The Struggle is Real: Devoted to Unveiling All Sides of the Fitness Industry
Name: Ruthie Harrison
Occupation: Mechanical Engineer, Bikini Posing Coach
Location: Bremerton, Washington
Thank you so much for agreeing to share your story Ruthie! My blog has always been dedicated to spilling the truth regarding the struggles we go through in this industry and our personal struggles associated with it. I appreciate your willingness to join me in being honest with your struggles, in hopes of helping others. I know you have had your fair shares of ups and downs in this industry which is why I reached out to feature you, and congrats on your success! That being said, can you fill us in on a little background about yourself and where you are at now with your fitness career?
I’ve been a part of the fitness industry since 2011 when I first decided to “go for it” and try to be a fitness role-model and inspiration for women. This is still a huger passion of mine – but now it involves a lot less of “me” and a lot more of others in a personal face to face type of way. In the peak of my fitness career, I was competing as an FMG-signed IFBB Bikini Pro athlete; coaching my own bikini competitors; modeling as a signed/published fitness model for Nike, Brooks Running, and others; writing and modeling for Muscle & Fitness Hers magazine; representing my sponsors BADDASS Nutrition, Power Crunch Bars, and Zipfizz energy drinks at the yearly Olympia and Arnold expos; AND still working at my full time job with the Department of Defense as a Mechanical Engineer.
These days, I still teach bikini posing but I do not compete anymore myself (I explain why below). I am still blessed to work with all my sponsors as an athlete ambassador, but I am not actively modeling or writing. I essentially stepped out of the spotlight and am just working towards restoring a healthy mindset, rebuilding my metabolic capacity via reverse-dieting, and increasing my powerlifting PR’s under the coaching of the infamous Dr. Layne Norton. You know the saying, “You can’t help anyone until you help yourself?” well I truly want to help others – so I have finally decided to help myself.
When was your first show and what made you want to compete?
I began competing in the spring of 2011 at the Big Sky Classic in Missoula, MT. I entered that first show because a girl I went to college with suggested I “compete” – which I thought meant gymnastics, or track or something! -but once I realized what she meant I decided “why not” and entered a show. I wouldn’t have entered that show without her suggesting it; however, I was an avid Oxygen Magazine reader and I knew Jamie Eason competed once so I thought, “It’s my dream to be a fitness writer and model like Jamie. Maybe if I compete like she did I can make this dream come true!” I didn’t know I’d meet such incredibly strong and inspiring women backstage, but THAT’S the reason I kept competing. Those women made me feel so welcomed, encouraged and included that I left my first show itching to do it all over and see all my new friends again! I went home and googled “Natalia Melo’s trainer,” which led me to Team Bombshell and Shannon Dey. I hired her immediately.
When did you start to notice a difference in yourself and when do you feel you really hit your “rock bottom”? What was that experience like?
I distinctly remember when I realized I was dealing with an eating disorder. It was about 2 months into my first show prep with Team Bombshell, and I must have finally used up every last drop of my self-control, because I just cracked. I was so hungry! It felt like nature just took over and prevented me from starving myself any longer. First I ate a whole container of my roommate’s cottage cheese. Not being able to stop, I ate more… and more… random things… things I didn’t even bother to cook… I think I even took bites off a stick of butter! I was mortified with myself and my stomach hurt so badly I went outside and forced myself to throw up. I felt so guilty. I didn’t tell my coach. I called my dad crying and asked him if I could use his credit card (I didn’t have a credit/debit card) to order an eating disorder self-help book online. I had been flawlessly starving myself for months but something just snapped. My first binge was absolutely 100% due to starvation. Prior to that, many nights I had fallen asleep in my salad greens because I was so exhausted from working out for 5 hours that day to actually eat my food. I should have stepped away from competing right then, realizing I was feeding a negative cycle of starvation and binging, but I didn’t stop. I tried to silently overcome. I tried to “Stick to the Plan,” the Team Bombshell mantra.
Fast forward a year and a half to after I turned Pro, that is when I feel like I really hit “rock bottom.” When I got home from the show and I binged and purged for weeks straight. I didn’t stop competing immediately after this – I still competed twice as a Pro, but I knew I couldn’t continue to compete for long against the healthy Pro’s with such a destructive problem. After the Bikini Olympia in 2012 I quite honestly thought I might end up causing my own death if I didn’t get help, so I found a therapist and saw him twice a week as I tried to unlearn my destructive habits and mindset. I quietly left Team Bombshell, FMG, and modeling… six months later I was functional and no longer binging/purging uncontrollably. In my therapy I underwent Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) where I basically learned how to value myself by things besides by appearance and how to manage stress, happiness, and other emotions without involving food.
