How Strength Training Helped This Philly Nurse Practitioner Let Go of Diet Culture

Thanks in part to lifting at Cedar Street Barbell Club, Susanne Johnson feels like her body is her own again.

diet culture transformation

Susanne Johnson’s experience lifting weights at Cedar Street Barbell Club has made her feel not just comfortable with but empowered by her body. / Photograph courtesy of Susanne Johnson

Who I am: Susanne Johnson (@seesuzgo), 34

What I do: I’m a family nurse practitioner.

Where I live: Philly


Sometime this fall, I realized that my body wasn’t my own. It belonged to an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, a date who sexually assaulted me, the diet industry, and a culture I was constantly trying to please by losing weight through a series of highly restrictive diets and even, at one point, bariatric surgery. I felt I was always too much — yet never enough.

I am smart, bubbly, outgoing, and successful. I’ve got my dream job as a family nurse practitioner providing primary care to underserved individuals in Camden, New Jersey. I felt like only I knew the truth, though. I felt like I was a complete imposter. I had lost and regained the same 70ish pounds since college. My body dysmorphia was so crippling I felt I was doing my patients a disservice by being a fat nurse practitioner. How could I possibly dispense advice about hypertension and diabetes?

I was fed up with diet culture. I could not live one more moment wondering if a tablespoon of sliced almonds on my morning oatmeal was the difference between pounds lost or gained. With the guidance of my therapist, I dove headlong into the body positive movement. I sought the permission I felt I needed to unconditionally respect, if not love, my body. I changed my visual diet — flooding my Instagram feed with a variety of beautiful fat bodies and reading up on studies that debunk weight-science myths. I worked on relearning to feed myself without a gauntlet of rules governing my every bite. I longed to get to a place where I might peacefully coexist with ice cream in the freezer in a way that didn’t trigger my previous restrict-binge-purge cycles.

By February, I felt more sure of myself, and I was feeling less overwhelmed by the once pervasive desire to zip out of my skin. My body still didn’t feel like it belonged to me, though. It was something I talked about as if it wasn’t the vessel I actually inhabited. I felt like a hermit crab trading in one too-tight shell for another.

On a whim, I opted to attend a session of Cedar Street Barbell Club’s Squat School. Nick Pasquariello, the owner/coach of Cedar Street, was immediately disarming. Good-natured with an impish smile and easy laugh, he is an excellent and precise coach who coaxes the best out of each of us. I felt something shift underneath the weight of the barbell that first afternoon. It didn’t feel burdensome. It felt invigorating.

In the months since that day, Cedar Street has been where I’ve reclaimed my body for myself. There are no expectations that you need to be anything other than who you are. The body I have is the one I work with. In a society where women are continually objectified and commodified, I am still overwhelmed by how much strength training has shifted my perspective about my own body. I watched myself progress from working with a bare barbell to deadlifting 135 pounds.

These days, I have shifted my focus from exercise for intentional weight loss to moving my body in ways I enjoy. My current routine includes three days of strength training — a combination of squats, overhead presses, bench presses, and deadlifts. I also add in accessory work like barbell curls and a core-focused exercise. Then I sprinkle in other opportunities for movement, such as walking, hiking, yoga, or biking throughout the rest of the week.

Strength training continues to focus and calm my mind and connect me to a source of confidence I didn’t know existed. It felt like blossoming. Gradually, it mattered less what dress size I was wearing because I know my body is capable of great things, just as it is. My body is round and soft and feminine. My body also does really hard things, and doing those hard things has not only brought me physical strength but also the mental fortitude to have hard conversations, to stand up for myself, and to set healthy boundaries.

Strength training also changed the way I approach my interactions with my patients. When I stopped basing my value and success as a health care provider on my own weight, I stopped focusing on whether or not my patients’ health might be tied to their weights. I want others to know they have the ability to define what health means for them — that their body is worthy of love and respect, too. These days, my body is my own. I have ceased to give it over to others, ceased to allow it to be defined by any number. My body is defined by the strength within.

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