Standing in a room among other models preparing for a fashion show, I was suddenly paralyzed by the prospect of taking off my shirt. My heart began beating rapidly and my palms started to sweat. My body dysmorphia had emerged in full force.
It was 2008, and I had just signed on with a New York City casting agency. I should have been excited, but my mind was racing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people around me who would see the loose skin on my 29-year-old body and notice that my right pec was not as defined as my left. All the other models looked so built and perfect — I couldn’t bear to imagine what they would think of my body.
In my eyes, the fabric of my shirt was the only thing protecting me from the judgment of my peers. It was then that I knew modeling was no longer for me. How did I get here? I wondered.
Big Lifestyle Change
My body dysmorphia is rooted in my history with weight loss. That journey began in 1999 when my doctor warned me that I was following a path like that of my father, who had suffered from coronary heart disease and died in his late 30s from a heart attack. My own heart almost stopped at those words: I was just 21.
At the time, I stood around 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed about 265 pounds; I didn’t really exercise, and I had never kept to a strict diet. My parents did the best they could when I was growing up, but fitness and healthy eating hadn’t been priorities.
The doctor’s warning was the wake-up call I needed. Having watched my father struggle with his health, I was determined to do whatever I could to avoid following a similar path.
I immediately cut out alcohol and fried foods. I committed to drinking plenty of water each day. I started YouTubing workouts. Eventually, I was doing two-a-days, visiting the gym whenever I wasn’t working at my full-time job in data entry or my part-time job as a janitor.
Over the next two years, my health transformed. I lost about 100 pounds — and most important, I felt stronger and more excited for life than I had in years. It seemed like a great time to take on a new adventure.
I was about 25 when a friend suggested I model. Though I was hesitant at first, as soon as I stepped on the runway, it clicked. There was something about modeling that losing weight and eating right hadn’t given me, and that was the ability to really own who I am and share it with others.
Yet the deeper I delved into the industry, the more unsettled and insecure I became. I had to change clothes in front of other people, or do shoots where I needed to take my shirt off. The anxiety was crippling. I still had loose skin from my weight loss, and I wasn’t ready to be part of an industry I didn’t feel would accept my body.
Worse, I realized that I hadn’t come to accept my body. I was always focused on what I could improve, and although I was feeling healthier, I began to recognize that neither weight loss nor modeling was the answer to the internal challenges I was facing (and still face today). I had to work on loving my whole self.
So, I asked myself another question: What’s next?
A New Chapter
In 2006, I moved to Philadelphia, and that’s when life really started for me. Two years after moving, I decided to step away from modeling and bring my focus back to fitness.
While searching Facebook for fitness communities, I stumbled upon a guy named Tre’ who hosted boot-camp classes in the area. I’d never done a boot-camp class before, but I figured it would be a great way to meet people who share my interests. I was immediately hooked: They were intense, high energy, and collaborative in a way that felt empowering after years of solo workouts. I never missed a class.
Tre’ also had a way of pushing me past my limits. Early on, he saw something in me that I had yet to see in myself: the ability to be a key part of the fitness industry.
When Tre’ had to take some time off, he let me run some of his camps, and I loved it. Encouraging and inspiring people has always been a part of who I am, and after working with Tre’ to build out even more well-attended classes, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in fitness.
In retrospect, I see how both modeling and leading fitness classes include an element of performance, but motivating people through fitness instruction was much more fulfilling. Modeling was all about aesthetics; leading fitness classes was all about inspiring people to move their bodies to build strength and feel good. When I led fitness classes, I had a purpose.
I decided to get certified as a personal trainer and deepen my understanding of nutrition.
You could say that during this time, things began to fall into place. I was hired as a group instructor at a Philadelphia health club, where I had the opportunity to fine-tune my craft as a teacher with the support of some incredible people.
My experience there also encouraged me to explore, and ultimately embrace, my sexuality. Located in what is known as the “Gayborhood,” the gym was a welcoming place. It was the first time I’d been exposed to all different types of people who openly loved who they pleased. Feeling the warmth and acceptance around me gave me the confidence to say, “I’m queer and I love it!”
I eventually met my now-husband at a video shoot for a fitness program I had created, and about four years ago he introduced me to Life Time.
Now, I work at Life Time as a studio manager and group fitness performer. I’m also an Inclusion Council club ambassador and hope to help make a change, engage our communities, and make Life Time an inclusive place where everyone can thrive. It means so much to me, not only as a queer Black man, but as a member of a community of passionate people who want to be their best selves.
Having the opportunity to inspire others and make fitness a joyful experience is what I look forward to every day. Although I still struggle with body dysmorphia, sharing my story with others and working through common challenges together makes everything feel a bit easier. I believe we’re all here for a purpose, and when I put on my mic and lead a class, I’m living mine out in real time.
Ze’s Top 3 Success Strategies
- When you want to give up, don’t. This is when you need to push yourself as hard as you did at the beginning, Ze’ advises. This applies to working out (don’t injure yourself, of course!) as well as other challenges.
- Live in the small progress. Ze’s wellness- and life-coaching philosophy is all about focusing on the small, incremental progress you make toward meeting your goals. You can achieve so much when you take one step at a time and celebrate your growth along the way.
- Find your people. When you connect with the right people at the right time, it can change your journey in fitness and in life, he notes. Take chances to make it happen — Ze’ found his first, and arguably most impactful, group fitness event on social media.
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This article originally appeared as “Endless Possibilities” in the January/February 2022 issue of Experience Life.