"I wish I could go back and tell myself that being thin wasn't magically going to get me the life that I wanted, and it wasn't going to make me happy."
Photo: Emma Weiss
Washington D.C.-based SoulCycle instructor Abby Effron opens up about her former obsession with fad diets, the pressures of being a fitness instructor on social media, and how she found happiness in letting go of expectations and loving her body exactly the way it is.
Growing up, I was a dancer and always active, so I never thought much about food. It just wasn't on my radar. Once I got to college, I wasn't taking as many ballet classes anymore, and I started to notice that my body looked and felt different. After my freshman year, everyone was talking about fad diets, doing juice cleanses and master cleanses—really crazy stuff. I felt like I should be doing them too. My body was feeling different, bigger—and since, across the board, we're told that getting bigger is unacceptable—I was basically willing to do anything to remedy that, whether it was healthy or not.
I've done the master cleanse (where you only drink maple syrup and cayenne pepper for days). I've done Weight Watchers. I've done Atkins. I've gone paleo. I've gone vegan. I've gone vegetarian. And with all those, I would have temporary "success." I use that term very loosely, because, at the time, success meant losing weight. But that would always be followed by a rebound binge and loss of control. Or even just going back to some kind of "regular" eating habits—the way I used to eat growing up. It wasn't in the exact regiment of whichever diet I was trying to follow at that time, so I ultimately ended up always feeling like a failure no matter what I was doing.
That continued throughout college and even for a few years after, once I moved to New York City to work in public relations. It was at this point that I found SoulCycle. A girlfriend dragged me to a studio in New York, and I really didn't want to go. I could not have been less excited. But within the first few moments of class, I fell in love. The lights are down, everything is lit by candles, and it's just you riding to the beat of the music. It was one of the first times that I felt like I wasn't staring at myself in the mirror; I wasn't criticizing myself, thinking things like, "Are my arms jiggling? Do I have an extra roll here?" It was the first time I felt connected to a form of movement that felt really authentic, really natural, and was something that I was truly enjoyed. I became obsessed.
At that time I started leaning away from really extreme fad diets and getting more into health, wellness, and fitness in general, but I was never really approaching it with a mindset of pure health. I was doing these healthful practices but with the motivation of wanting to be thinner—so even if I was being my most healthy and my body was feeling great, the only time I really felt success was if the scale was down.
Feeling the STRONG vibes in #gtwn this morning! . Yesterday, I threw away my scale. It mostly collected dust in the corner of my bathroom, but I always felt the need to keep it "just in case." In the back of my mind I thought, if the scale is there I can always go back to dieting. It gave me an escape plan in case this whole #bodypositivity thing didn't work out. . After not weighing myself for months, curiosity got the best of me yesterday morning. I stepped on, saw the number and felt those familiar pangs of disappointment and shame. But the truth is, no matter what the number read, I would feel those same things - because no matter what it read, it is never good enough. . Years ago this would have ruined my day. I would have allowed self hate to spur me into a juice cleanse or clean eating challenge. No more - instead I removed the scale from my apartment. . While this may not seem like a huge deal, for me it's cutting one of the last ties that connects me to the old version of myself - the one who was never good enough, small enough, thin enough, pretty enough - and allows me to just be.
After about a year, I decided to leave my corporate gig and audition to become a SoulCycle instructor. I was riding 12 to 15 times a week while teaching class, so I was incredibly active. In that first year of teaching, I definitely felt a little bit of pressure. Working in the fitness industry, I felt like I needed to look the part—to have that "fit chick" body, with the most amazing abs and arms and booty. I was fueling my body with food and I was super active, but I still felt dissatisfied with my appearance and with my weight. Finally, I realized that this was probably the fittest I would ever be. It was the most I'd exercised and the healthiest I'd ever been with my food. I was eating to fuel my body and to be able to do my job.
But even at my fittest, I still wasn't happy with my weight and with what I looked like.
