When I shared my first photo to Instagram in 2013 under the handle WayofGray, I had no idea it would all come crashing down because of the bullying and rejection I had faced when I was 11 years old. I had no idea my time posting to the channel was connected to the time I spent self-harming at 13. I would never have guessed that my obsession with my body at 16 would be heightened with every photo I took as an adult. I had no idea I was using the platform to fill a void, a void I had attempted to fill many times before, a void that couldn’t even be filled by a following of over 450,000 people across the world.
From the outside looking in, I was the embodiment of living your best life. I had a global audience and the images I was sharing suggested I was healthy, fit, and had my life together. I ate chia seeds and spinach for breakfast. I was clearly super healthy and undeniably happy. Right?
On my channel, you would have found countless pictures where I roared, “Love yourself!” while I flashed my core. I wanted others to embrace who they were, but only when looking at a picture of me, smiling in a cute sports bra. Duh.
But underneath all of the flashy workout clothes and spray tans, it never felt authentic. I felt as though I was living a double life. I had workout clothes that were specifically for photo shoots, then the workout clothes I actually wore. I was denying myself every one of my natural instincts, which was to eat cookies, pizza, and chocolate. I always loved food, and now it made me miserable. I would starve myself before photo shoots and get not one, but two fake tans to ensure the photos were just right. It was all for the gram.
Reading this, you may think I was knowingly deceiving my audience. You probably think I’m incredibly vain, also.
I was deceiving myself. I desperately wanted to be that girl. I was trying to squish myself into a perfect little Instagram box. I wanted to love it.
At the height of my success—and 35,000 feet above the ground—the fiction of happiness I’d created for myself started to crumble away.
I was boarding the first of two flights from New York to my home in Edmonton, Canada. When the airplane doors closed, I was suddenly drenched in sweat. I was freezing cold, and yet unbearably hot. I was shaking uncontrollably. My thoughts raced, but my lips couldn’t form a single word. I felt as if I might throw up and poop my pants simultaneously. It wasn’t the flu. I wasn’t sick.
I was freaking the f*ck out.
Panic attack. Mental breakdown. Rock bottom. Whatever you want to call it, my world turned upside down.
To this day I can’t entirely remember what happened on the rest of that 45-minute flight. But I knew as soon as those tires hit the runway, there was no way I’d be getting on the next flight and risk going through that again.
Have you ever asked someone to rearrange all their plans so they could drive you from one side of an entire continent to the other? I did, and I can never forget it. It was the moment I allowed my anxieties to take full and total control of my life.
My now husband and I picked up the rental car and put our destination into the GPS. At that time, I thought I was taking the easy way out. I was going to avoid four hours trapped on a plane with my uncomfortable feelings! I soon discovered I was deceiving myself again.
While, yes, I would skip the terror of four hours on a plane, I was trading it for 38 hours confined to a car, where I had nothing to do but fully stew in those uncomfortable feelings.
During the first few hours of the drive, I felt great. But as the sun began to set, my anxiety rose.
Have you ever been in the middle of rural Wisconsin in the middle of the night? There is a shit-ton of open space. While it can be beautiful, in that moment I couldn’t to take in the beauty. I was in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to escape. As my fears started to bubble up, I reached out to my good friend Jana, I was hoping she could recommend a self-help book that would get me through it.
“All the books in the world will do nothing in comparison to using your body to transform it,” was Jana’s response.
I took a deep breath and decided that I would do my best to take her advice to heart.
And then, it hit me. I had thought it was flying that was to blame for my absolute terror. Nope. It was the void I spent the last decade trying to fill.
All of a sudden, I felt a rush of emotions. My 16-year-old self flashed through my mind and greeted me with a tape measure wrapped around her body. My 13-year-old self stood helpless and in pain of her own doing. Then, I saw the moment when the void was formed. And I saw the ways I was trying to use Instagram to fill it.
I saw my 11-year-old self crying alone in a corner, rejected by her friends. She was left out, ditched and bullied.
It all started to make sense.
I thought I had found acceptance as the fitness personality on my channels, but the person I was portraying wasn’t who I truly was.
I had found acceptance in being the girl who shared fitness photos. I found validation with every post I made. With every follower I gained, I felt the acceptance I never experienced previously.
When I finally saw all of the pieces of my life together, every choice, every feeling, and every experience I faced up until that point started to make sense. It was as though my life was a movie and had the underlying theme of acceptance woven throughout it. My experience with bullying had led me to believe that part of me wasn’t deserving of a voice. But that voice was desperately trying to be heard. Though I did a great job at burying that voice down, it used the flight to make sure I heard it.
And, I did.
I spent the next few weeks crying every morning. Without knowing the significance of it in my life, I started a journaling and breathing practice. Every morning I’d wake up, sit on my couch, and try my best to take some deep breaths and get my thoughts down on paper. At first there were more tears than words in my journal. But every morning, I tried and tried again. And again.
Though the tears eventually stopped, my practice did not. I slowly started to put the pieces back together. As I discovered on the road trip, I had no place to hide. The feelings came from within, and I was finally willing to listen to myself. Each morning I would journal and engage in a dialogue with a part of myself I’d been ignoring. I journaled with my body, with my past, with my emotions. It may sound odd, but it worked. Piece by piece. Word by word.
I started connecting with myself.
Through journaling I found the value my body offered, regardless of its size. I discovered that the emotional pain that caused me to hurt myself in my younger years was simply an emotion that needed to be felt so it could be released. I connected with my worth and found my own acceptance.
During this process, what I had been previously sharing on my accounts faded away. I no longer turned to the platform to find acceptance, but to share the power of the practice that saved my life and helped me finally accept myself. I stopped flashing my abs and masking self-doubt with costumes and contrived poses. I started showing my authentic self—the one who’s vulnerable and imperfect, the one who eats cookies and doesn’t feel bad about it because there’s no reason to feel bad about that. It was a public reckoning that caused me to lose over 70,000 Instagram followers in the year that followed. But I gained much more than that. I finally found my way to Sophie Gray.