"There's something so gratifying about testing your strength and feeling surprised by it."
TV personality Jeannie Mai recently made headlines after posting an inspiring, self-love message about her 17-pound weight gain. Having struggled with body image issues for 12 years (the entirety of her career in entertainment), Mai has finally given up on the idea that being "skinny" means everything. (Related: Katie Willcox Wants Women to Stop Thinking They Need to Lose Weight to Be Loveable)
"As I'm nearing my 40s, I realize that I've been through so much sh*t mentally and emotionally, why the hell should my body be forced to suffer (from my over-controlling ways) too?" she recently wrote on Instagram. "So 3 months ago I started a new eating plan and training program and gained 17 lbs. I don't have a weight goal...just a promise to be as physically strong as I am mentally indestructible."
The response Mai got from her post was unexpected. "I cannot tell you the number of people in DMs asking me how they can gain weight," she tells Shape. "Reading my story, and others like it, they've come to the realization that strong is sexy and they want to get there, too."
Over the past couple months, Mai has had to change her mindset toward her body completely, she says. "I was 103 pounds for 12 years, and what's crazy is that I actually wanted to weigh 100," she says. "Honestly, it was for no other reason than the fact that I thought it would be cool to say that I weighed 100 pounds."
Eventually, it got to a point where Mai started to be defined by her thinness. "Being skinny became a part of my description as a person," she says. "People would say things like 'Oh you know Jeannie, she's so tiny' or ask me how I'd stay so thin. When you hear things like that all the time, they begin to design you and brand you—and working in the entertainment industry, I just never gave myself the option to be anything other than what I had been defined as for the past 12 years."
Mai says that her wake-up called was a long time coming. "A huge thing that influenced me to take this step was realizing that the conversation about women's bodies and how they should and shouldn't look was changing," she says. "On my show The Real, we often encourage women to fight against body-shaming and own the skin that they're in. But so often on the show, I'd refer to myself as having "chicken legs" and would call myself out for having a bony, nonexistent butt. Part of it was self-deprecating humor, but I also realized I was inherently body-shaming myself." (Related: Blogger Unknowingly Body-Shames Herself and Shares the Comical Photo to Prove It)
The final straw came when Mai was going through her phone and cleaning out her pictures. "I saw the picture of myself in that mustard dress and felt a surge of shock and sadness," she says. "It was like the dress was on a hanger, I looked so lifeless. My knees were barely there, my cheeks were so pointy, my eyes looked hollow—I looked sick."
After speaking to some of her friends about how she was feeling, they encouraged her to put on weight and start working out in a different way. "At first I was like 'what do you mean start working out?'" she says. "I was a cardio bunny and spent hours in the gym a day working up a sweat. But my friends were actually encouraging me to try workouts that helped me build muscle mass and make me stronger." (Related: These Strong Women Are Changing the Face of Girl Power As We Know It)
It was then that Mai says she felt physically and emotionally prepared to make a change. "I started eating all of the things I wouldn't dare touch," she says. "For 12 years, I never touched rice, potatoes, carbs—anything that could contribute to weight gain. Salad was where it was at. Everything I ate was vegetable-based."
"Now, I'm eating all sorts of complex carbs and even treating myself to burgers and doughnuts from time to time," she added. "Sandwiches are my favorite food now, which is just crazy to me. I can't believe I actively deprived myself of all these amazing foods for so many years." (Related: 5 Ways to Gain Weight the Healthy Way)
Slowly but surely, Mai started putting on the weight, which she admits wasn't easy for her at first. "I remember my heart beating out of my chest when the scale hit 107, which was usually the highest I'd ever let myself get," she says. "But the numbers kept climbing and I had to really focus on not talking myself down and focus on my end goal, which was to become healthier and stronger."
During this time, Mai fell in love with lifting. "I got introduced to weightlifting early on in my journey and it has changed my body drastically," she says. "It only took a couple weeks before I started to feel stronger in my arms and started getting muscle cuts. My hips started rounding out and my butt became fuller."
After a while, Mai realized that lifting weight was helping her fall in love with her body and appreciate it in new ways. "You just feel so victorious after lifting heavy. There's something so gratifying about testing your strength and feeling surprised by it. It makes you realize that there's no limit to what your body can do if you put your mind to it," she says. (Related: 8 Health Benefits of Lifting Weights)
While she's only three months into her journey, Mai has made some serious progress, which she credits to the mantra she uses to hold herself accountable. "You have to be real with yourself and figure out your truth," she says. "Every time that voice in my head shames me for my jeans not fitting anymore, my truth sets in and reminds me how poorly I treated my body for so many years and why I deserve better."
For those who might still feel like their worth is tied to the scale, Mai offers up this advice: "Feeling good about your body and feeling sexy comes from within, not from a number on the scale. Your body is just an extension of who you are. Treat it well, be kind to it, and just enjoy life. That's where true satisfaction lies."
*This article originally appeared on Shape.com