These days, there's a good chance you'll catch Nicole Lacanilao, 26, doing burpees in her driveway, getting dolled up for photoshoots with her sisters, and flexing her new workout gear on Instagram. At first glance, she may seem like any other beautiful, happy, fitness-focused young woman who has her life on track. After all, she's doing well as a licensed teacher, a businesswoman, and even a budding scientist. But the story behind her luminous smile isn't all glitter and sunshine. In fact, Nicole's young life has seen its share of darkness.
As a child, she had shied from fitness, rationalizing that she was too awkward and clumsy to perform physical activities well. Diagnosed with anxiety and depression, this self-consciousness was overwhelming. But when her lack of exercise began manifesting on the bathroom scale, she felt she had to take control. At age 18, Nicole began starving herself.
Starvation is so harmful that imposing it on a person is considered a form of torture in 172 countries. And yet when young women do it to themselves with ostensible success, allowing them to reach a certain number on the scale or look a certain way in a certain outfit—they're praised.
The cost of praise
While many have felt the fatigue and dizziness associated with being hungry, those who undergo long-term food deprivation begin to experience serious complications. For one, a protracted lack of food will deplete the body's stores of essential electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. This electrolyte imbalance, the National Library of Medicine observes, impacts the function of one's kidneys, hormones, and vascular system, among many other alarming physical and psychological effects. In fact, starvation is so harmful that imposing it on a person is considered a form of torture in 172 countries. And yet when young women do it to themselves with ostensible success, allowing them to reach a certain number on the scale or look a certain way in a certain outfit—they're praised.
Nicole suffered for two years. And having instinctively equated loss of weight with good health, people congratulated her. This counterproductive encouragement is not unique to Nicole. From driving past billboard after billboard on EDSA, to scrolling past targeted ads of crop-topped TikTokers asking, "Want a bigger [peach emoji] and a smaller waist?"—young women, especially, are inundated with images of what a "good" body is supposed to look like. In her essay in The New Yorker about the rise of Instagram Face and its accompanying surgeries, Jia Tolentino writes that, more than ever, young women are pressured to undergo a "constant perfecting process" marked by painful physical manipulation. And the reward is applause, whether it be through double taps, paid partnerships, or simply replacing the phrase "O, tumaba ka!" at the next family reunion, with anything at all.
But while people applauded, Nicole's starvation led to hyperacidity, which produced cysts in her throat. Deafening social expectations aside, she literally lost her voice. Slowly, she began binging. And 18 months ago, Nicole, who is around five feet tall, found herself weighing over 200 pounds. The pendulum had swung to the other end of unhealthy. "I was diagnosed with PCOS, I had back pains, and many other discomforts that were not there before," she says. The most limiting effect, however, was fatigue. "I had a comprehensive exam coming up, and I could not review properly because I was so lethargic," she says, adding, "I tried different study strategies, but none were working." And that's when she considered joining a gym.
Claiming ownership of her body
"I decided to use exercise as a way to wake up—anything to help me pass the exam," Nicole says, describing how she finally chose her body's health over others' expectation of what "healthy" should look like on her. "Despite the anxiety, I signed up at the gym near my workplace. [Then] I got a coach because I had no idea what to do. I was told that I didn't need one...but I didn't see anything wrong with asking for help." She was right.
Upon entering the gym, Nicole was intimidated by all the athletic people but with her goal to study set, and effective guidance from her coach, she kept returning. "After a few sessions, I felt really great, and I was able to study better," she says. When exam results were released, she had ranked second overall. She had been looking forward to feeling energized after gym sessions, but this was an even bigger boost of confidence and reinforcement. "I was surprised with how small changes made an impact on my overall well being, so I kept going."
In the beginning, her relationship with fitness was rife with misconceptions: "I chose to exercise thinking that sweat was the indicator of fat loss. It turns out that the caloric deficit from proper nutrition, exercise, and recovery was what made me lose fat. I thought that when exercising becomes a habit, it will stick forever, but you have to keep working for it. I didn't realize that there's a structure to working out—how often you exercise the body part, the reps, the sets, and more." Now, with the help of her coach, Nicole is able to use her education in human anatomy to understand the science behind her exercises, she's equipped with tools to stay motivated when she doesn't feel like exercising, and she's found ways to integrate movement in her day to day life.
"I have to be healthy holistically."
Nicole is careful to point out, however, that she didn't power her way to a healthy life through physical fitness alone. Now on antidepressants, Nicole is able to stay "relatively stable" through her good, bad, and okay days—allowing her to live a full life, which now includes working out. "I do go for a run or a workout when I'm mildly depressed," she says. It helps, "But if I don't work on other aspects of my life, such as addressing negative thought patterns, cutting toxic relationships, and building healthy eating and sleeping habits, fitness will eventually be swallowed by the deep despair of severe depression until [I] can't move anymore," she says. "I have to be healthy holistically."
By addressing her physical, mental, and emotional needs, Nicole has been able to strike a balance that eluded her in years past. Mind and body now work together.
"Counting has become almost second nature to me. Because of counting reps, seconds, and sets almost everyday, I find myself counting my steps or breaths when I'm anxious and alone in public. It helps remind me to be more mindful of my surroundings, especially now."
For instance, skills she has adapted from her exercise routine have been carrying her through the stress of pandemic life. "From my fitness journey, counting has become almost second nature to me. Because of counting reps, seconds, and sets almost everyday, I find myself counting my steps or breaths when I'm anxious and alone in public. It helps remind me to be more mindful of my surroundings, especially now."
Likewise, her mental strength has helped her find physical strength. Half-joking, she says, "Sometimes I tell myself, 'If you got through depressive episodes, you can get through this workout!'" Adding, "My mental health journey gave me tools that have helped me push through uncomfortable and awkward exercises even if I'm in front of people in the gym or in front of the camera. These tools taught me how to stay grounded even when I'm extremely anxious in the gym."
New perspective, new goals
Since Nicole has achieved her initial fitness goals (not only did she pass her exam and gain energy, she also lowered her cholesterol levels, improved her cardiovascular health, and even managed to do a chinup), she's now focused on more specific outcomes, such as activating a particular muscle, or incorporating movement into her rest days.
Unquestionably, a lot has changed for Nicole. Whereas her younger self shrank from the gaze of others, 26-year-old Nicole is self-assured in posting her workout videos online, where she's developed a supportive fitness community despite the limits of quarantine. "I like how [my Instagram account] became some sort of documentation. I get to see how much I've improved and it encourages me to keep going," she says.
Fitness helped me look better, but it also made me physically and mentally stronger.
But perhaps one of the most pointed changes is how she prioritizes her mental health as her body sheds pounds. These days, she says, "I try not to focus too much on relating fitness to aesthetics. Fitness helped me look better, but it also made me physically and mentally stronger. I think people need to remember that we have different goals and bodies, and losing weight does not necessarily mean being healthier."
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