Here at The Dough Bar, we have a handful of awesome athletes as part of our team. Over the years, these athletes have become family to us. They’ve helped us improve our products, they’ve dedicated their time to assisting us at shows and events, and they’ve inspired us as we’ve followed their fitness journeys. Among them is our dear friend Ilyssa. You may know her as @Ohilyssa from her Instagram, and if you’re a long-time Dough Bar fan, you might have seen her Instagram name on one of our custom doughnut variety 4 packs.
Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Ilyssa about her experiences with all things fitness, social media, and mental health. She was refreshingly candid. Ilyssa was inspiring, uplifting, and brimming with brilliant life advice. Of course, I had to know how she came to obtain her rocking bod, but the conversation quickly got much deeper than that. Still, I couldn’t resist a question or two about her hair. If you’ve seen her Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. She is the epitome of hair goals.
I’d like to ask you about your fitness journey, because I know that’s been a big part of your life. What initially motivated you to begin working out regularly?
I moved up to Northern California summer of 2012 for grad school. It was my 22nd birthday. I had gone to San Luis Obispo with a bunch of friends to celebrate my birthday. We had taken all these pictures while we were there. I just remember looking at these pictures very honestly, and I hated how I looked. I say this all the time, but my fitness journey was not healthy in the beginning. I started working out because I hated my body, not because I loved it. I wanted to deprive myself. I would run like 60 minutes a day and basically deprive myself of food. I lost weight really rapidly, but it was a disorder. It was destructive. I have a rather Type A personality which has caused me to struggle with anxiety for a lot of my life. I had severe anxiety about my body and just weight loss in general.
I love how honest you are about that. It’s really refreshing, and I’m sure it inspires a lot of people, so thank you for sharing that.
Oh yeah, I’m still going through it. I’m doing so much better now, but there are good days, and there are not so good days, but there’s always something good about every day. This was the worst bout of anxiety I’ve ever gone through, but it’s going to get better. To get back to fitness, I started by running and wanting to lose a lot of weight, and that translated into me wanting to do a fitness competition. With my obsessive personality, if I set my mind to something, I’m going to do it. I love process and structure, and I love being able to track macros. It was something that was constant and stable, and it was something that unfortunately kind of fed my neurosis. I try to be very honest in saying when I first started losing weight, it was not something that was healthy. It took years for me to figure out how to engage in fitness in a way that was to celebrate the things that my body is capable of doing instead of punishing my body and hating my body and thinking: if I lost weight, then I would love my body. In fact, I think the hyper obsession with losing weight made me dislike my body more even when I was at my leanest. I did some fitness competitions, and some bikini competitions and stuff, and it just proved to be something that was really destructive for my mindset. And then I went through a phase right around the time that I met Marquez and Ondrea, I was actually starting to eat food because I wanted to, not because I saw food as a way to control my body any longer. Over the years, the anxiety around food has sort of just of dissipated. If I think about fitness in my life, I think about the weight lifting, and powerlifting, and bodybuilding, but I think for so many women, food is intricately connected to fitness. Because as women, we are expected to occupy less space, and we are given these representations of thin, lean, white bodies on social media, and told that’s what’s ideal. If you feed into those narratives, then you want to look like those things, and when you don’t meet those expectations, fitness can be very destructive. So at least for me, fitness has been a journey of starting to celebrate the things my body can do whether that’s running, or that’s mobility, or lifting heavy things, shifting to that mindset instead of solely based upon appearance and how I perform in front of other people. It’s a tricky balance, especially when you’re showing this entire journey on social media and it’s publicized. It's a very private experience made public, it’s difficult. I’m sorry, I’m kind of wandering!
No, I love that! I feel like I’ve learned a lot about you and gotten to know you so much better already. I love that your relationship with food has changed in such a positive way. As somebody who works out regularly and really values meeting your goals, how do you balance eating what you want and what your body needs?
