US Girls Can Leader and English undergraduate Freya Sumner, 21, is training to be a fitness instructor alongside her studies.
I started going to my local gym when I was 16 because it was the done thing to do after school. Girls would go in their little group and chat on the treadmills, while the guys would go to the small studio room and lift dumbbells. I grew up in quite a small town and this was pretty much the norm for people my age.
But there was something appealing to me about lifting heavy dumbbells. The technique it involved, the strength it built. It all seemed really exciting to me, but it was mixed with a total terror of being a teenage girl in a gym wanting to enter a male dominated space. I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t want people to look or talk about me or to me. I had a fear of getting bulky or looking too ‘manly’. Most of all, I just felt horribly insecure about the whole process.
This is when I discovered the world of health and fitness social media, a world I now love to hate. But it really did seem to help me at the time. I started following certain athletes on YouTube and Instagram, and I would watch a workout routine religiously before I had the confidence to try it in the gym. I would take myself to the little side studio and workout with a set of dumbbells. As my confidence grew, I would find quiet times in the gym to do the routines. Having a world of social media influencers smiling, happy and confident around me gave me an almost second-hand confidence. Slowly I gained more of a skill set.
About eight months into this journey I was growing in confidence but faced more and more comments from people around me. People at school would ask me why I was working out the way I was: “are you doing it for the attention of boys?” Older men in the gym would stare and make suggestive comments. I remember one time an older man who had talked to me a few times and unwantedly touched me to ‘correct my form’ commenting on my 60kg barbell squat, saying ‘squatting that much will make you too big, guys don’t like it when women are that big. I’d stop if I was you’. All of this, combined with a growing unhealthy obsession with health and fitness social media, was making the gym into a negative experience for me.
I felt myself become more and more unhappy with everything, not just the gym. Between the age of 17–19 I battled with many mental health problems and for the most part suffered in silence. An element of these problems was the gym; it became something I made myself do. No longer enjoying it, I would do it because I needed to: because I felt I needed to look a certain way. I restricted certain foods and went days without eating. I felt like the workouts I saw on social media just weren’t working; I didn’t look like the girls in their posts, but I was doing everything they were doing. I felt like a failure in more ways than one. This, on top of other mental health problems, pushed me into a really dark place. Don’t get me wrong, there were periods of happiness in those years, but for the most part I was profoundly struggling.
I now sit here writing this, aged 21, knowing I’m not over my mental health problems but that I can cope with them in healthy ways and I am recovering. I finally spoke to my mum about how I felt and got help from my local GP. The thing that helped me the most was finding my source of inner strength. To get better I had to want to get better and I had to work for it, even if it felt unnatural at first.
With my recovery came a new love for the gym and the body I’m in! I’ve had a complete rethink about what it is to train and what I am training for. My boyfriend is into CrossFit and invited me to his local gym for the first time. I remember being so anxious. I felt I had to be a certain level of fitness and that everyone was going to be cold and unwelcoming, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The coach was so friendly and made me feel as if I had the right support without singling me out, and everyone in the class was so nice. I felt strong and accepted and, despite scaling the workout that day, I managed to get the highest score in the room - boosting my confidence to the moon and back. It’s probably important to say that this gym, with the exception of my boyfriend, was all female (a mum even had her baby beside her in a car seat while she worked out). There was a diverse range of shapes and sizes, all lifting heavy weights and doing amazing things. I just remember thinking this is so badass! I want to look like that! I want to be able to do that! I felt so inspired.
These people were working out to achieve the incredible things their bodies could do rather than working out to look a certain way, which is what I had previously thought it was all about. I felt so excited by what I had seen there and the amazing people I had met that I carried on training that way, and still am now.
I took part in Sussexsport’s Us Girls Can campaign, which aims to get more women on campus active, in my first year of university because I wanted to meet other girls with similar interests. I’ve been involved in the project for nearly two years now and I’ve made some amazing friends. My role as an US Girls Can Leader has taught me what it means to be a woman involved in the sporting industry, too. It has helped me to look at other people’s experiences and be inspired by what they have gone through. All the girls involved in the project are incredible and have such great energy and enthusiasm for getting women involved in sport, I’m so proud to be a part of it.
Some days are still hard and can be really testing, but ultimately I know this is the road to recovery. I have made it this far and displayed this much strength: why give up now?
I work out because I enjoy finding new things that my body is capable of and this has reignited my passion for health and fitness. I even recently started my own health and fitness Instagram to speak out against the negative effects that social media can have on young people and hopefully give a take on a realistic fitness journey. I want people to learn from the mistakes I made and hopefully have a much better experience with working out. As a result of my role as an Us Girls Can Leader and working part time at the Sport Centre on campus, I have been given the opportunity to do a Level Two Fitness Instructor course, so I can widen my knowledge of the health and fitness industry and hopefully run my own women’s only circuit class, amongst other things.
I’m really excited for what the future holds and really grateful for the opportunities I have experienced already. When people say life gets better, I promise it does.