After your first show, how would you describe the weeks following? How did you handle eating? Working out? Your mental state? How was this different from the way you viewed exercise and diet previous to ever competing?
After my first show I ate the typical celebratory meal, complete with dessert and a glass of wine, but I didn’t feel guilty. I remember thinking to myself that it was weird to see all the other competitors going ape-sh!t on food I knew they’d have never have touched before, but I figured it was normal so I brushed it off. After my show, I returned to working out and eating healthy as I had done before (I had a good thing going, think Oxygen Magazine-style diet and workouts) but that didn’t last long because as soon as I hired a coach for the first time my fitness lifestyle got extreme in a hurry. Say hello to waist trimmers, Ziploc baggies of fish, two-a-days, and fretting over my glute-ham tie in. Fitness started shifting to being 100% about my appearance and “what the judges were looking for,” and no longer about my personal enjoyment or feeling strong. I know that I shouldn’t have focused purely on the physical, or on pleasing others, but I was young and impressionable and I didn’t see the error of my ways! I lost almost 15lbs from my already “fit” frame over my first prep. I was working out 5 hours a day most days and falling asleep in my food at night. BUT I won my next two shows (plus an overall title!) so I chalked it all up to being “part of the plan” and soldiered on. I slowly became simultaneously the most lean and the most self-conscious I’d ever been in my entire life.
How many shows have you done since your first and why do you or didn’t you continue to compete? I have followed your journey for a while and know that you were with Team Bombshell, do you hold any resentment towards the rigidness of the plans you were put on?
I’ve done 9 shows since I started. It only took me three national shows to earn my Pro Card and I was an IFBB Bikini Pro by June 16, 2012 at the NPC Jr. Nationals. My Pro debut was the 2012 St. Louis Bikini Championships on Sept 15, 2012 where I got second place and earned an invitation to the 2012 Miss Bikini Olympia. Only 2 weeks later at the Bikini Olympia I placed “16th” (everyone not in the top 15 at the Olympia gets “16th” place on the scorecard, so there’s no telling what my actual placing was). Regardless of my placing, I felt proud of myself as I stood on that Olympia stage. No one can give you that feeling, you can’t buy it, and you can’t take any shortcuts – you have to EARN IT. It was unforgettable! BUT… I had already decided that would be my last show for what turned out to be forever. I stopped competing after the Olympia because I realized competing was a catalyst for my self-destructive behavior of negative self-talk, perfectionism, and an ED – and I needed to get healthy.
I actually don’t even blame my coach, Shannon Dey, or Team Bombshell for the ED. I do think that no matter who you are the Team Bombshell diet plans are unhealthy and unsustainable, but I know that I was producing my own eating disorder – and that competing was just a trigger. Some people won’t agree with that viewpoint, but at the end of the day I wasn’t self-loving or confident enough in myself to know that with or without the accomplishments of an IFBB Pro Card, booking a sexy photo shoot, getting signed by FMG, or being the newest it-girl of fitness that I am just as worthy of love and respect.
What would you say your strongest and weakest moments or most significant moments in your journey were?
My weakest moments were when I was trying to do it all alone – I had many weak moments during that time! My strongest moments came after I sought help, started serving others in my day-to-day life and in my church to remove the focus on my appearance and start seeing my beauty in my character. A very crucial step in my journey was deciding to intentionally and daily reiterate healthy, positive, kind, and loving mantras to myself. “I AM a victor, I am not a bulimic, and I thrive under pressure, I am worthy of joy and I will seek the joy of others.” The mind is everything!
As stated, this series of interviews are to really develop the underlying issues, physically, mentally, and psychologically that affect us on the inside and are often not seen from the outside. What would you say your biggest “hidden struggle” is today?
I haven’t shared this publicly before, but before I ever competed I had an issue with using food to numb feelings of stress and anxiousness. If I was anxious about not meeting either my own or someone else’s expectations, I’d binge. I never investigated the root cause or felt it was an issue though because I just would compensate with extra exercise. I now know this behavior fits another definition of bulimia: “Extreme over eating, compensated by extreme over exercise.”
