This interview is part of the Real Talk Real Women interview series, where we bring you the life-changing, heart-warming and inspirational stories behind the most successful women in health and fitness. Make sure to follow us on Instagram for the latest interviews! For this installment, we are joined by Alese Smith.
Let’s start off with a general introduction. How would you describe yourself, what are you all about and how did you get involved in health and fitness?
I am a happy, fun loving woman who loves people, powerlifting, donuts and life. I'm all about empowering women to become strong, to live fearlessly, and to believe in themselves and not hate on themselves, and I desire to help them see themselves as truly beautiful, both in their spirit and in their strength.
How I got involved in health and fitness is quite a loaded question, but in a nutshell, 5 years ago I almost lost my life to a very severe eating disorder and misdiagnosed celiacs disease, but thankfully I didn't. In putting back on the weight and getting into a full recovery, I discovered powerlifting and fell in love with it. I loved that it shifted my focus from how my body looked to what it could do.
Let’s dive straight into it and rewind to 2009. I know back then your weight started dropping quickly - what was going on in your life at that point?
In high school I went through a very stressful time, and that's when I started turning to the eating disorder I had to gain some sense of irrational control over my life. With anorexia, I took my weight from around 140 lbs to 117 lbs over the course of about 6 months.
Somebody at the time reported my parents to child protective services saying they weren't feeding me when that was absolutely not the case, but because of that report the state came in and basically said I had to follow a certain weight gaining diet and gain a certain amount of weight by a definitive time, or else my parents could be arrested.
So I went on the diet they gave me, but oddly enough, I started losing weight even faster. The more weight I lost, the more food they added as they thought I was either in denial or it was not enough food. Neither them nor we knew I had something called celiacs disease, which was the root cause of the weight loss from that diet. During that time, over the course of a couple of months, my weight dropped from 117 lbs - 76 lbs and I almost lost my life.
So you had Celiac Disease without even realising it - for those listening in who are not familiar with it, can you explain what Celiac Disease is?
Celiacs Disease is an autoimmune disease where when you ingest or are exposed to gluten your body signals an autoimmune attack on yourself, and the main organ damaged is your gut. Normally you have villi in your gut that absorb nutrients. With celiacs, when you eat gluten, the villi is destroyed, making absorbing anything next to impossible and weight loss extremely probable. We found out I had this when I was at my sickest. Somebody mentioned to my mom that celiacs can cause extreme weight loss and I had every single symptom of it. After looking into it further, I did indeed have it, and at that point I went gluten free.
And your doctors put you on a diet that was only making your situation worse, to the point where your weight dropped down to 76 pounds - that’s unbelievable. But you didn’t give up and decided to fight for your life - tell me about that decision.
Well at the worst of it, I had a moment where it's almost as if the bottom fell out of rock bottom, and at that point as much as it pains me to say it, suicide seemed like a good option, because in my disillusioned head, heaven seemed better than the hell on earth I was living in. I ended up locking myself in the downstairs bathroom and was about to swallow a bottle of Tylenol, but then something stopped me.
I had the most intense experience because I looked into the mirror, and for the first time ever since I was healthy, I finally saw the reality of what I had become. Up until that point, I did not see what I really looked like. In my eyes I looked fat (it's called body dysmorphia)... but all of a sudden, I saw an emaciated version of the woman I used to know and that woman was me. And this emaciated version of me was at death's door whether I was the one who took my life or not.
In that moment, I remembered everything I had to live for... my family, my nephew, my future husband, love, my dreams, and I realized that if somehow I were to overcome this, I could help tremendous amounts of people one day. So it was then that I decided to make the scariest and most intimidating decision of my life, and that was to live. I knew in choosing that I would have to go up against the monster inside me trying to kill me- my eating disorder. But that's what I decided to do.
Once you found out that you had Celiac Disease you made some changes and started gaining weight again - but it wasn’t going to be easy - as you first had to overcome an eating disorder. What was that like?
Well, whenever I tell this story, I always tell people there are 2 chapters. How I got there and how I came back, and honestly, coming back from it was a different kind of hell. After I decided to live and after I started eating gluten free, my gut started healing and I started putting back on the weight. Only problem is I didn't want to accept the fact that I had an eating disorder for quite some time. Over the span of 3 years I went from anorexia, to exercise bulimia (3 hours of cardio a day, no days off- to try and burn off all of the calories I was consuming in a day), to binge eating where I literally could not stop even to the point of getting sick.
