By Rachael Schultz

When I was younger, I was fat. This fact of my childhood comes up in conversation more often than you’d think. I’m not being brassy or fishing for compliments; it’s just the truth. Ask my mother and she’ll bashfully say, “You were not fat. You were just…a little chubby.”

But she’s lying. I was a lot chubby.

I grew up thinking a giant slice of chocolate cake for breakfast was perfectly healthy and that walking from my room down the stairs to the couch was sufficient exercise. I spent the majority of my teen years muttering curses to my mother for passing on awful eating habits and even worse genes that, combined, made me think it would be impossible for me to ever lose weight. I secretly — and sometimes openly — hated my naturally thin friends for being able to eat dessert with every meal and not feel the repercussions on their hips like I did.

Then one day in college, I realized I’m not like everyone else. My body is different from other girls my age. That after school special about how you shouldn’t compare yourself to models because everybody is different finally clicked in my head. I couldn’t expect to get the same results as my friends from their exercise and diet plans because that’s not how bodies work.

I realized that instead of fighting against what didn’t work, I had to find what would work for me. People often give up on their goals, both to lose weight and maintain their weight, because they do what they think they’re supposed to do instead of trying to find what their body actually needs.

The general workout of Americans — running, lifting weights and eating healthy when convenient — isn’t the key for everyone. I hate running. I psych myself out way too much about how far I’ve gone and how long it’s been and I’m convinced my lungs will never last longer than three miles so I usually give up after one.

For a long time, it was either run or nothing. I would get frustrated that I couldn’t naturally run as far as I wanted to that I’d give up and go home.

But one day, I tried the elliptical and it was like someone had breathed life into me. It was stationary and repetitive and easy on my lungs. It was exactly what I needed. Now, I run for as long as I can last and instead of giving up and going home after my lungs want to explode, I hop on the elliptical to finish my cardio.

You have to listen to your body. Listen to what it wants and work with it instead of constantly fighting against it because of preconceived notions. I religiously drink Diet Coke, despite the fact that it’s packed with artificial sweeteners and unpronounceable chemicals. I need a vice to keep me from downing multiple bars of chocolate a day. I have to give myself a little something, or whatever amount of self-control I’ve spent my life attempting to gain will fly out the window.

Listening to your body isn’t about losing weight. Yes, it is a fabulous side effect, but it’s about how your body feels and, more importantly, how you feel about your body. You have to find what works for you so you don’t feel defeated.

Discovering the elliptical was originally about finding a way to burn off my delicious morning muffin, but once I was finally able to feel the effect of 45 minutes of intense exercise, the elliptical became a way to lift my mood and change my self-perception. Instead of beating myself up about giving up on the treadmill, I congratulated myself for sticking to something. I hide from the chocolate behind my Diet Coke not because I’m afraid of the calories, but because I know I’ll feel sick from eating so much sugar.

A common misconception is that all the advice to exercise and eat right is solely intended for weight loss. A healthy lifestyle is far more about how your body feels. No one can argue that eating fast food and candy makes them feel more energized and cleansed than a well-balanced meal would, even if that fast food doesn’t affect their physical appearance.

Appearances aren’t what matters. What matters is how you treat your body and what you do to take care of it. Every one is different and every body is different. Some of us have to work a lot harder to keep our bodies in a place we’re happy with and that’s why we can’t compare ourselves to each another.

Your only goal should be to be as healthy and happy as you can. Those girls who eat dessert after every meal may be tinier only because they got lucky with their genes, but they’re not necessarily healthier than a curvy woman who passes over the sweets.

I always say that I was fat when I was younger in a jovial manner because my weight wasn’t really what mattered. It’s the fact that I didn’t know chocolate for breakfast would give me a sugar crash by noon or that something could taste good if it wasn’t covered in whipped cream.

I didn’t know that what I was putting into my body and how I treated it affected everything about me, from my mood to my mannerisms. The number on the scale never mattered; it was about how I felt about myself.

It took me years to figure out that I had control over my body and to gain the confidence to throw others’ thoughts to the wind. If you’re healthy and happy with yourself, then no one can bring you down. Even now, I may not be my ideal weight but the only time I feel down about my body is when I’ve been on a week-long pizza and beer binge, depriving my body of the nutrients it needs.

Stop fighting against what you think you’re supposed to do but you know doesn’t work. If you can’t say no to the bread basket then don’t resist it, just try to offset it in other ways like trading in pasta for grilled fish. If your body can’t handle a Jillian Michaels video for the whole hour, then start with 20 minutes and work your way up. Stop trying to match the guy lifting weights next to you or the girl running past you in the park and congratulate yourself for doing what your body needs on its own time.