I guess you have to stop seeing food as a gateway to happiness or a gateway to being a better you. I think that we have a lot of language around consuming food that is, “Eat these particular foods,” or, “Restrict these foods,“ and then, “Blank.” There’s always this notion of food being a gateway or being an intermediary between who you are now and who you could be later. I reject that. I think food is something you can consume alongside a healthy lifestyle or loving your body and engaging in physical activity that makes your body happy and makes your body stronger. I don't see it as a gateway. That’s not to say that I don’t think there are scientific truths around consuming certain foods and consuming a certain ratio of foods at a macro nutrient level. It’s scientifically proven that if you want to lose weight, you consume food at a deficit. If you want to gain weight, you consume food at a surplus. I’m not saying that isn’t the truth - it is, but I think that’s not my mindset, because I’m no longer trying to gain weight or lose weight. I’m trying to live my life. Now I live a life, and food is something I enjoy alongside my life. Does that make sense? It’s like instead of it being something that’s horizontal, I’ve seen food and myself and it running vertically. We’re running parallel to one another instead of me on one side, food, and then a different me on the other side. I guess that’s the visual I’ve been seeing. That is to say that the food I consume now, I don’t track macros. There’s no reason for me to. I try to live my life like a normal person. I try to consume foods that are balanced in both micro nutrients and vitamins. I’m also a vegetarian, so I don’t eat meat, and so I have to be conscious in consuming enough protein to make sure that my body is satiated. I haven’t been as good about that lately in the past month, because I’ve sort of been trying to eat when I can eat. A month ago I was barely eating at all, because that’s what anxiety does to me. Now I try to eat whenever I’m hungry, but in general, I eat to fuel my body, and I eat alongside my fitness goals instead of eating to fuel a fitness goal. For some people I think that’s what they need to do, because they feed their body for fuel - like my husband for example, he’s a powerlifter, and he has to consume a certain amount of calories before he goes in and trains, because he knows that’s what he needs in order to lift heavy weights. I don’t have the same fitness goals as him. I sort of just try to live an everyday healthy lifestyle, and so I sort of just eat to eat. And then it releases any of the pressure and the anxiety around food. I think that’s what happens to a lot of people who are Type A. There’s this pressure around eating the right food all the time, and then what happens as a result of that is there's shame and guilt if you’re not meeting your own expectations of eating what you think you should be eating. For me, I just got so exhausted with this vicious cycle of feeling guilty about food I’m just like - screw it! I’m not doing any of this anymore. I’m just going to eat, and stop putting this pressure on myself. That’s how I see food, and that’s why I love Dough Bar doughnuts, and I love the food that they make, and I love that it’s a balance. The doughnuts have protein, but the glaze is pure sugar! We’re not hiding that. In the beginning, when they were advertising it, there was language around “guilt-free” and stuff like that, and I find that language kind of problematic. I’ve had conversations with Marquez and Ondrea about that. We shouldn’t be associating food with guilt at all. I think they’ve sort of shifted away from that language and said, this is sort of a healthier doughnut alternative. Again, I’m sorry I’m rambling!
Don’t apologize at all! You were talking about your fitness goals, and you were saying that your goal is mostly just to sort of live your best life. Do you have any other specific fitness goals currently, or is it simply about being the best version of you you can be right now?
I think right now, it’s just to be healthy. I started to realize, especially with my recent battle with mental health, that, man, so much of fitness or being healthy is not just about the physical, it’s about the mental as well. So I think I’ve been really privileging my mental health, and I think that they go together. If you’re not taking care of yourself mentally, you’re not going to want to go to the gym, and vice versa. I think that when I’m not exercising, my mental health declines. For a long time I was just sort of in the powerlifting community, and was competing in powerlifting, and was really focused on lifting weights. And now I realize that fitness is so much more than that, and fitness is not just this small niche of powerlifting and bodybuilding that we see on social media, but instead fitness is about wellness, and fitness is moving your body properly, and flexibility, and mobility, and cardiovascular health. I’ve been running a lot more. I think right now I don’t necessarily have a consistent powerlifting program the same way that I did, but when I go into the gym, if I feel like doing something for endurance, that’s what I do. If I feel like running for thirty minutes, that’s what I do. If I feel like not working out that day at all and just doing a yoga flow, that’s what I do. Again, sort of releasing the pressure on myself to be completely consistent and perfect all the time, it’s released some of the anxiety around not meeting my own expectations. It’s about determining for yourself what health and wellness looks like for you, and again, really focusing on mental health, and being proud of the things your body can do right there, that day, in that moment, and not getting upset at yourself if you get halfway through a work out and you feel like, man, I’m just not feeling it today. I want to go home and lay down. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think there’s something to be said about challenging yourself, and about pushing yourself to achieve things you didn’t think you could because of having that strong-willed mindset, but you also need to protect your mental wellness and draw a boundary where it needs to be drawn. That’s sort of where I’m at right now.
That’s such a healthy way to view it. I think that’s really good advice for a lot of people. Do you have any other advice that you would give to someone who hasn’t been in the fitness game but wants to start their own personal health journey?