At that point I admitted myself to rehab in California because that scared me, and spent my 21st birthday there. Then after coming home, I was okay for a little while but then sure enough, started throwing up in the bathroom and that's when I dealt with full on bulimia. At that point, an opportunity was given to me that I took as a sign. I got a job offer in South Carolina for my dream job, and I realized then that this was very much a second chance. I took the job and then vowed that in that new beginning, I would start a brand new life- free of the old crap that I used to let myself succumb to. After moving down there, I was relapse free for a while... but then it started back up again- and that was when I finally drew a line in the sand and decided to do whatever it took to get better. To stop working out excessively, to put on more weight, to not throw up or restrict, to get my butt into counseling every week and stay in counseling, and to admit that yes- I have an eating disorder- and either I was to beat it or it was one day going to beat me.
It's been over 3 years now since the day I decided to not relapse and I've been completely relapse free, and I no longer struggle with my body, or my weight, or eating, or anything like that. Have been going to counseling faithfully every week ever since and it's literally transformed my mind.
Would you describe it as an inner struggle between body and mind? If you had to point out one thing, what was it that helped you the most in your recovery?
My faith. That was the 1 thing that gave me hope on my darkest nights, and the courage to make the decisions I needed to make to get into a full recovery. Everyone has their own beliefs and I fully respect that. I just know that in my life, I am a Christian, and praying my way through my darkest days was ultimately was saved my life.
I know that Powerlifting has played a key role in your journey as well - how did that start out and why powerlifting?
After I got into a full recovery, I had to get back into the gym at some point. When at the gym, I saw a couple of powerlifters, and something about what they were doing just really appealed to me. I wanted to get started in it, because it focused on what your body could DO rather than on how it looked, and they ate a lot and also rested a lot, which was a very healthy approach compared to what I had been doing for years. But I had to get myself ready mentally for that, because I also knew in order to do well in it I would have to become strong... which meant putting on muscle... which meant putting on more weight.
After about 2 months of preparing myself for it, I jumped in full force and signed up for my first meet, hired my first coach, and got started. Since then, I've gone from a personal record of 135 on deadlifts, to 225, to 325, and I can honestly say it has changed me for the better, and has been by far one of the most empowering thing I've ever done in my life. It's become my life's passion and now career, as this past year I passed my exam to become a United States Powerlifting Coach.
I've been coaching people locally and also at a distance, and it's honestly one of my favorite parts of my life now. It's healed me very much so both from a body image perspective and also from a physical perspective, and it makes me want to continue to focus on becoming stronger and not go back down the old destructive paths I used to find myself traveling.
In an article you wrote, you said that you never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have, and that you learned that first hand. Where do you find your strength today?
I still find my strength in Christ. That's where I've found it ever since 76 lbs to now at 148 lbs. While I'm doing well now, I still have the occasional bad day, and when I'm not feeling strong, I know that the God living inside of me is. That has helped me through more difficult situations and scenarios than I can even begin to describe.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about women lifting weight?
That it will make you bulky! NO! It won't. Women who take steroids get bulky. Lifting heavy naturally just makes you leaner, and more toned, and not only that but you become strong as ever, which is extremely attractive at least to guys who are not intimidated by strong women.
You describe your approach to nutrition as flexible dieting, what does that mean and what has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about nutrition over the last couple of years?
Flexible dieting basically means you have a certain amount of proteins, carbs and fats you need to get to your goal, and as long as you stay within those targets you can eat the foods you choose. It's still very important to eat foods that are good for you for your own wellbeing, but the point is nothing is off limits, there are no restrictions. So if you want dessert or a burger or something, that's absolutely fine, just work it into your macros. I love this approach because it creates a balanced sustainable approach for nutrition, and nothing is off limits.
The most valuable thing I have learned about nutrition is that there are no demonized foods. All foods can be enjoyed in moderation, which for me, was huge to learn because even after I got into a full recovery, for a time I held so many things as off limits when in reality I could have them all along and still reach my goals. Thankfully after hiring my powerlifting coach, he taught me that.
That being said though, while you may be able to eat whatever you want with flexible dieting, what you eat has a tremendous effect on how you feel. So eating more nutritious foods most definitely creates a better quality of life and makes you feel better in the long haul.
After overcoming so much yourself and having found both confidence and joy you also see this potential in others. There are still so many women out there who lack belief in themselves, what would you say to those who are holding back?
I would say that whatever it is that you know you need to do - be it losing weight, gaining weight, if struggling with an eating disorder taking steps towards recovery, whatever your next baby step is, do that.
I always tell both myself and my clients that many baby steps will take you miles, and I have found that to be so true. Don't look at everything you have to do, look at the next thing. If it's losing weight, maybe commit to going to the gym 1x week. If it’s gaining weight, commit to eating however much food you need to eat to put on the muscle. If getting into recovery is what you need to do, start by one day at a time, not relapsing, and the more time you get relapse free you will be amazed at the effects it will have on your mindset and your health.
Any change is hard as hell at first, but when broken down into baby steps, it becomes much more manageable. And when you do those over and over again, before you know it you will be closer to your goal than you ever dreamt possible.
Where can people go to learn more about you online?
Stay tuned for the next interview of Real Talk Real Women!