of my pupils regarding the topic of body image, have a read of what one of my 5th and 2nd year students said: 16 years old, 5th year pupil: “I was overweight when I was in Primary School, but lost most of this weight throughout my first few years at Secondary School. I’m now in 5th year. I know that I am not really skinny, but I also know that I am neither fat nor overweight. Having said that I don’t feel confident in how I look – I’d say I have a poor self body image. There are so many influences that affect girls and how they see themselves. The main social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram show photos of skinny girls with abs of steel, as well as stars like Beyonce, who all have amazing figures - curvy and slim. Young girls, including myself, look at these photos and think, ‘I would love to look like that’. But it’s very unrealistic, because the likes of Beyonce get paid to look the way they do. They have lots of money and can pay top trainers to help them look like an A-lister. Boys also have a major influence on a girl’s body image. They know what to say to make you feel insecure and bad about yourself e.g. ‘The state of you, you look fat!’’.
14 years old, 2nd year: “I think I’m fat. I hate my stomach and the top of my legs. I have big man legs. I compare myself to stars like Megan Fox and Beyonce. I think the perfect body is one that is toned and curvy, especially since that’s what boys go for - they like nice, slim bodies – like what Rihanna has.”When my pupils mentioned the impact of social media, how stars look, and what they feel boys like in the physique of a girl, on how they view themselves – their body image - their self worth – I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Having taught young girls for 4 years thus far, I guarantee you this is exactly how their minds work, those who are in the Junior Cycle especially. Those in Senior Cycle are somewhat more logical about the topic. You can see from the 5th year pupil, she sees and understands that in western society most of the media you are exposed to do not show people in a realistic way. She indicated to me that she knows characters on TV are shown with unrealistic, ‘perfect’ bodies. Indeed, she is correct. Women are shown as too thin and men are shown with larger-than-life Hulk-like muscles. Photographs in magazines or billboards are edited to erase flaws and imperfections. But although you know that what you see is not normal or not real, it can still have a major impact on you!
So What Happened In The End? I Chose To Be Strong Over Skinny! I hid my eating disorders from everyone close to me. I led them all to believe that I was just trying to shed the baby weight and then I’d leave it at that. I hit an all time low when I developed bulimia, but I never once asked for help. Of course, I knew what I was doing wasn’t right, but I hadn’t got the will power to tell anyone. I think perhaps I was ashamed of myself - disgusted that I had let it get this far. Eventually my mam and brother found out – I was caught in the act and the cat was out of the bag. I remember the look of horror, shock and sadness on both of their faces. They had known how eager and determined I was to lose weight, but didn’t know the extent of it. I was an expert at covering my tracks – my specialty was turning the shower on while in the act, ‘I’m having a shower’, so no one could hear me.
They of course made an intervention, my brother in particular. As a fitness professional, and founder of the Cover Model Body Training system, Darragh took control and rescued me from this dark hole I had put myself in. He introduced me to a whole new world of health and fitness – he started me on a transformation journey – a journey not based on counting calories and burning off those calories by doing lots of cardio work, rather he introduced me to the world of weightlifting and eating clean, healthy, dense, REAL foods. At first it was torturous – a battle with my head in particular. My body and mind was used to under eating and not eating that adapting to this new lifestyle of eating food regularly began to play tricks with my head. I was now eating more than I ever had, and I began to worry a lot. But unlike before, there was no escaping from my fears. Like the big brother that he is, Darragh was determined to foresee me overcoming my disorder. He monitored my diet every single day and made sure I was eating the enough food – calorie wise as well as nutrients. He became my support system, my life coach. It wasn’t long before I noticed that the mental and physical benefits of following this healthier way of living far outweighed the obstacles.
I began to see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel! Like Batman and Robin, Darragh and I became a team - Team Hayes. Knowing the mental and health benefits of lifting weights, Darragh brought me to the gym every single time he was going. I was literally always by his side; we became training buddies – a twosome. He taught me everything he knew about lifting – from correct form and technique to the theory behind doing a certain exercise to structuring my training. Guess what? I began to really love lifting. Actually, no, that’s an understatement…. I fell head over heels in love with it! It became the other half of me. Without sounding stupid, Gym and Dani would be a twosome forever.
