Fitness Fridays: How Anelsa Hooper-Mawanda Went From Fit To Obese To Feeling Healthier Than Ever
When Anelsa Hooper-Mawanda first started paying extra special attention to her body, she was very young. She was 14, her family had moved from Guyana to America when she was 12, and she was told, at a fragile time in a young person’s life, that if she was ever going to find a man, she would need to stop getting “big.”
So she started working out as a teenager, and to look as appealing as possible, she started gaining inspiration and workout ideas from female bodybuilders she found on Instagram. Before she knew it, Anelsa’s goal of being lean, muscular and fit had been reached. But life handed her a series of of unfortunate events that she struggled to cope with, and soon enough, depression, anxiety and binge eating caused her to pack on weight. Last year, she found herself obese, embarrassed to leave the house to go to the gym, struggling with high blood pressure and nerve damage in her leg. Things had changed so rapidly that Anelsa didn’t know what to do.
Eventually, the now 22-year-old, based out of Maryland, would have a come-to-Jesus moment. She realized that because of identity struggles, she didn’t know who she was, and for years, worked hard to look like the women she followed online. When she stopped following the movements of influencers on social media and started working from the inside out, she was able to lose the weight and the the health struggles, and get to a place of pure joy. To get that didn’t require her to go right back to being buff and eating a seriously restricted diet. Instead, she just started listening to what her body wanted and needed, worked out to obtain mental clarity instead of gains, and made her fitness journey about wellness over the physical.
“I push a holistic approach,” she told me. “In the end, it’s more than fitness, it’s about wellness. That’s the big thing I realized.”
We talked to Anelsa about how she became the queen of home workouts to her more than 144,000 followers, the importance of having a diet you can maintain, and going from fit to obese to her happy and healthiest self.
MadameNoire: You’ve transformed in different ways over the years. When would you say you first started your fitness journey?
Anelsa Hooper-Mawanda: So I started in 2014. I was 16 back then.
Were you active growing up? What was your fitness experience?
Growing up, especially growing up in Guyana, fitness wasn’t a part of my lifestyle. I wasn’t taking part in any sports in school. It’s like, when I came to America I was exposed to the gym and stuff so that’s where it started. I kind of took it up, being active, on my own, but it’s not something I grew up doing.
So if you started trying to get fit at 16, how would you say you viewed your body growing up?
When I lived in Guyana, looking at your body, it wasn’t really a thing. It wasn’t something I was consciously aware of. Growing up in a third world country, that’s the last thing you think about. You’re kind of like, most of the time, in survival mode, so there are certain things you never really think about. But when I came to the United States and was living with my dad, he would tell us, “You’re eating too much.” And he would get on my sister a lot because we were eating a lot. We were excited about the food because those were things that we weren’t really exposed to back home. So we went crazy with the food. He was like, “You guys are getting way big and if you continue like this, no guys are going to look at you.” I think by then I was 14, so that’s when I started becoming more aware of my body. My dad kind of brought it to our attention.
Once you took notice of your body, what was the goal you were trying to reach? Initially you got really, really fit and muscular.
When I started my fitness journey, I was never overweight or obese or anything like that. I was a teenager. I was 16. I just started going to the apartment complex gym and there was no specific goal. I was just trying to do something because I was always at home, kind of like an introverted person. So it just started as me just going to the gym to get myself out there and not be in the house so much. As I continued, I think in 2015, 2016, Instagram became more popular, and so body building became very popular on social media. I would see these women, like Amanda LaTona, she’s a bikini bodybuilder, and Dana Linn Bailey, and I would look at these women like, “Hmm! [laughs] How do they look like this? I kind of want to look like this. I go to the gym too.” I was really young. So that’s when I really started creating a goal of how I wanted to look and it was more for the bodybuilding aesthetic look; really strong and muscular.
You said that when you finally met the goal of looking like a bodybuilder, you were extremely depressed. Do you know why that was or had depression been something you just dealt with for some time?
Every time this topic comes up it just makes me emotional. For most of my life I was depressed. Truthfully, it’s something that I just started opening up about, and I was really young. I was like 10 and I always felt so not happy. I didn’t feel happy at all and I grew up with that kind of feeling. There’s so many different things that I’m unfolding now surrounding what caused my depression and the major thing that caused it was living with a single-parent mother. She was a single parent in Guyana and she was kind of a dominant woman. She could become very abusive, verbally and physically abusive, and I think that kind of took a toll on me. But of course, I’m a child. I’m not consciously aware of what’s happening, but I knew I just didn’t feel happy. When I grew up and turned like 18, it got worse, and so that’s when I found myself in and out of mental hospitals for weeks at a time battling with depression. I would truly say that my depression started in childhood because there was a lot of trauma there.
