You know the old saying “you never know what battles someone is fighting beneath their smile”? In the fitness industry, that couldn’t be more true. The industry is focused on the aesthetic, the visual, and the physical so often we forget the competitors are people. For every bulging biceps, abs of steel or gorgeous glutes, the people who train hard to have them share the same insecurities or worries or stresses non-competitors do. Once you know their stories though, the more you realize we’re all in the same boat in life, doing out best to reach our goals and encountering struggles along the way.
IFBB Pro Jessica James, upon first glance, is built like an action movie superhero and has a smile bright enough to escape a black hole in space (that’s some science and a really good line, you should look it up if you’re not sure what that means my friends. Huge compliment…). It’s helped her win several shows over the last few years and place in the top 5 of many more. But she had been facing her own struggles and battles for years with an eating disorder, which she has been very public and open about. Upon talking to Jessica, you find a positive, vibrant personality that loves to laugh out loud and crack jokes to get others to laugh with her. But she also knows with the popularity she’s created in the fitness industry, she can play a vital role in identifying and connecting with others who have been through what she has been through. She knows where she comes from and what obstacles she has faced and uses it as motivation to keep her centered and grounded in the ‘now’ of life. And there’s nothing more real than someone who’s able to be forthcoming with the fire they’ve walked through.
We recently caught up with Jessica to dive deeper into her story and where she’s headed next. The answer might surprise you. Rest assured, wherever she’s headed, she’ll be doing her best to get the world to smile along with her.
MMF: We’ll start with the cliche fitness questions first! (laughs) So you had a great 2013 and 2014 for doing shows, finishing extremely well, are you on hold from competing right now or is there a show coming up you’re training for?
JJ: Well actually I am not competing any longer!
MMF: Oh! Well that’s news to us apparently!
JJ: I am done. I announced it about two months ago that I am was not going to compete any longer.
MMF: So what lead to the decision to move on from it?
JJ: Well I love to compete and I love to be on stage. Before I ever competed, I did cheerleading in my youth, and I basically grew up on stage, in front of people and I’ve always been super out going….but I also have a passion for coaching and teaching. I believe everyone is born with a talent and their niche, just have to find it…and my mother owned a cheer gym and was a preschool teacher and I was exposed to teaching at an early age. Being active and competing is very much in me, but when it came down to it, and when I started not placing as high as in not placing top 5…coming from being an amateur and winning a lot and then going pro and getting my ‘ass handed to me’ (laughs) it kind of made me think a lot about why I was doing it. “Why was I doing this?” And it really was at first I wanted to be patted on the back and be told I was the best. And when I wasn’t getting that, I went “so what is the joy in doing this?” And I loved it, but while I was competing I was also working with a lot of competitors and my business grew. The competing was great but I found that my happiness was stemming from my clients’ success, and dealing with them. So when it came down to it, it’s about helping others. And it didn’t have to be getting them on the stage or show ready or anything, just helping them in general and stepping out of myself, ya know? I did a couple shows when I started shifting my motivation from trying to win, I was training but I was putting more of my time to my clients…I actually started doing better at my shows…I was doing better and looking better. Prepping was easier. It was because I was happier! So I took from that and I though “I wanna put my attention into just helping others” I know that sounds cliche, you know hearts and rainbows (laughs)…but when it came down to it, what was I doing it for? Behind the scenes or for the spotlight? I asked myself, “Where do you get the most satisfaction in the long run?” and that was it. I’m still training hard, and eating healthy of course because that makes me feel good because it makes me feel better and I’m able to help other people. Because if I’m miserable with myself and not in the gym and putting myself last I can’t be helpful to other people.
MMF: Well as a trainer myself if you not in this business to help others you’re in the wrong business. If you’re in it to JUST make money, you won’t last. People who love it would train people for free, like if a friend needed it. So it sounds like competing was a big step to getting you to this next point. Do you think it was like phase one to leading you to this new phase two of your life?