Danielle Hayes Athlete – Transformed by Cover Model Body Training
If you want to transform yourself like I have, contact ‘The Cover Model Body Gym’, 7A Upper Fitzwilliam Street, D2
The Imperfect Mirror In Our Head: Body Image and Mental Health
I stepped foot in a gym when I had just turned 21 years of age. Nearly six years later, I am a National and World Powerlifting Champion. I can even say that I am able to deadlift two of my own body weight! But what keeps me focused? Why do I do what I do? I’ll tell you why…. Lifting weights is my crutch – my meditation – a way of clearing my mind – my inner peace. When I lift weights, I feel strong, physically but more importantly, mentally. Challenging my body in the gym lifting weights has been the greatest method for discovering the strength of my mind. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I don’t feel like going to the gym. There are always sets that I don’t feel up to finishing. There have been times when everyone else in the gym seen me struggle and/or fail. But through perseverance, showing up and trying the best that I can do, I have developed the mental courage to get past failure, work when I don’t feel like it, and discover what I am really made of mentally and physically.
Weightlifting goes a lot deeper that though. It gives me something to stand on, something to define myself by. It clarifies who I am in my own mind. ‘I deadlift 160kg. This is what I’m capable of. This is who I am’. There is no hiding from anyone or lying to yourself about what you can and can’t do. The weight forces you to be honest and self–aware, something which I was not for many years. Even if you are weaker than you thought you were, I can tell you now, there is a satisfaction that comes from knowing where you stand. Before weight-lifting, most of my days were lived in the grey areas. Weightlifting is black and white. It has helped me push through the ambiguity and closer to understanding who I am as a person – who Danielle really is.
Prior to stepping foot in a gym, my eating disorder is what defined me. But not anymore. This type of clarity combined with gradually improving the amount of weight that I can lift has helped my self-worth and confidence sky rocket. I know who I am and I am proving that I have and can become better than I was before. “I deadlifted 160kg in my most recent competition. I pulled 152.5kg in my last competition, 7.5kg more. I can become better. This is proof.” What can possibly be more confidence-building than direct, indisputable evidence that you are becoming a better human being? Believe me, this concrete proof of my improvement can do more for my confidence than all the positive thoughts in the world!
Me & my coach Darragh I have gained a multitude from weightlifting - the resistance to illness, the ability to fight injury, the confidence in my capabilities and the awareness of my limitations. It has positioned me to make a bigger impact and contribute more value than I could have before commencing my fitness journey. In my case, that means writing articles like this, sharing my transformation journey, sharing my experience with all of Ireland on National TV on The Late Late Show, as well as in the independent. This is one of the biggest benefits of weight training. It allows you to transform into a better version of yourself - more confident, more self-aware, more mentally and physically strong - so that you can become a better person than you were before.
Darragh gave me the tools to build a strong body and mind, and now I feel confident and strong enough to contribute to the world by sharing my story. That’s not to say that my journey is over - it has transferred to another ‘chapter’. I am now challenging myself to become better physically and mentally, while at the same time I am excited about helping the people around me! You Have To Do What Others Won’t To Achieve What Others Don’t My negative body image and resulting eating disorders consumed my life from aged 17 to 21 – four years of my life – nearly half a decade spent worrying about every single calorie put into my mouth, worrying about what I looked like and how others viewed me.
Five years later, I am a Powerlifting Champion. But more importantly, I am healthy and happy physically and mentally. For years I strove to achieve the Barbie doll physique, mentally torturing myself day in and out trying to do so. I’ve learned the hard way! Now I am choosing to be STRONG over skinny. ‘To succeed you need to find something to hold on to, something to motivate you, something to inspire you’. For me, that’s lifting heavy ass weights, nailing personal record lifts, and smashing and beasting out new personal best lifts. I push myself to the limits mentally and physically in the gym. Maybe it will have the same effect on you. Believe in yourself. Believe in what you can achieve. Believe in the person you CAN and WILL be.