I would say to follow where the passion is. If there’s something that really sparks something in your heart, follow that. Whether that is something that is popular or has lots of support in your friend group or not. If you go into a pilates class and that just sparks something in your heart and you love it, go for it! If you go to a Taekwondo class and you throw on a gi, and you’re like, wow, this is for me, go for it! If Jillian Michaels’ body sculpting courses are what works for you best because they’re 20-30 minutes at home, go for it. Just because what’s popular right now, or what we see in a very niche social media version of what fitness looks like, is being in a commercial gym and lifting weights or going to a powerlifting gym and squatting, benching, and deadlifting, just because those things look cool or they have a lot of support, if that’s that’s not what sparks your on fire, don’t seek it out. Then you’re going to be disappointed when you feel like you’re dragging yourself into the gym to do something you don’t actually love. For me, there were moments where powerlifting and competing in powerlifting sparked my fire for sure. It drove me. I just fell out of love with it. The biggest problem when I fell out of love with it was not that I fell out of love, but that I felt like I was disappointing myself in not loving something I thought I should love. You stick with it, and then you resent it. If you don’t love something, why are you doing it? There are definitely going to be days, just like anxiety, you have bad days. There are going to be days when things are harder. That’s fine. But if on a consistent basis things are not making you happy, and it stresses you out and feels more like a chore or an obligation than something that you love, why are you doing it? Seek out something else. That’s sort of what I’ve done. Something right now that’s really fun for me is this Nike Training Club app. I would really recommend it to people if they want to get into movement and fitness and they kind of don’t know where to start and they don’t want to hire a coach or whatever. The Nike Training Club app has over a hundred different workouts that are all split into anything from like 5 minutes to like 60 minutes and they’re all split into endurance workouts, or mobility workouts, or strength workouts, or yoga workouts, and you can choose whether or not you have no equipment, some equipment, or full equipment. You can choose if you want it to be beginner, intermediate, or advanced, and it runs through exercises. Some are rep based, some are time based, and I just love that! I throw in the headphones, I go into the gym, I put on the video, and it counts me down. It tells me what to do and when, and it’s been fun! It’s shown me that doing an endurance-based workout for 40 minutes without any equipment, it still gets my heart pounding, it makes me feel great. I didn’t realize that I could be happy, and thriving, and excited about working out without having a barbell or a dumbell in my hand. The Nike Running Club app is cool too. For folks who are just getting into it, I think it would be: experiment with things, go where the passion is, don’t worry about what other people are doing, and really seek out the things that make you happy.
I’m definitely going to have to check out that training club app!
Yeah, and it’s free too! People don’t know about it, and it’s so fabulous.
I kind of want to switch gears a little bit. I love the femininity that you bring to the whole workout game. I think you have the best hair I’ve ever seen in my whole life, and I don’t know how you do your makeup without someone standing there showing you what to do the whole time. It’s very impressive. When it comes to your hair, do you think it’s just genetics, or do you credit the products you use/not washing it too frequently? What makes it so amazing?
Genetics, for sure. I think that’s the first thing. It’s just like when people say, “Oh my god, you have such incredible muscle definition.” a huge portion of that is - I’m not talking about me, I don’t! - I’m saying like my husband is genetically gifted. It’s the same thing with my hair. My whole family has amazing hair, so it’s genetics, first and foremost, and secondarily, I don’t put any heat on my hair ever unless I go get it blown out at Dry Bar. I don’t own a blow dryer. I don’t own a flat iron. It’s that, but also not washing it. When you overwash your hair, you strip out all the oils, then it just makes it need washing more often. It sounds counterintuitive, but the more you wash your hair, the more you need to wash. For me, when I’m working out, I just pin it on top of my head in a bun or a ponytail, and then dry shampoo the crap out of it and let it go for a few days.
I’m a little sad to hear that it’s mostly genetics, but I’m not surprised. Have you always had really long hair?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve definitely cut it throughout my life, but never short or anything. It’s generally been really long, like always at my low back.
That’s the thing I’m going to continue to follow your Instagram for: those hair pictures, so I can have hair envy every day. I noticed from your Instagram profile that you have a podcast now! Do you want to talk a little about that?
I’ve been kind of taking a break from it for about a month just because of everything, but it’s a podcast called Weirdly Specific. I was once asked, “What do you collect?” and I had to think about it. I guess I do collect small forks and spoons, like baby forks and spooks, I collect Lululemon, but I don’t have a collection. I had to actually think - what do I collect? And I think what I collect, and it inspired the idea for the podcast, I collect stories. I collect weird quirks that people have. I constantly am talking about or thinking about little tiny tidbits of information that people tell me. I want to absorb things like a sponge. I decided to start this podcast where myself and a guest come every week to talk about something weirdly specific that we either love or hate. It could be anything as random as merging into traffic at 5:00 pm, to bullet journaling, or one of my guests talked about Tarot cards and how they’re represented in books or television. It’s just really bizarre, specific things.
Between the podcast, your YouTube channel, and your very active Instagram, how do you delegate your time between platforms? Do you feel like it’s a difficult balance?