JJ: I believe it all happens for a reason. I do believe competing and doing shoots, and building status, gave me a position to be able to reach a larger group of people. Like selfish at first but lead to something bigger than just me. So my plan now is to growing my business and reach as many people as possible, on a bigger scale. Not just the competition world, but the whole fitness world, anyone trying to live a better, more sane life. I’m sponsored by Bodybuilding.com and Muscle Pharm, so that in itself though it’s not my main career, it supplements it and gives me an opportunity to reach out to more people in more places.
MMF: You have been doing a series for FitnessRX for Women for a while, the “Fire It Up” workouts. How did you hook up with them for this, and do they allow you full say on which exercises you highlight?
JJ: I got involved with them was I got approached after the Tijuiana Pro, and called saying “hey we want you for the magazine” and with them getting to know me, the photographers report back to the project guy and I had briefly met the people from FitnessRX for Women….beings that I’m a personal trainer and not JUST a bikini pro, and I know what I’m doing and I have a team of girls. So I know what I’m talking about (Laughs) So we brainstormed ideas, and I really liked the HIIT cardio idea and anything that I can help and be involved in. They’re really particular on who they choose. Same with Muscle Pharm and BB.com I didn’t get picked just because I looked good, it was because I shared my story and that isn’t not just sunshine and rainbow all the time. It’s easy to think these fitness icons, not saying that’s me, but that they’re all superwomen and supermen….when really we’re all real people, ya know? So it was about being authentic. There are so many good bodies out there and attractive people out there in the fitness industry and I remember going to LA and them really pushing on me…”what is your BRAND?!! You need to stand out and be unique” and they were really pushing that on me. Which I think is the sad part of the industry “what are you going to do the stand out?” and act like you’re something you’re not. I’m blessed that instead of opportunities leaving me which is a great fear whenever I share something really personal or “perfect” or how dare I miss a workout (laugh) but it’s attractive to people because that is real. It’s how I coach. I expect progress, not perfection. Because I don’t expect that out of myself.
MMF: Folks have a preconceived notion about fitness models about them being “perfect”…do you feel being in a spotlight you have a responsibility to break that stereotype, especially to young women who might be only focused on the that, and not total personal development?
JJ: The reason I love sharing how imperfect I am because I really did look up to those girls and I punished myself so much internally for not living up to that. I thought “what’s wrong with me that I’m falling off my plan?” or “what’s wrong with me that I don’t have motivation 24/7?” “why can’t I have a six pack year around??”
The more I beat myself up about that the more I got lost in something I didn’t want to be. You know those memes that are all “this is what my friends see me doing/this is what I’m really doing?” or “how we want things to go vs. how reality is”? Perception was everything. Every time I messed up it got me closer to my goals, whether a week, a day or a month later. I’m very open about struggling with my eating disorder and I did not know how much I’d be able to help others and how much more I’d learn about myself by going through such a deep dark place. When I was down in it, I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So just sharing that…everything we go through is for some kind of reason….
MMF: Your history with your eating disorder is something you’ve been very public and forthcoming with. For our readers who aren’t familiar, could you shed some light on your battle with it and overcoming it?
JJ: I work with an eating disorder program, or I guess my program of recovery (without breaking the anonymity) and I speak a lot and share my experience and what it was like before, how recovery worked and how it is now….I can break it down like that I suppose. I grew up in sports and such. Not really paying attention to my body type or what it looked like, I was a skinny kid. Maybe even getting teased for it, I was just active. Through a chain of events, in my high school years a lot happened. My parents got divorced and I had a personal trainer who basically taught me how to be anorexic by doing cardio all the time…then moving away for the first time, and then I got into my first real relationship where I never expressed how I felt…you know, early life stuff but it all happened at once. It changed my relationship with food, forever really. I was getting attention as I grew up as how I was looking, but I was hungry all the time and the binge eating started. But I kept it a secret and it was something I thought I could control. I started using food as a drug, a way to feel happy or reward or when I felt down or punish myself. Drugs and alcohol were never an issue so fod was really my ‘drug’. When I found bodybuilding, and I went to an LA Fit Expo, it was like ‘whoa!” So I got into all this as a way to channel and control my food as a way of doing something I could be successful at. (laughs) And I got crazy for a while. It was all or nothing, obsessed. I was always posting these black and white “you’re either first or last” messages on social media, I didn’t have a social life and I became pretty self centered.
