Halloween is my favorite holiday. I would wear a costume every single day if it was socially acceptable. It’s all about transforming yourself into someone else, someone fun, someone scary, someone with superpowers- it’s like the American Dream, right? You can be ANYTHING you want!
Transformation is also a common topic among fitness-minded folks. The idea that we all have a starting point, a point at which we make a conscious decision to change, and then an evolution of visible changes. We start as one thing- overweight, underweight, a little flabby, self-conscious- and we work on changing, and we emerge some time later transformed- confident, more muscular, leaner, smaller, healthier, whatever it may be. Of course, a Halloween transformation takes mere minutes or hours, but a fitness transformation takes weeks, months, years.
I’d like to talk a little bit about my own transformation, using both Halloween and fitness, in honor of the holiday. Facebook has this lovely feature where they drag up all this shit from the past and make you squirm each morning remembering all the idiot shit you did when you were 19, relive every painful decision, every shift you worked hung over, every Greek art & architecture class you fell asleep in… not the point. Thanks, Facebook, for being so creepy and bringing back all these past Halloweens, I guess. Please pardon some fuzzy pictures- remember photography has not always been what it is today… and many of these were taken by intoxicated people.
Let’s start with wayyyyyyy back. The Halloween following high school graduation, 2007. I had moved to
Madison, WI, in hopes of starting college soon. I had a full-time job and I hated my life, and I drank pretty often. Madison is a party town, for sure, and being 19 made no difference. I had put on about 15 pounds by this point after graduating high school, but I was ok with it. I had a little booty, and a lot of fun.
We worked and went to school all week, and partied on the weekends, with little regard for our bodies. You’re invincible at 19, right? I wasn’t overweight by any means, but I did not have the healthiest of habits, either. Ew, a cigarette? Yeah, gross. Bad decisions. The night after this was taken I would dump a bottle of cream soda on my favorite will peacoat mixing a 151 and cream soda in a water bottle in the car- the back seat, not driving! I had little regard for what I ate (anyone who has ever had mac & cheese pizza from Ian’s on State after bar hopping knows that nutrition is the last thing on any Madisonian’s mind), I was in a bad relationship that I saw no way out of, and I never considered the consequences of my partying.
By 2008, I was battling some pretty heavy life stuff- my bad relationship had gotten worse, I was struggling to keep up on my rent, and my heat bill was on it’s way to being about $400, even though my house was a frigid 58 degrees all winter. I dealt with these things by using all of my spare money to buy beer. Also I cut off all my hair. I was in a pretty deep depression, struggling with panic attacks near-daily. I had attempted to sign up for a clinical research study on generalized anxiety, but the testing battery showed that I had a panic disorder and did not qualify, though the doctors were very concerned, but had no health insurance to try and get help. I had an awesome roommate and some friends who were super fun, but encouraged this behavior a lot. I was now partying on school nights, sleeping maybe 4 hours a night, going to school and work hung over more often than not, but still clinging to both things- school and my job as a nanny. I knew which bars wouldn’t card me and which bartenders made the strongest fruity drinks. I knew how to use my newly grown boobs to get these drinks for free. I had packed on another 15 or 20 pounds, and had just started to become aware of how uncomfortable I was becoming. I saw no solution, though, as I could barely afford the two pound box of elbow macaroni I bought each week to eat. I told myself I was a vegetarian, but, what’s a vegetable? Is a noodle a vegetable? I love noodles.
The following Halloween, in 2009, saw me at my heaviest weight- somewhere around 160 pounds on my petite 5’2″ frame. No, this is not astronomical, but it was uncomfortable. I was self-conscious in my clothes, and I’d spend hours staring into my closet, ashamed at how I looked when I put on anything. I hated myself, and I treated myself poorly and without respect in every imaginable way. I had no support, no coping mechanisms, and if I’m totally honest, some pretty serious mental struggles happening at this point. Reflecting back on this time, recently, I realize just how troubled I was, and how differently my life nearly turned out.
It was soon after this Halloween that I began talking to Zack, long distance, via a chance Facebook message that somehow never ended. He was about to be deployed, but we managed to see each other a couple of times beforehand, and struggled to keep our budding relationship on hold through a year-long deployment that followed. And it was he who said to me, one day after returning from the mall, having needed a larger size of jeans, complaining, “Why don’t you just go to the gym sometimes?”
Should I have lost my mind? Perhaps. Many ladies would not have taken kindly to that. But somehow the rational bit of my brain kicked in, and I realized I simply didn’t have an answer for him. And so the next day I started. Me and the elliptical made a date between classes 1, then 2, then 3 times per week. Then I started dragging my roommate to an evening yoga class on campus once a week. My evolution was beginning, and by the next Halloween, I was totally feeling myself, having lost nearly 30 pounds. I had two costumes that year.
It was on the second night of Halloween, when I wore my pinup costume, that I landed my first photo shoot. A week later I found myself modeling in a motorcycle calendar for a local customs shop, and for a few months following, I’d be doing promo events at bars around town- flirting and accepting drinks. I was still partying, but I’d started to take a bit of control of what I put into my body. Noodles were no longer the food of choice, and I’d begin my love affair with turkey sandwiches and apples. My roommate was working on getting healthier, too, and we’d take trips to the grocery store and buy things like frozen veggies, and flash frozen tilapia and chicken breasts- I’d begun eating some meat again. I started to learn how to cook! Really basic stuff, but, it was a start!
