This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for over two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.
I run a successful Instagram fitness account with thousands of followers. I spend my whole day at the gym, meal prepping, eating, training my clients, and managing my online persona. On Instagram, I post 5-8 times a day during specific high-traffic hours, and I have a photographer whom I occasionally pay to take professional photos of me. I get paid to feature products, to train clients, and to create meal and workout plans for people. On Instagram stories, I post videos throughout the day of myself working out or making food. I also post on YouTube about twice a week—mostly recipes or workout plans. Everything I do is meant to portray an image of strength, health, and discipline. All of it is calculated and posed. Nobody in my life knows how tolling this is, and how unhealthy it has become.
I started working out when I was in middle school because I was getting bullied. I was a very small kid, I wasn’t too athletic, and I had a really bad nervous stutter. I got picked on a ton and that made school really unpleasant. I started acting out at home and my dad helped me channel whatever I was going through into working out. I remember watching Pumping Iron with him, and deciding that I wanted to get into bodybuilding.
Everyone rooted for Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, or Mike Katz because they were the underdogs. But not me—as soon as I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger, I just knew he was a winner. He had this confidence, this swagger about him, that was magical to a kid like me. I became a little obsessed with him. In the documentary, Arnold said that the bodybuilder is an artist and a sculptor; he sculpts his body to perfection, adding and subtracting necessary pieces in order to reach the ideal. He said that it was important to work methodically and tirelessly, and to devote yourself to the goal. And I took that really seriously. I didn’t want to be the underdog; I wanted to be a winner.
In some ways, discovering bodybuilding was good because it helped me take control of my life. I felt less like a victim, and more like I could fight back. I started working out every day, twice a day. Gradually, I started getting bigger and bigger and my confidence really skyrocketed. I stopped getting picked on. I started eating more carefully, working out more strategically, and my body was responding. I could control everything it did and there was something exhilarating about that control—you know, when everything else is falling apart, you can go work out and you know exactly what to expect. Like Arnold said, I was sculpting my aesthetic. Eventually, once it became a lifestyle, I was competing and placing.
But at some point along the road, I found out that I’d tied my self worth to my body shape. Whenever I don’t do well in competitions, I punish myself. I did, and still do, a lot of unhealthy and unnatural things. I take steroids, I take supplements, I take diuretics; I’ve made myself throw up. I gone on every diet you can think of. I haven’t had water in over a day to water deplete before a competition. I weigh my food. I haven’t had a cheat meal in years, and when I go off my meal plan even slightly, I go to the gym for hours. I am hypercritical of myself. Once a week, I get naked and mark myself up in front of the mirror so that I know what I need to work on.
All of this makes it hard to get close to someone, so I haven’t really ever had a serious relationship. People just see what I post online and they assume—“here’s this attractive guy with thousands of followers, he must be really killing it”—but they don’t know that it’s just for show. The whole thing is for show, even the muscles. Don’t be distracted by people who put up “real” unposed photos in order to humanize themselves and make you feel that you’re just like them. Anyone going to the gym as much as the people in the Instafit community do is not healthy; there’s no balance in that lifestyle. I can’t bring myself to think about how much damage I’ve done to my body.
Psychologically, I am so messed up. I am still that little kid who wanted to be loved and accepted—who never was. And then I put on these layers of armor to protect myself from other people—the muscles, the lifestyle, the whole image—and nobody’s ever really gotten to know the real me. I see the likes pile up on Instagram and it’s this shallow gratification because it’s not even really me they’re liking, but I still sit there and watch the notifications. If I stopped doing it, I would be nobody. I have to buy into it now; it’s too late. If the cracks show, people smell it. Especially online, people are vicious; they’re unforgiving.
Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.