I did get a lot of success out of doing shows from it, the shows didn’t give me the eating disorder. I had this under lying way of hiding it, though I channeled it to do well at shows and do something good. But it’s a progressive problem if you don’t get real help for it. So what happened was I white knuckled it, by being on these restrictive diets but as soon as I had a period where I hit my target weight and the shows were done, it was always followed by this period of craziness. Where I would binge then over exercise, throw up, binge, getting back on a diet, and the only way to get control was to sign up for another show. But every time after a show, it just kept getting worse and worse. After my pro show in 2014, I kind of put up the white flag. I think I hit my rock bottom. Everyone’s rock bottom is different, some gain a ton of weight, some waste away into the hospital from anorexia. Everyone has that “oh crap I can’t do this and I need help” moment and that’s what I hit. I remember having this mindset of “I”m not doing this today” followed by a binge. I woke up one morning to work off what I did and I couldn’t get out of the car. I just broke down and cried. Bawled. And I just couldn’t do it anymore. I called my parents and told them that I needed to get help. I am so grateful for the rock bottom because it changed my relationship with food and working out ever since. It almost makes me want to cry thinking about it….I didn’t think working out and eating healthy could be easy like it feels now. I’m sitting here today obsession free of food and I’m in control of my body. I eat healthy of course, but it’s been work for me. I think a lot of women struggle with this, maybe not to the extent I did, but some might even more than I did, some less…I got into my program of recovery which I’m very active in so I can help others with their eating disorders, I have a mentor in it…it’s easier now than when I started but I still have to work harder than your average person who doesn’t have the a disorder. But a lot of great things have came from that struggle. Having great friends to be around, helping others. I went through this period of recovery and thinking “ok I think I want to compete again!” thinking it was going to be different, which it was. But I tried it and though it was wonderful to be on stage, but the focus putting it all on me and being compared to others…
MMF: …it became a trigger?
JJ: Yeah, it was because it changed the mindset of “I”m healthy” and shifted it back to “it’s all about my body” again. It didn’t really help. And it just made me rethink why I was competing. I don’t think competing is for everyone. I think a lot of people get into the industry for reason like I did in the beginning. But if you have issues with food or body image, from my experience, it’s probably not the best sport to get into. Though the fitness community has a lot of supportive people in it and people doing it for the right reasons….
MMF: Society seems to want people to focus on those who look a certain way a lot, and comparing yourself to others a lot of the time can lead to self- destructive mindsets. Like counter-productive ways of thinking…
JJ: It all comes down to, for me at least, the self centered mentality. I never though of myself as one of those people, but I constantly was trying to control everything. The way my life was going, how people treated me. I didn’t realize that type of control was what was keeping me dysfunctional in my food. Not that I don’t want to into the whole God and higher power thing here, but for me it was just giving up all that control. Letting go. That’s what it comes down to. It starts with your mind, and the body then follows. If we try and control every single little thing, that self-centeredness comes up again…what you resist, persists. Being able to finally let that go if you make a mistake and to be able to move on from it. I would mess up on food or a workout and panic would set it. And then I would over compensate and control everything. And that was the mistake I was making. Letting go and living the “Progress not perfection” was the key, living it.
MMF: Are you to the point of being able to enjoy treats now? Having a “cheat day” like a lot of people who are very into fitness?
