The Struggle, The Journey
Finding a Balance
By: Ann Bernard
Like many women, my struggles with my weight and self-image issues began at a young age. I was nine years old when I first started to diet and exercise. It didn’t take long before I had developed an eating disorder and found myself undereating and over exercising (running and aerobics). Then at age 16, I decided I was going to be a Marine. I knew to be a Marine and to earn the respect of my male counterparts, I would need to be both physically and mentally strong—that’s what brought me to step into the local gym and got me started with lifting weights. I quickly realized I might never be a size two, but I did have a natural ability to put on muscles and get stronger.
I was finally learning how eat properly to fuel my workouts and how to be happy with my body when a few days before signing my enlistment papers, my recruiter told me I was over my max. He recommended I skip a few meals to make sure I would make weight on my upcoming 17th birthday—the day of my enlistment. And so began my twenty plus years of dreading weigh-ins. When I first enlisted, back in 1995, the max weight for my height (5’3) was 134—sometime after I was commissioned, the max changed to 141 which offered me more breathing room, but the more muscles I put on, the closer I always came to my max.
The stress of weigh-ins varied depending on what Commandant was in office and how strict the leadership in the Command were being about regulations. My weight definitely landed me in hot water with the Commanding Officer at Officer Candidate School (OCS). I didn’t appreciate him bashing my Command for sending a “fat Marine” to OCS, and he didn’t appreciate a candidate talking back to him to point out his Marine had improperly taped me.
I had been selected for the Meritorious Commissioning Program (MCP) so I didn’t appreciate what he insinuated by calling me a “fat Marine.” The conversation about health, weight management, and fitness in the Marine Corps has evolved…slowly. But back then, being labeled as a “fat Marine” was the same as saying you were a bad Marine.
I was a known presence in the gym wherever I found myself, on base, ship, or deployed in Iraq. I trained like I had something to prove. My time in the gym earned me respect in many ways, but the opportunity to fully prove myself (take part in combat) wouldn’t come in time for me to take advantage of it, so after ten years on active duty—I resigned my active duty commissioned and began my entrepreneurial journey.
I left the Corps to start my own business which sent me into a sea of unknowns, challenges, and struggles. I began to turn to food for comfort, especially chocolate. Without the pressure of keeping up with my fellow Marines and the weigh-ins, but with the pressure of earning a living on my shoulders, I ate more, and went to the gym less.
A few years into my entrepreneurial journey, I had put on about fifteen pounds and had lost everything. I returned to the Marine Corps on Active Duty Special Work (ADSW) orders to try and put my life back together but I avoided dealing with the emotional toll my failures had taken on me.
To lose the weight I returned to the gym and began to get back into shape. However, I had no idea that the worse of everything still awaited me: stress, injuries, heart break, depression, and complete brokenness. In the eighteen months that followed, I became the heaviest I had ever been, and faced being placed on the body composition program (BCP). I was at the lowest point in my life, which brought me to my knees where I handed my life over to the Lord.
Every aspect of my life was forever changed. God began to emotionally, mentally, and physically heal me. I eventually loss fifty pounds and stepped on stage to become Louisiana’s first Women Physique winner. Making a dream come true.
Our bodies are incredible organisms that respond to the way we treat, feed, and train them. I often neglected and abused my body along the way, while in the Marine Corps and out, taking it for granted how precious good health truly is. I’ve been on a journey growing, maturing, and expanding my outlook and definition of healthy living and self-acceptance.
When I decided to write the Chapters of My Life Series, I knew one chapter would be dedicated to talking about health and fitness since it’s been such a huge part of my life. I wrote Diet and Exercise: The Road to Healthy Living and Self-Awareness to share my story and the things I’ve learned over the years. I believe it’s important to share our personal experiences to encourage others and perhaps bring some understanding to those who can’t relate to a certain problem or situation.
I know some people don’t get it, they look at a Marine who is over his or her max, and all they can think is “eat less, and you’ll weigh less.” But it’s often more complicated than that. Regulations need to be reviewed to account for individuals with greater muscle mass but the leadership also needs to understand a weight issue might be related to other emotional or health issues. Weight gain is often an outcome not a symptom.
Individuals also need to better understand what it means to lead a healthy and balanced lifestyle and their personal responsibilities in maintaining their weight.
I hope my experiences and advice I share can help people find the wisdom, understanding, and balance they need.