Musings of a non-fitness expert: Exploring strength & vulnerability
Fitness in Flux
By Prathigna Yerakala, Contributor
When I was younger, my mom liked to call me “rowdy” and constantly chastised me to behave like a proper girl. But I wasn’t a delicate girl that did delicate things.
As tiny as I was, I definitely held a quiet yet forceful rage. This earned me the nickname of Karnam Malleswari by my family when I would visit India in the summers. A brief search of the name on the internet takes you to headlines we don’t often see as Indian women. Karnam Malleswari was the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics and as a Telugu weightlifter, she became a household name in Andhra Pradesh at the time. Only recently did I tell myself being called Karnam Malleswari is more of an honor than an offense.
But earning that nickname was not the catalyst of my weightlifting journey. Unfortunately in my life,
Motivation to succeed was always birthed by negative experiences rather than positive experiences.
It was the summer of 2017 where I found myself in the midst of a semi-depressive episode. One the one hand, I was happy to be back home in India, celebrating my cousin’s wedding. On the other hand, I was filled to the brim with insecurities and body dysmorphia. There was one particular memory that created a toxic delusion in my head, stating I needed to lose weight and lose it fast — before I began my sophomore year of college.
The Wedding, Summer 2017
At the time, I was overweight for my height and age. I wanted to blame it on Freshman 15 and the obscene amount of binge drinking I’d participated in all throughout my first year of college, but underneath those excuses sat a hidden truth: my moderate case of emotional eating.
The night of my cousin’s wedding was filled with the usual hungama (commotion/celebration). I stood quietly against the wall of the buffet line, tried not to pack too much food on my plate, sucked in my stomach before greeting guests, sat with my legs crossed and used my chunni (traditional scarf or shawl) to cover my arms. Though I tried repeatedly to dispel my presence, it was too late.
I was the short, heavy, dark-skinned American who had nine aunts to greet.
After taking a brief look over my twin brother's newly transformed body, one of my aunts turned to the small crowd of relatives and said, “It looks like he lost all his weight and gave it to her!”
A few weeks after the wedding, we stayed with my dad’s side of the family for the remainder of our visit. Even there I could not escape the microscopic, snide comments from my uncle or grandmother regarding my weight.
But I don’t look back at these memories and harbor any contempt towards my family. I was very much used to the blunt conversations around weight and the color of my skin because that was the sense of normalcy I grew up with.
The time between the summer of 2017 and spring of 2018 was cathartic. The girl that was once too afraid to step foot in the gym then walked into her college powerlifting room nearly every day and walked out a stronger, healthier person. I finally found a lifestyle that made me feel good, and with consistency, I realized I had new goals I wanted to reach.
photo credit: Prathigna Yerakala
Yet despite my newfound passion for lifting, I was not taking my goals seriously enough. Throughout college, my priorities shifted and I lost track of my progress, my motivation, and eventually the grit I once had. And you know what?
It took me many years to come to terms with the fact that my relationship with fitness and food will always be in flux.
I could chase after perfection and trust the process as much as I wanted to, but it would never give me the level of control I wanted over my aesthetics. In reality, that level of control was the only thing standing in between my goals. Once I accepted that instability was an inherent part of my progress, the motivation to keep going turned into a locked mindset.
Intimidation On & Off the Court
As much as I had grown comfortable with the realm of fitness, there were times where I couldn’t shake the insecurities creeping into my spine whenever I was inside a gym. Unconsciously, I would compare myself to all the other fit looking girls — how she looked in her Gymshark set, or how her Lulu leggings matched her shiny new training shoes.
I was jealous of the brands and labels and in turn, felt intimidated because these girls’ looked the part of a hardcore fitness expert. I was chasing aesthetics more than I was chasing my actual goals. And my goals remained simple:
Build confidence and strength every day.
Now looking back, it was tennis that actually taught me the most about confidence and strength. Most of my childhood memories revolved around a tennis court. I started playing tennis when I was around eight or nine years old and never truly stopped. Growing up, my parents would boast — as parents usually do — about wanting me to be the next Sania Mirza. She was a highly successful professional Indian tennis player and was also a household name in Hyderabad, India.
Though I was a talented player despite never having received formal coaching or training, I sure as hell was not Sania Mirza.
I was Prathigna: the girl that was constantly intimidated by wealthy looking tennis players throughout her competitive years.
photo credit: Prathigna Yerakala
Every season, I usually wore my sister’s old tennis clothes and felt my self-esteem drop by the second when I’d look at the girls in crisp white skirts, carrying freshly gripped rackets, wearing expensive tennis shoes paired with a white, branded visor hat. And every season I’d wonder why out of all the sports, my low-income parents were drawn to the most expensive one.
It is important to note that me feeling intimidated, by girls from the tennis team or by girls at the gym, has more to do with my own socio-economic insecurities and little to do with the actual idea of brands and labels.
Besides the fact that I was not going to be the next Sania Mirza or own an actual white tennis skirt, my years of playing competitive tennis taught me that even though some people may “dress the part,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they know what they're doing. Half of the time, no one really knows what they’re doing. After that sense of awareness settled in, my fitness journey became more of an uplifting, solo venture as I refused to socialize with these insecurities in my head.
The Now, Spring 2021
Though I am far from where I want to be in terms of my personal goals, I know I’ll get there at some point. It’s so easy to get caught up in what other people are doing and judge people based on appearances, whether that's on the court or at the gym.
At the end of the day, the clothes or labels are just flavor shots. Not the whole drink.
I tell myself to just focus on the work, and take time to remember how far I’ve come over the years — physically and mentally.
About — Prathigna is an Indian born, New Jersey raised self-proclaimed creative and unapologetic escapist. Outside of her corporate role as a market researcher, she is a freelance writer, amateur poet, and designer. She is passionate about the moon, film & television, screenwriting, stand-up comedy, art, lavender, mood rings, and cheese boards. In that particular order.
Cover photo credit: Prathigna Yerakala, @prat.xo