Then it hit me: if you're not happy now, there's something deeper that needs to change, and cutting out carbs or going vegan, or whatever the next fad diet that came along wasn't going to be the answer. That wasn't going to be the thing that allows me to finally find peace and actually like myself. So I decided to throw in the towel—not on my health, but on trying to be thin. I was exhausted; it had been years and years and years of cycling through different weights and different diets and always feeling like a failure. I just got to a point where I thought: "enough is enough. I am going to be the healthiest version of myself, but I'm not going to let it consume my life, and whatever my body looks like is what it's going to look like."
I started to educate myself on and throw myself into the world of body positivity and health at every size. The more I learned about the movement and the more I immersed myself in it—simple things like changing the accounts that I follow on Instagram, following people of all different shapes and sizes—slowly, my mindset changed.
I stopped trying to follow a regimented diet plan and started eating more intuitively; I was paying attention to how did I felt when I was eating something, how I felt after, how I felt during the day when I was teaching classes. (Here's more on intuitive eating.) That was when I really realized that the things I was doing that I thought would "make me skinny" actually didn't feel that good. And no matter how I felt about my body on a particular day, I would always teach class in my sports bra. If I was really feeling that pressure of teaching or felt like I wasn't really on point with my food, I would rock my sports bra like cutest Lululemon top anyway. It's my way of not letting those feelings control me—no matter what, I'm going to rock my body. I also threw away my scale. I have never gotten off it with any sort of positive feeling or had any sort of positive result in the hours that followed. I also listen to podcasts about health at every size and found that really immersing myself in the positive way of thinking can really help, especially when I'm having like a bad day or negative body image. (Try Abby's faves, Food Psych and coaching from Isabel Foxen Duke or these hashtags that'll fill your feed with self-love.)
I think everyone, no matter what industry you work in, feels a pressure to look a certain way. I had obviously felt that for time before I was teaching at SoulCycle and entered the fitness industry. There's a lot of pressure that comes from the fact that I'm standing up in front of 60 people every day and I feel like I have to motivate them to work harder and be better—and for a while, I thought they wouldn't be motivated unless I looked a certain way and I fit a certain mold. I feel that's partially a product of social media. I think that the most freeing thing, for me, was when I started sharing my insecurity. That's when I realized that the thing that's going to connect, inspire, and help people relate to me that's going to have people relate to me isn't how great my abs looked that day—it's knowing that I deal with and think about the exact same things. I truly believe that there's not a person in this world who doesn't have some sort of insecurity—no matter what size you are, what you look like, what your job is, no matter what your physical persona. Once I started being open about my insecurities and not hiding behind it and being ashamed that I was struggling with this stuff, that was when I felt so much more connected to people—more than I ever did when I was posting some core circuit. When I was actually posting about the things that were difficult and relatable and real, that's when I felt more and more connected to my community and my riders. (Also check out SoulCycle's inspirational Army of Love campaign.)
Shine bright like a diamond (keep reading babes) . . . Why is it so hard for us to celebrate the bodies we have right now? The struggle has been very real for me over the last few months - this is the biggest my body has been in a very long time. My first instinct was to hide it, but try to accept it. I've been struggling with wanting to be body positive, but also being uncomfortable in my new shape. I thought if I acted to change my body that meant I no longer loved it. . . . However the meaning of body positivity has evolved for me over the last few months. Just because I want to change things about my body, doesn't mean I don't love it - it's all about where my motivation is coming from. I know I cannot hate myself into a version that I love. . . . So I choose to do my best to love this version and the next and the next. I choose to be body positive by treating my forever changing body with love and respect
I wish I could go back and tell myself that being thin wasn't magically going to get me the life that I wanted, and it wasn't going to make me happy. I was always under the impression that I needed to be at a certain weight to have a great job, to have great relationships, to have all of these things that I thought would make me successful. What's funny is, at the exact point that I am right now, I'm definitely not the biggest I've ever been and I'm definitely not the smallest I've ever been. I'm somewhere in the middle (which I think tends to happen a lot when you let your body just do what it's going to do). But I am the happiest I've ever been. I have a job that I'm obsessed with, and I get to connect with so many people every day about body positivity and body image and things that have plagued me for so many years. I finally have everything I've ever wanted, and I achieved it all just by being me.