Midway through 2011, I started to lift. I spent the summer with Zack, in San Diego, following his return
from deployment, and I’d grown more than tired of the elliptical. We combed through bodybuilding.com plans in search of one that appealed to me, and I settled on a Jamie Eason plan, a precursor to her current LiveFit plan, that got me touching dumbbells a few days a week. I was apprehensive at first, but with Zack’s help, quickly fell in love with this new section of the gym. It became a game to see how many more reps I could complete this week, or if I could use the 20 pound dumbbells instead of the 15s. I found my body looking better and better every week- my weight was stable around 120-125, but my body composition was changing. I started to feel a little bump in my bicep! I started to feel strong. Foxy, if you’ll permit me the play on words. (sorry/not sorry)
Christmas of 2011, I packed up Kodiak and two bags of my stuff. It was 4 days after handing in my undergrad thesis, the day after officially graduating college (though I skipped the ceremony in favor of selling my car that day), and we were on our way to San Diego. Four days later, Zack would propose to me, and a mere 4 months later we were married- albeit, secretly. We told our families the following August, and so by Halloween 2012, I was Mrs. Pio! I had also just started dabbling in powerlifting, and intermittent fasting. After moving to San Diego, it took me six months to find a job, and in between bouts of depression, I spent hours and hours and hours reading about nutrition and lifting. I’d been hooked- I was committed to optimizing my body! It wasn’t about losing weight anymore, it was about moving weight!
I was starting to see a little bit of muscle, and my weight dipped down to 118- the lowest I’d seen since high school! I realized my legs were crazy strong, and began my love affair with the squat rack right around this point. My squat quickly rocketed up to about 185. I had signed us up for a CSA and was busy experimenting in the kitchen with all kinds of new veggies, learning about nutrients and how to properly fuel my body for the new gym stress I was putting it through.
In 2013, I was losing my mind trying to get through student teaching. I had begun to strongly identify with the image of myself as a female lifter, a “fit chick,” if you will. Rumor among the seventh graders I was learning how to teach was that “Ms. Pio used to be a man, look at her shoulders.” Secondarily, they thought I looked like Taylor Swift. Anyhow, I was a garden gnome for Halloween, and mostly they didn’t know what that was, with a few exceptions who said “OH! Like Gnomeo and Juliet!” which I hadn’t seen, but watched that weekend. Obviously.
I had ABS- and I took a lot of pictures of them. I lifted heavy. This was my new normal. My life was starting to come together- I was trying to find balance- something I still strive to do effectively- between my new career, my identity as a lifter, and my role as a wife. This period was difficult, being as ALL of these roles were still fairly new, and I was trying to not just figure out what each meant individually, but all together at the same time. Anxiety was high, but I learned a lot about myself in this period, abut prioritizing, about letting go, and about who I wanted to be as a adult, as a wife, as a teacher, and as a person.
Apparently skipping Halloween in 2013 led to skipping Halloween in 2014 as well. Or, because I had just spent all my money on new boobs and music festivals we chose to sit one out. But in September, three weeks after surgery, we wore cool costumes at TomorrowWorld, and I think that’s close enough, to stick with the theme here.
I spent two weeks making that blasted Empire of the Sun headdress while I recovered, and trying to maintain abs while I wasn’t allowed in the gym at all. When I returned from this music festival, I would soon get the news that benching was off the table for six months, and decide to prep for a figure competition. Never in my life, prior to that point, had I thought about such a thing. Me? With muscle? Lean? On a stage? To be judged? Stephanie-circa-2009 would have laughed and laughed and blown smoke in your face. How far I had come. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I was, by this point, a completely different person, and I would be hard pressed to find even a single commonality between those two versions of myself.
I’ve not yet put on my costume for this year, but it’ll be my Wonder Woman costume that I made for EDC.
And it’s a bit funny, because now, in my everyday life, I’ve built myself up to be strong in all aspects, and I feel like Wonder Woman. I’m not scared, I’m not shy, I’m not ashamed of myself. I’m taking on life headlong, let’s fucking DO THIS. My transformation has been so, so much more than physical. As my body changed, no, as I changed my body, everything else changed too. The way I view myself, the way I treat myself, the way I project myself to others, my priorities, my knowledge… everything.
This is all we see in the #transformationtuesday photos- they physical. But for each and every one of us, whether we’ve had a huge transformation or not, we’ve transformed as people. Every decision we make, in the gym, in the kitchen, in our careers, in our relationships, it all makes us who we are at any given point. It’s cumulative. In this way, transformation photos are never complete. We go through so many stages, so many changes, and unless you make the decision to “settle,” you’re never complete. For me, this is what drives me. I can’t settle, or I start to sort of lose it. I need to be pushing forward at all times- the next thing, my next goal, in my career, in my relationship, with my body, I’m always moving forward. I’ve come this far, but I don’t see an end coming up either.
Transformation is a stupid word, it implies a beginning and an end, but I think that this cumulative effect of our decisions is more accurately described as an evolution- giving us a more open-ended, positive outlook.