Hi. I’m Amber. I’m a fitness trainer and one half of the Brave Body Project, an online community I started with my best friend Lindsey Claytonto inspire women to feel strong and powerful in their bodies and unite through health and fitness. This is the story of how I developed a positive body image and made peace with my body.
I grew up in a super athletic family. If it had a ball, we all played it. Because of that, I honestly didn’t really pay too much attention to my appearance as a kid. (You can get a good idea from my tragic childhood photos!) I got called “four eyes” a lot, but had a cool older brother so it was rare that anyone bullied me or else they had to deal with him. Plus I’m a twin, so I almost always had someone by my side who had my back. But overall, I kind of flew under the radar.
It wasn’t other people who made me feel insecure. The problems with my body image, to be honest, started with me. When I was in high school I found a passion for theater—specifically, musical theater, singing and dancing. It was the perfect outlet for me besides throwing a ball around on a court. As I got more into it, I was dancing so much that I was losing weight, but I was completely unaware of it. I suddenly had boys interested me. My first boyfriend made comments about my tiny frame. Then teachers and friends in school began to comment on my appearance. “Wow, you’re looking so thin.” “Amber, you are looking great!” “Look at your abs!” To be honest, I loved it. The attention was something I was not used to receiving. It made me much more aware of myself and how I looked. I began to think if I didn’t look a certain way, I would lose their approval. While all this was going on in my mind, my best friend at the time began battling anorexia. I tried to be as supportive as I could, but it was hard because I didn’t truly understand the issue. On the other hand, seeing someone who was so obviously thinner than a normal person over-analyzing every inch of her body made me question what might be wrong with me. At that moment, my relationship with my body (and with food) began to fall apart.
After high school, I went on to college to major in musical theater. My first semester, I got cast in the main stage show, and was dancing my face off. Then in the spring semester of my freshman year, I was not cast in anything. I was devastated. I gained the “freshman 15” and I hated myself for it. I created an issue with food. I would attempt to make myself throw up after I ate things I felt that I shouldn’t have. I felt untalented, which I thought directly related to my body—it was why I wasn’t getting cast in anything. I felt fat, sad and unhappy. No one told me this, I just did it to myself. I became my own worst enemy. I began eating to cope with my frustration with myself, then forcing myself to throw up. It was a terrible cycle, and I was a mess.
I came back my sophomore year wanting things to be different. So I went to the gym. By myself. It was strange at first, to not be on a court playing basketball, or a field working on my track skills, or even training with a team. So I started slow: I’d hop on the elliptical for 20 minutes a day. That grew to 30 minutes, which then grew to adding in some weights. It didn’t take long before I realized I felt amazing and confident and had some muscle. I was getting strong. Not many girls I knew had had defined biceps and shoulders! The best feeling was: I didn’t hate myself for it.
Once I had my gym routine down, I found that I felt a new attitude and became successful in school. I don’t think it was because of the way I looked— I think it was the confidence I gained. I had focus and structure in my life. After that year, you couldn’t tear me away from the gym. I moved to New York after college to continue my acting career, and it was a huge source of comfort to me to have the my gym workouts— they always brought me back to that place of confidence, focus and success.
When I was tired of waiting tables to support my theater career, I realized there were a lot of opportunities to take my gym workouts and make something of them in the fitness industry, so I started working as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. That was almost eight years ago. Back then, the industry was an environment of protein shakes, salad, no drinking, no pizza, 8 hours of sleep—it was intense. And the goal was to have your shirt off in every photo or you wouldn’t belong. I’m a committed person, but I’ve always loved pizza, brunch and happy hour, so honestly, the thought of sacrificing all that was a challenge for me. The whole “you must look and act a certain way” thing brought me back to my high school days. Clients would say “I drank and ate a whole pizza last night so I will never like the way I want to look” or “I can’t do what you do because you’re so committed.” I wanted to say to them: I understand! I struggle too! I love pizza too! I’m my best self at brunch! But all I could do was smile and say, “well you need to cut out the fats and amp up the cardio!” Ew. I hate even thinking about it.
Then something changed. I broke my ribs and collapsed a lung while teaching an indoor cycling class. I could not teach—or work out, or lift anything, or even breathe. I was so upset with myself. I started making myself throw up again. A voice in my head would say Hello! You’re a fitness instructor! What are you doing!? But I felt so bad about my body. I was worried and frustrated that if I could not work out, and I could not do what I loved or progress in my career. Deep down, I was afraid that if lost muscle or gained weight that I would lose my job.
It was coming out of that low moment that my best friend Lindsey and I created the Brave Body Project. We both felt like there was a gap in the fitness scene that need to be filled. A safe place for being relatable and understanding. A place where pizza is welcome after sweaty workouts. I was recovering and finding balance. I also wasn’t the skinniest, or the strongest, or in the best shape of my life. But I felt happy with who I was, and learned to love the parts of my body that I used to stress over. Sometimes I have abs, and sometimes I don’t. It’s taken me a long time to accept that.
To say I don’t struggle with body image is bullshit. Everyone does. But I will say my biggest struggle that I personally fight to come to terms with is my constant thought of “I don’t look like I’m supposed to.” When those thoughts come in, I start to think about the things I love. The things I am thankful to have. We always tend to focus on the things we cannot do, the things we aren’t, and the expectations we aren’t fulfilling. It’s almost more challenging to celebrate the good, but it’s so necessary. That’s what gives us the confidence we need to have a different perspective on ourselves and others. So, I find myself saying, I am thankful for my strong legs, my wide shoulders, for getting a workout in today, for my Brave Body Project squad for celebrating something they’ve accomplished. “I don’t look like I’m supposed to?” Um… no. I’m supposed to look like me.