I think that I honestly over the past probably year, I’ve really loosened the reins on trying to have a social media following. It’s exhausting to try to maintain a social media presence, especially today, I started my account 6 or 7 years ago when Instagram wasn’t huge, and I think that’s how I started to grow a significant following then, but compared to the people that have grown now - you see people who have like 100, 200, 300k followers, their accounts are essentially advertisements. And that’s fine, If that’s their career, and that’s their business, then more power to them. But I have a career. I have a totally different life outside of a fitness Instagram any longer. When Marquez and Ondrea found me, I had a fitness account, and now I sort of have an account, and there are long-standing people who have been following me, and who are interested in my life. I think another one of the reasons my account sort of stopped growing was because I talk pretty significantly about feminism and about social justice, and about Black Lives Matter, and about rather progressive or maybe liberal ideals that people aren't always comfortable with. Especially in a community where, again, what is out in the public is lean, white bodies, and so when me, a white person, is calling out white privilege, and calling out wanting to dismantle white supremacy, and speaking about racism and feminism, these things are very controversial. There’s going to be people who are, without a doubt, going to be turned off to that. And so, I think I started to use my account very differently than how other maybe social media fitness influencers use it. I said, if I already have this platform, I’m going to talk about things that actually matter to me. So, I think that to answer your original question, my focus has shifted over the past year, more and more onto my career, and what I’m doing at work, and what I’m doing in my personal life. I just don't have the time or energy to invest in a social media account, especially because the rules of the game today have shifted. In order for you to maintain a sense of popularity, you essentially have to become a walking advertisement for sponsors and stuff like that. I’m not gonna play that game. That’s why I’m not going to be as popular as those accounts today.
I think that’s really admirable that you’re still determined to use your platform the way that you want to use it, despite how that might turn some people off. It’s great that you’re persevering with that, because that’s important. There are times, on Instagram and on your YouTube channel where you do get really raw and real. Is there ever an element of fear when you’re displaying that level of vulnerability?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve grown into myself over the past couple of years. Not just because of social media, just in general. Especially over the past month. I’ve really started to explore layers of myself that I never approached before. But yeah, I fear the judgement of other people. We all want to be loved, but in particular, exposing yourself and being honest about the struggles that you’re going through is hard, but it’s so necessary. I’m also an external thinker. The way that I process the world is through talking things out loud, and so having a social media account and having YouTube videos for me to explore and unpack various topics is important for me. There may be that fear of being vulnerable and being judged and having people not really understand you, whether they listen to you or not...Just because you’re in the same room with someone and explaining something to them, it doesn't mean they’re interpreting it the same way that you are. You can’t control that. I think that the freedom from exploring and unpacking that I do, and how necessary it is for me to do that, it supplants any fear that I have in being judged for being vulnerable. It’s like, which one is more important here? Yeah, I do fear the judgement for being vulnerable, but it’s more important for me to explore what I’m going through right now. That’s about my own self care. If what I end up unpacking helps someone else, then it doesn’t really matter that I’ve been vulnerable. And in fact, my vulnerability has very likely been extremely important for someone else because they’ve seen representation, or they’ve seen strength that they didn’t think they had either. So it’s more important for me to unpack, and be truthful, and be authentic.
I totally agree. I think it does reach a lot of people, and you never know exactly who you’re affecting with those words in that moment, but it for sure outweighs the fear. Of course, I have to ask you a little bit about your relationship with The Dough Bar! How did you meet Marquez and Ondrea?
Marquez reached out to me. He’d been following me on his own personal account for a while. At the time, gosh, I think this was 2015? At the time, they were doing “cheat day” size doughnuts, and then they had mini doughnuts and regular doughnuts. They were hand forming them. It was really interesting that they reached out to me. Something that I loved about Marquez and Ondrea from the very beginning was essentially that, no matter what we thought of the product, they were like, “Hey, we just want your honest review.” They didn’t even ask if we would post about it, they were like, “Honestly we just want your feedback personally. If you want to post about it, go for it.” They never pressured anyone, especially sponsored athletes, to post about anything. They always were just so kind and gracious and incredible and supporting, and they’re basically like my mom and dad. I love them so much. My husband and I went to their wedding. They’re incredible, wonderful people.
I know that the feeling is mutual! Thank you so much for talking to me today - you’ve been incredible! Is there anything else that you’d like to say while I have you?
Just how ridiculously proud of Marquez and Ondrea I am. Especially with the whole Shark Tank thing - we all knew it would come for them. We knew that they would get a big break, but it’s because of their choice to be so authentic and true. Even the way they privilege diversity on our team. Everyone comes from multiple sports, and there’s different races and genders, and they have been so kind, and honest, and giving. Because they have sowed so much in this business, that’s why they’re reaping so much reward. I just thank God for them everyday. They’re just incredible, incredible people. Honestly if I could call out anything, it would be that they are huge blessings. I adore them.
I cannot say enough positive things about Ilyssa. She’s incredibly grounded, thoughtfully spoken, and an all around lovely person. If you’d like to learn more about Ilyssa, you can find her on Instagram (@Ohilyssa) and YouTube at Ilyssa Fitness. Her podcast is called Weirdly Specific.