How trading Instagram for kickboxing changed my life


Elaine Cary

Elaine Cary and fellow kickboxers get their dose of exercise at TKO Fitness, a locally owned kickboxing studio near UNO. Photo courtesy of Elaine Cary.

Six years ago, while my high school peers joined sports teams, clubs and performed in musicals, I spent as little time on school grounds as possible. In the evenings, I retreated to my bedroom where I read books or scrolled through social media on my phone. I kept an eye on my peers via Instagram and Twitter, creating a mental checklist of what was socially acceptable and what was ridiculed. I had a single goal as a teenage girl: do not stand out. I intended to shrink myself, both in the literal sense through a downward spiral into an eating disorder, and in a metaphorical sense—to be small is to be unseen, invulnerable. To be skinny is to be safe, acceptable.

During my sophomore year of high school, my best (and only) friend in my grade convinced me to join the cross country team. I come from a family of runners – my dad has countless trophies and medals from his own cross country days, and my grandparents, who are in their 70’s now, still run the occasional 5k to stay in shape. My older brother was already a track and cross country star at our school, so I agreed to give it a try. I would be lying if I said impressing my family wasn’t my biggest motivator.

We started conditioning in the heat of the summer, running miles around the school and nearby lake. While my teammates were flying high on endorphins and camaraderie, I attempted not to cry as I struggled to breathe on Joshua Hill, our team’s name for an especially daunting uphill street nearby. Before every meet, I simmered in a pool of anxiety and dread, praying that I would not come in last place, which was common.

I considered myself a failure after that season of cross country and retracted further into my shell. I had begun to make friends on the team, but when I saw them in the halls after not signing up for another season, I ducked my head in shame.

In my bedroom at night, I continued to dive into the realm of social media, which was proving to be a deep abyss indeed. I discovered Instagram fitness models and began doing my own workouts at home. My self-esteem may have been too low to join another sport, but the vanity of having a fit body still enticed me. I have always had a small frame with long, skinny limbs, and luckily for me, I grew up just in time for big butts and juicy thighs to be “The Thing.” I resorted to doing squats and sit-ups before I went to bed, emulating the models wearing sexy athletic clothing that revealed their toned abs and curvy hips.

Every fitness model insisted that tracking calories was a must, and I quickly became obsessed. I used a calorie-tracking app to push myself to consume fewer and fewer calories each day. By the time I was in 11th grade, I was either consuming less than 1,000 calories a day, which is significantly low for developing females, or binging junk food and purging in the bathroom afterward. I had become both anorexic and bulimic. Oh, and I still wanted to have a big butt—talk about the impact of beauty standards.

For the rest of high school, I waded in a strange limbo where I was aware that these habits were unhealthy, and yet I clung to them. I had finally started to care about being physically fit but, ironically, to the detriment of my own well-being.

During my first year of college, I decided to take corrective action. I became close friends with a group of girls and went out with them on weekends. We worked out at the campus gym, walking past the ellipticals and treadmills in favor of the free weights and strength-training machines. You don’t get the body of an Instagram model by running all day, we all seemed to agree. You have to lift, and, of equal importance, eat. I deleted my calorie-counting app and bent my mind on bicep curls, squats and pull-ups. Oh, and grilled chicken – lots and lots of grilled chicken.

I wanted to leave anorexia and bulimia behind me so that I could become strong and curvy. However, there were still times at the campus cafeteria that I would excuse myself to go vomit in a nearby bathroom. I couldn’t wrap my head around this whole fitness journey that I wanted to embark on, and I certainly didn’t understand where food fit in.

I kept at the gym. Getting stronger was a slow journey for my skinny arms and tiny frame, but I saw results over the next few years. I could finally do push-ups, knees off the ground, and squat using the bar with added weight. I no longer restricted my calories, even if my mind could still trick me into throwing up sometimes.

By my third year of college, I had lifting nailed down. I had even made a vow to myself to never purge again, although I would have to restart this vow every three months or so. It was an improvement, but my journey was not over yet.

I gave myself two goals for the year 2019: delete my Instagram account and start kickboxing. I have successfully kept both of these promises to myself.

Instagram had to go for a litany of reasons: it was a waste of time; it felt inauthentic to portray a depiction of myself online; and, finally, it had long been a toxic habit to obsessively keep tabs on Instagram models. It was unhealthy to allow these models to set the standard for my body.

Taking up kickboxing meant a few different things to me. It meant strength, power, capability and becoming my own hero. It meant trying something that was out of my comfort zone. It meant meeting new people.

I found TKO Fitness, a kickboxing studio five minutes off UNO’s campus that offered a student discount. The locally-owned studio is run by Frank Miller, whom I have learned over the past year has not only a winning smile, but a heart of gold. The other main instructors, Mason and Brittany, who feel like old friends now, each greeted me by name after only the second time I showed up to class. It didn’t take long for TKO to feel like home.

TKO allowed me to learn about kickboxing without actually needing to spar or fight anyone. The classes are set up so that each student gets their own bag to practice kicking and punching combinations on. I was able to focus on working out at my own pace while simultaneously feeling like a part of a group.

In addition to the techniques I learned, such as how to pivot one’s foot during a roundhouse kick, or how to keep an elbow level to your shoulder when throwing a left hook, I discovered that kickboxing burns a lot of calories.

At first, my slippery mind wrapped itself around this fact like a snake. Its tongue flicking in my ear, it seemed to whisper “You can lose weight again. You can have visible ribs and defined collar bones.” My rational brain knew these persuasive incentives were contradictory to my goal of becoming stronger. On the days I showed up to class having eaten a light breakfast and no lunch, I found I wasn’t able to perform. I started fueling my body before class with a sweet potato, which is rich in carbs, topped with a thick slathering of butter and cinnamon. Sometimes I’d eat a burrito from Chipotle. My strength and speed on the mat improved dramatically, and I realized that fitness was about what my body could do, not what it looked like.

While I am still wary of eating disorder relapses, taking up kickboxing has encouraged me to eat. I also feel more comfortable, and even look forward to chatting with the other members and instructors during class. On campus, I smile at passing students and engage them in conversation while I am working at the library. I’ve started a podcast interviewing guests about their personal self-growth journeys. My initial goal of not standing out has been flipped on its head. I am willing myself to stand out as much as possible, taking up space in the world by allowing my love for others and myself to shine.