For years, Jolene Jones obsessed over her diet and workouts, ostensibly to be a top bodybuilder. But she eventually realized that she didn’t love it — and she was really just masking her body image issues.
“I started lifting when I was 21 years old, and I was surrounded by people that didn’t necessarily have the right idea of what a healthy and happy female body would look like,” Jones, now 25, tells PEOPLE. “I immersed myself into the gym and didn’t realize that maybe it was an unhealthy obsession.”
“My interest actually stemmed from being told I had cellulite and was unattractive. At one point in my life I had an eating disorder so one obsession let to another unhealthy obsession.”
Jones, a facilities coordinator in Kalispell, Montana, would spend months “bulking up” and eating to build muscle, before “cutting” and dieting down to lose as much weight as possible before a competition. Before her first (and what would end up being her only) competition in 2015, she dropped 21 lbs.
“Around the last 5 weeks leading up to my competition I was lifting 6 days a week, and doing cardio for 45 minutes 6 days a week, on top of practicing posing and walking in my 5” heels for a minimum of an hour a day,” she says.
RELATED VIDEO: Oprah Talks About Finally Being At Peace With Food
Jones started to prep for her second competition, but realized she had lost all interest — plus her coach wanted her to lose 30 lbs.
“I asked myself, ‘What am I trying to prove here? Do I really need visible abs to be happy?’ I felt like I was fighting my body to be ‘happy’ but the truth is I was never enough, it was never enough,” she says. “I look back on photos that I thought I looked ‘fat’ in and I looked damn good.”
“I stopped fighting myself to look a certain way, and I accept my body for the way it is,” she says. “I quit cancelling social events over the gym, I stopped holding back at BBQ’s or other social functions, because my thought is when I pass away, I won’t remember going to the gym, or even the food I ate, I will remember the memories I made living my life.”
Jones says she appreciates her body now.
“Everyone needs to love themselves. Our bodies are the physical entity that gets us through this life and we need to be thankful,” she says. “And everyone deserves to love themselves — it makes life a lot easier and better.”