SESP junior Leigh Healey never saw herself as a bodybuilder. A year ago, she wouldn’t have believed you if you told her that just a month ago she won Bikini Novice, Open Bikini Class C and Overall Bikini Champion for bodybuilding and was looking to compete in national competitions in June 2017. Last September, while struggling with an eating disorder and an emotionally unhealthy relationship, Healey began to research bodybuilding and competing after being inspired by a hometown acquaintance on social media. Initially, Healey hoped to begin competition prep – the 12 to 16 weeks leading to competition with a particular workout and meal schedule – after classes ended in the spring, but instead launched into prep in April, giving her 27 weeks to prepare.

Healey says: My eating habits were getting to the point where I was just waking up every morning really hating myself. I’ve always been a super outgoing person, but I think in my relationship with my now ex-boyfriend, I became really inside myself, and my binge eating was escalating. I never wanted to go out, I was always in my room, and I didn’t really hang out with people. Then one day it just hit me: You need to do this to help yourself. You need to start prep now. You need to compete now.

A lot of people have talked to me about how I’ve made so many physical changes, but the biggest thing that came from this were the mental changes and emotional changes. I’ve developed so much confidence. I just feel so much better about myself and genuinely happy every day when I wake up. When I started prep, I got my drive back. I was looking forward to getting up in the morning and getting in my lift and hitting all my meals. It fueled and motivated me every single day.

One of the biggest changes in my life during this prep was ending an unhealthy relationship. I was pretty deep in prep, and I realized how much self-confidence I had and how much I had been relying on him to give me confidence that he wasn’t really giving me. He would tell me I was fat and gross, and I didn’t need that in my life. In the beginning he was a big “supporter” of me, but I realized the only reason he was a supporter was for me to look better for him, not for me to be a better person. This whole process and the confidence it built made me realize what it meant to be a true supporter. I needed love in my life that I was finding from my true friends, and finally realized I had everything I needed.

On Oct.1 Healey was presented with an award after winning the overall in her first bobybuilding competition.

During prep, Healey worked with a bodybuilding competition coach who gave her meal and fitness plans. While having a very structured schedule helped her cope and move forward, there were days where she still struggled with her eating disorder. Despite tremendous motivation and commitment, grocery shopping was often a weekly battle for Leigh. With the support of a friend who would accompany her on the trips, Leigh was able to stay strong.

I messed up one time during prep. I was five weeks in and sitting in my basement, and my favorite sugar cookie pizza was out. All I wanted was a goddamn pizza cookie. So I got a fork, and I took one little tiny bite. Then I was like, “Was that really worth it? For your long term goals?” I sat there and thought about it for a while and decided, “No, but you ate it, and there’s nothing you can really do about it now.” That’s when it really clicked, because binge eating Leigh would’ve been like, “Well, now you’re screwed, might as well eat the entire pizza!” So I was like, “Wow, I’m learning a lot about myself. Yes, you messed up, but you taught yourself a lesson in the process.”

The week before Healey’s competitions, called “peak week” because bodybuilders are “peaking” at their best physique, was a rollercoaster of emotion and nerves. But competition day made it all worth it – surrounded by other contestants, friends and family wearing T-shirts with her face on it and finally feeling completely comfortable.

I never felt so at home as when I was backstage because everyone knows exactly how you feel. Everyone understood what it felt like to be on prep. Everyone understood how terrible you feel on peak week. It’s really lonely in this process at first because you probably don’t know anyone doing it too, but once you’re in it, you’re in it, and it’s a really tight knit community. The whole experience, the day of and the feeling you get after and that high – I know I want to compete again.

People I haven’t talked to in years started coming out of the woodwork and asking me for advice, telling me I’m an inspiration to them and helping them change their lives too. I never would’ve expected that to happen, and now that’s the best thing that’s come out of prep. Yes, self-confidence is a huge thing, but knowing that I can inspire and really help other people and educate them on how to find the right plan for them is so amazing.

I really want people to see the whole picture and everything I’ve gained outside the physical, not just the end result with all the sparkles on. I hate when people say, “OMG, Leigh, you are goals. Tell me how I can look like you.” This isn’t sustainable year-long and what I had to do to get there is not something I would recommend to everyone. But the journey here was so amazing, and that’s what I hope people see.