Why do you think at the time when you finally obtained the body you wanted and one would think you would be happy and confident, that’s when the depression hit you so hard? Is it because you thought having the body you wanted would make things better for you and when it didn’t it was hard to deal with?
Subconsciously, yes. You know when you do things and you don’t understand why you’re doing it but there’s an underlying, bigger purpose if you sit back and pay attention to yourself as a person? Now as I got older, that’s one of the things I started doing because I started questioning why I got into fitness and why I was trying to look a certain way. It’s because I didn’t have a sense of identity. I was trying to create a sense of identity for me. I was in this tug of war with identity and understanding who I am and my purpose.
Can you speak on what it was like, getting super fit and then finding out soon after that you were at risk for different health issues that would then lead you to put on weight?
So for five years I kept up that look where I worked out and I looked super great and strong and all of that stuff. Just last year is when it happened that I had my first weight gain and relapse. That came as a result of different life circumstances I was dealing with. I lost my place where I was living. I was rooming with some girls and they just left. I came home one day and there was nobody there.
I was working as a caregiver, a CNA, and that type of job was very stressful. I was dealing with different stuff at work and on top of that I had a panic attack at work so that became the center talk. It was different circumstances that unfolded and I started moving into survival mode. So now I was hunting around, trying to figure out where I was going to live because I had exhausted all my funds moving to that place. I didn’t mention this, but at 17, my dad kicked me out. So I ended up living with some people. They’re like my parents. I was living with them for two years and then it was time for me to leave. I exhausted my funds moving into this new place with these girls and they just left me. They didn’t communicate that they were leaving or anything. I was just in shock and already struggling with depression and anxiety so that just added more fuel to the fire. I ended up having to move with my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time. I couldn’t do it anymore. I just broke down, had a panic attack and all of these things started unfolding. I was stress eating, binge eating and I just let myself go. So that’s kind of like where that weight came from. Then I ended up going on birth control, which took a toll on my mental health. I mean, oh my goodness, I have never experienced anything like it. That’s where my weight gain came from.
How did you get to the point of starting the journey you’re presently on and doing so with a more positive mindset, positive outlook on your body and positive reason for doing it?
You know, with every person you’ve got to start choosing. Either you’re going to stay down or you’re going to get up. I chose to dig myself out of it. With the whole thing of how I used to look in the past with exercise and food and how I started out, I was trying to build my identity as a person and I was following what I thought people were doing. I built myself up out of that. But leading up to this point, I had to start making different choices and some of those choices included taking time to understand who I am as a person and what I really wanted out of life. I changed my mindset to unlearning certain things I was taught growing up and how I was treated and so making those choices, I realized just working out couldn’t help me. I had to take a more dynamic and holistic approach to myself and to my health, and so that’s what I started to do. That’s how I dug myself out of that situation, and of course, like I said earlier, it was a choice. I had my husband here for support but he can only do so much. It was all left up to me in the end.
With that in mind, how important has it been to use exercise for mental clarity and no longer count calories but to focus on how you feel, not how you look?
That has been super important in my growth. How I initially went about things was based on what I would see other people doing and I realized I couldn’t do that for me because that was not working for me. With the dieting and stuff, my diet was very rigid at one point. I was so zeroed in on how I was eating and what I was eating, counting calories, macros, this and that, and that too added more pressure to me as a person and young woman. So having all of those experiences leading up to where I had gotten with my weight, I realized there were things I had to change. I couldn’t live a life that wasn’t sustainable, so I started changing my mindset and how I was eating. I knew I had to change how I was eating because in the dark, when no one was looking, I would binge eat because I was so hungry because I wasn’t eating enough. That contributed to my mental health as well and I said, I can’t do this anymore. I had to start focusing on my nutrition holistically. I became more in tune with my body and what it’s asking me for. That’s how I deal with my nutrition now.
How has does being open about your journey and sharing your videos and more held you accountable on this journey?
The reason why I started working out at home — if you see my page I used to always be in the gym. When I gained weight I was embarrassed. I didn’t have the confidence to go back in the gym. It was like I lost muscle memory and forgot to work out. But instead of making excuses as to why I can’t get moving, I had to start innovating ways. That’s how I started working out at home and I had to because my health was being impacted. I developed high blood pressure, I was suffering with severe nerve pain in my leg because of my weight, and it fueled my depression and anxiety. I had to find a way to do something. I couldn’t just say that I wasn’t going to work out because I didn’t want to go to the gym because I believed my health was getting worse and worse. You have to take action and you have to create a way, some way, somehow.