'How Gaining 30 Pounds And Conquering Self Doubt Made Me Fitter And Happier'

'How Gaining 30 Pounds And Conquering Self Doubt Made Me Fitter And Happier'
'How Gaining 30 Pounds And Conquering Self Doubt Made Me Fitter And Happier'

Emily actually shot her cover while she was pregnant and experienced a few early symptoms like an upset tummy and bloating. Still, she had a fantastic day. "What I find really cool about this experience is that one day I'll be able to show my first child this cover and tell him or her that they shot their first magazine cover in mummy's tummy before they were born," she says. Clearly, with such a big change in her own body, Emily's had to make changes to her and fitness routine. As far as fitness goes, it's been a pretty big change. "I have modified my training routine to exclude anything that's high impact and requires ab work. I have also reduced the weight I’m lifting to roughly half of what I usually lift," she says. 

Meanwhile, Emily is still on a mission to create a new version of fitspo that aspires to be fit but not obsessed, a place where she can be unabashedly proud of her cut-and-curved self one minute, and vulnerable and pal-next-door the next—with a touch of armchair psychologist. "It's so important for women to remember that the people who inspire them are human and shouldn't be put up on pedestals," she says. 

Case in point: Her strength-training workouts are tough enough to have you hobbling the day after, but online she prefers feel-good mantras, like "Don't dull your sparkle to make other people more comfortable," to the unsparing "Sweat is just your fat crying" memes. She wants women to be strong, but not too hard on themselves as they work toward that strength. Before she could teach that kind of self-acceptance to others, however, she had to find it herself.

A PAINFUL PAST

It didn't come easily. "My father left when I was 2," she reveals, a life-changing event she now believes instilled in her the "feeling that I could never be loved" and ultimately led her to fall for a string of abusive boyfriends.

Emily was also mercilessly bullied by other girls. "In grade school, they'd make frog noises when I walked past because I had big eyes, and they called me Stick Creature because I was skinny," she remembers. By age 11, she was so unhappy that her doctor prescribed an antidepressant. When her wide blue-gray eyes and willowy legs caught the attention of male students, the girl-on-girl torment escalated: Emily was pushed into lockers and chased home from school.

Hoping to boost Emily's confidence in her looks, her mother enrolled her in a modeling course at 13. By her late teens, she was scoring gigs for fashion and bikini shoots, but that made her feel worse. "I'd go to castings and compare myself to the other women," she says. "I would think, I'm not pretty enough or skinny enough. But I kept modeling because I needed praise to feel loved."

By her early twenties, Emily was "on the verge of an eating disorder," she says. Daily two-hour cardio sessions and a diet of carrots, celery, and hummus kept her at a size 0, "but I wasn't fit or healthy. I had so much self-hate that sometimes I didn't feel like I wanted to live." She also had a "nasty boyfriend" who was not only unfaithful and controlling but threatening and physically abusive. "I had to get a restraining order on him," she says. "In retrospect, it was like a horrible movie."

Related: This Bodyweight Workout From Emily Skye Will Rock Your World

THE TURNING POINT

There was no place to go but up, and Emily's first moves in that direction began to take shape in 2009, when she was 24. "I started looking at muscle and fitness magazines, and the women seemed so strong and healthy. I loved the idea of using weights to transform your body, to look and feel powerful." At the gym, she traded cardio machines for the weight room, playing around with lat pulldowns and biceps curls that, she now admits, "I was probably doing all wrong."

At the same time, Emily reconnected with a friend of a friend, Declan Redmond, a former commando in the Australian army and an experienced weightlifter. The two started training together, with short bursts of HIIT and heavy weights. Emily noticed a difference in her physique within six weeks: Her arms and legs had grown more defined and she'd begun etching out abs.

Related: 5 Women Share Exactly What It Took to Sculpt Six-Pack Abs

As she continued reshaping her body from "twig" to "strong, fit machine"—in the process gaining almost 30 pounds, most of it pure muscle—her confidence blossomed too. Fueled by a steady stream of post-workout endorphins, her depression melted away, and she was able to stop taking the antidepressants that had been part of her life for a dozen years. "Before, I had this cloudy feeling, and now, the sun was shining. I thought, This is what being alive is like. I felt like a superhero."

Not everyone was on board with Emily's new passion. "Some friends wrinkled their noses at my muscles. One looked at my arms and shoulders and said I looked 'disgusting, like a man.'" A bikini company airbrushed her abs out of photos. A fashion-house rep gestured at Emily's sculpted arms and said, "It's too much." "And I was tiny then compared to now!" Emily marvels. It was high school all over again—not fitting in, not being accepted.

Only this time, she had the (BOSU) balls to speak up. The feeling of power in her body, she says, had "paved the way to mental changes." Emily began stripping away sources of negativity from her life, dropping unsupportive "friends," traveling with Declan (now her boyfriend), and modeling for fitness companies instead of fashion and beauty labels. When her 76-year-old grandma saw her flexing and said, "Stop lifting weights. You're supposed to be feminine," she simply smiled... and flexed again. 

(The Slim, Sexy, Strong Workout DVD is the fast, flexible workout you've been waiting for!)

REDEFINING #FITSPO

It wasn't long before Emily had a wider audience for her strong-not-skinny philosophy. By 2011 she had become a certified personal trainer and was blogging and posting on Facebook, then later Instagram and other platforms, about her meals, workouts, and experiences at body-building and swimsuit competitions. Her timing was impeccable: The fitspo movement was just springing up as a reaction to thinspo, the trend celebrating an ultra-skinny ideal—and fitspo's emphasis on strength and health dovetailed with Emily's physical and mental transformation. "I decided everyone deserved to feel as incredible as I did," she says.

But a funny thing happened to fitspo over the next few years. It began morphing into something that could trigger perfectionism and body-size preoccupation—much like thinspo. In 2014, an Australian professor wrote an article blaming social media fitness stars for making young women feel guilty about their bodies...with Emily Skye's photo front and center.

Emily was incensed. "The professor hadn't bothered to read my content—she just cherry-picked some photos and made assumptions," she says. Emily responded by posting a collage of zits and stretch marks, together with a heartfelt statement about her own "struggles, insecurities, and flaws." The story got more than 91 million views and ignited Emily's career.

Related: Nicole 'Snooki' Polizzi's Been Posting Tons Of Workout Pics On Instagram—And They'll Make Your Jaw Drop

Now her social media secret sauce is a refreshing blend of look-at-me aspiration and I'm-like-you honesty. Between the posts on moves that will lift your butt, there are tricks for lifting yourself out of the occasional sad mood... which Emily admits she still falls into. In one YouTube video, she confesses, "I'm feeling down in the dumps... I don't wanna do anything. I wanna sleep all the time; I wanna cry all the time." Her solution: "Do what you need to do to feel good in that moment—cry, skip the gym, eat chocolate—then get back to what you know works for you."

Clearly that's a message that resonates, and Emily keeps compiling more ways to send it out. Reebok made her a global ambassador last September, and she is spearheading its "Hands" campaign, designed to spark conversations about body positivity. She is also working with the company on a new shoe, a training sneaker designed to handle everything from squats to plyometric box jumps to sprints. And her F.I.T. program has led to a partnership with an Australian gym chain, with "Emily/Skye Ignite" strength-training classes offered at 75 locations.

Through the maze of new opportunities, though, Emily never loses touch with the vulnerable girl she once was. "Before I post anything, I ask myself, 'If I were talking to my youngest self, what would I have wanted to hear?'"

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Women's Health. For more great advice, pick up a copy of the issue on newsstands now!

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