JJ: Yeah, that’s been a big thing. even when it comes to sugar and such, I think it’s about knowing your body and yourself. So I know no matter how strong I feel, if I’m going to feel any sort of guilt and shame afterwards, I just don’t partake in it. For me, it’s not worth it. Some can handle it, eating certain things all the time. Some can’t go there. It’s a person by person basis. There is no perfect food plan or cheat meal that is correct. Everyone is different, person to person. And my food plan might not work for someone else, some can eat intuitively. But I do know, one of the most freeing things every, I would compulsively weight my food. Even if it was a lot. Comes back to control, and it was kind of scary. And in recovery I’ve been able to let that go. I actually found out that weighing and measure your food obsessively is an disorder called orthorexia. It was a very eye opening thing to discover, and it was really powerful for me. Putting my scale away after finding that out was big for me. I know for competing a lot of people have to weight their food for food prep, but I know so many people who are so scared to NOT weight their portions and food during shows….I’m far more free about my food now. I ate a burrito for lunch today and whatever my family had when I was out there them. And it was all healthy and such, maybe a bit too much oil….but whatever. I’m at that point where I accept it and it is what it is. (Laughs)
MMF: Have you found that through helping your clients and others it makes dealing with all the battles of the eating disorder easier to manage?
JJ: I found that the more I’m out of myself and that I’m helping others, the more I stay on plan. Whenever I do I pause and think “ok stop, remove that” and I look to help someone else. It sounds stupid but I’ll even grab trash on the ground and throw it away if it’s for something besides me. Like text a random friend and say “how are you” or call a client and check in with them. Or heck, grab flowers and take them to family or even pay for people behind me at Starbucks (laughs) I do that all the time now. So when I feel body conscious or focusing of food or beating myself up, when that mentality creeps in, I put my focus elsewhere to helping someone. Like when my clients email now if they say “I” or “me” too much I let them know that, and I’ll ask what they did to help someone else that day. I have a client who texted me who was nervous before her stage show, this happened earlier. She was nervous and didn’t know what to do. I told her “find someone around you to help”. She did and she instantly felt better. Getting out of your own head can do wonders. It’s been a huge thing. you’re like being selfish by being selfless (laughs).
MMF: So to switch gears, I saw you did a shoot recently with the geek shirt and the Superman top, looking like a hot nerd (laughs). Do you have a nerdy side where when you’re not in front of the camera or on stage?
JJ: No (laughs). That’s really funny. God, I wish I was a nerd, nerds are hot (laughs). Unfortunately I don’t really have that nerdy cool side. I am hilarious though (laughs) I do like to play practical jokes, it’s something that runs in my family. I mess with people, not in a harmful way of course (laughs). I spend a lot of time with my family, like tons. They are my best friends, from top to bottom. Step-dad, my mom….I’m always around them. And we play jokes on each other a lot. Like I put up on Instagram on April Fools I was pregnant (the belly pic) some people flipped out about it actually, but hey you can’t please everyone, ya know. But we’re always playing games and such. We’ll play Cards Against Humanity, Apples to Apples, we love playing games. Card games, boards games….no video games. I don’t even have a TV in my house actually.
MMF: So with all this the past few years wrapping up, and the new direction, after the battles you’ve dealt with in your life and clearly you’re excited about the next phase of your life, what is next for you? More writing? A book maybe?
JJ: I actually thought about writing an E-Book, not sure which direction to go with like any one direction. Maybe I’m not qualified to talk publicly about balance, but yeah, I’ve been brainstorming. I would really like to speak. I’m not sure if people wanna hear me speak (laughs) but I want to travel and go in front of a broader audience and connect with men and women all over. But the direction to go to speak on, I’ll figure it out.
MMF: Well this new direction gives you a new wide platform to connect with others……
JJ: Well I want to meet a lot of these women with their stories…I’ve called people on social media that have stories similar to mine before. I love connecting with others. Being able to meet them and hug them. It’s emotional for me, and It would be amazing to do that in the future.