I still tend to doubt myself sometimes so I would say my biggest “hidden struggle” I have is being consistent to speak kindly to myself and believe in myself. My coach always told me that she believed in me and that I was special. In the past, I put so much pressure on myself to make my coach proud that I would crumble under the pressure and lose all control before it was “mission accomplished.” Call it self-sabotage at its finest. My daily challenge is to slow my mind down, believe in myself and my ability to maintain a healthy balance, and just do it!
What advice would you give to someone in your position, what has helped you find some balance?
Start with the mind. Fill your thought life with intentional, positive, uplifting and self-loving thoughts. Also, I think it’s equally important to help others as it is to love yourself! I’m a Christian so I believe as Jesus called it “the greatest commandment” is to love. Loving others and not focusing on your problems can really help forge your self-worth and help balance out an overly self-focused life. That was a big part of finding balance in my life, making my life more about others and less about me and my body.
What methods of nutrition have you or do you currently use to help with balance? IIFYM, Intuitive Eating, Fasting, Specific Meal Planning, etc?
Currently, I follow IIFYM protocol. IIFYM sounds glamorous, but I still mostly eat nutrition dense “bro” foods. I do make room for a maple bar, sushi, white chocolate chips or a corn dog every once in a while though – because I enjoy them! I still food prep some basics every Sunday: chicken, greens, veggie snack bags, spaghetti squash, etc. and portion them off (yes, into baggies!) but leave a substantial allotment of my daily macros up for variation. On occasion I will use intermittent fasting when I feel like I need to remind myself that I am in control of food – not food in control of me! I think it’s important to continually work on being free of food obsession.
So true Ruthie! Can I ask, how has social media/the fitness industry influenced the way you view yourself?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from the fitness industry and social media is that fitness truly is about you becoming the best and healthiest version of YOU. Competing compares you with the next girl, and we often do that on social media too – but what we should be doing is being our own best self! Forget what anyone else is doing! Now I try to use the fitness industry for building a support network, learning new information and sharing my knowledge. I got into working out to develop a relentless work ethic and have fun reaching my athletic potential – that’s something I think we can all benefit from fitness!
And how has your body image changed over time?
My mindset started out all sorts of unhealthy. I saw my body as what it “wasn’t” not what it was. I’ve softened a lot and widened my self-worth to include what I am capable of, not just what I look like. I used to think I what I needed was someone to tell me, “Ruthie you’re just great just the way you are, don’t stress about what you think others want out of you. We are all proud of you no matter how you place.” I’ve found out this someone was supposed to be ME!
What motivates you today? Has that motivation changed since you started?
In fitness, I am motivated to make new PR’s in my lifts – especially deadlifts and squats! In nutrition, I am motivated and challenged to work on consistency with meeting my macros, and finding new ways to incorporate the foods I’ve always loved into a balanced intake. I think the difference versus my previous mindset is pretty obvious :p I’m no longer mastered by the mirror. I know that if I meet my goals (above) I won’t end up with too shabby of a body ha-ha.
If you could do it all over again, would you?
I am a strong believer that God can use everything for good and that “You can make your Mess into our Message, and your Test into your Testimony.” I’d hope if I competed again I’d do it in a healthier way, but I would have never realized I had such a lack of self-love or such an unhealthy stress response unless I competed so for that I am grateful, because now I can work on it!
I love that message, and I agree its a learning process and all about moving forward! That being said, what are your upcoming career goals, and how do you plan to pursuit your future with incorporating balance in your life?
Like I said in my intro, these days I have essentially stepped out of the spotlight and am working on restoring a healthy mindset, reverse-dieting, and powerlifting! An ongoing goal of mine is to help as many women as I can become free of self-hate and live the beautiful lives God intended for them. Personally I’d love to become more educated with the psychology of healthy body image, eating disorder recovery, building self-esteem and defeating negative thought patterns – so who knows, perhaps another degree is in my future!
I have a vision to start a joint business with my Nutritionist sister, Sarah Wilkins. I feel like this is a 5 year plan but it may include writing an e-book on healthy body image and weight loss, reverse dieting, some of our yummy protein recipes, and much more – so keep a lookout for that! Thank you for reading and I hope this interview has been a source of hope for you 🙂
You can continue to follow and support Ruthie on her journey for balance through the following channels: