I didn’t always want to be an actress. Up until my twenties, my main goal was to be as fast and strong as possible.
After running track in high school and college, I was competing professionally in the 100 hurdles and long jump events, with my eyes on the Olympics.
Then, a stress fracture put me out of commission. Having my dream ripped away from me wasn’t just devastating; it was confusing. I had no idea what else I could do or wanted to do with my life.
For about a year, I was seriously depressed. I just stopped working out altogether and started to feel my body get soft, and I didn’t really care. I felt like I was in a dark hole that I couldn’t see out of—there was no future for me outside of track. I didn’t have a plan B.
At one point, my sports manager suggested I try athletic modeling. I gave it a shot, and I actually liked it. I realized I could channel the energy and passion I’d had for being an athlete into another super-competitive challenge: being a model and actress. I became active again, and things were looking up.
“I was confident in my thighs because I was looking at them as an athlete—they were powerful and explosive.”
Still, the career transition wasn’t easy. I didn’t have the “typical” model body; even as a fitness model, agents and clients were telling me my thighs were too big and too muscular. I wasn’t a size 2.
I learned that there’s a big difference between being an actual athlete and looking the “right way” in athletic clothes. It was strange to hear all this negative talk because I liked my body. I was confident in my thighs because I was looking at them as an athlete—they were powerful and explosive.
But I started to worry about it when I was losing roles because of how my body looked. It slowly chipped away at my confidence. I had started working out again, and then I was told to stop so I’d lose muscle. It was crazy!
I wasn’t able to do the things that made me feel good, and even though I lost weight, I still wasn’t getting roles. I realize now it’s because I was walking into the audition room and trying to be someone else. I was never going to be my most confident self if I couldn’t embrace being athletic. It felt like people were telling me to be less—to get rid of part of me.
“Now, I look back on my injury, and I’m proud of how it shaped me.”
I eventually ignored the feedback that I needed to look a certain way, and I just let my body be what it was. I vowed to keep working out, and if people didn’t like It, I decided I’d show them the door.
It’s no coincidence that that’s when I finally started getting the acting jobs I had always wanted—ones where I got to use my body and strength. I was playing cops and badass women with physically demanding roles. Then I landed GLOW, where I play a pro wrestler, which was huge. If I hadn’t embraced my background and my body type, I never would have gotten where I am today.
Now, I look back on my injury, and I’m proud of how it shaped me. I don’t look at where I’m at with acting, or anything in life, and think, “I’m set.” I know that things could change at any moment, and I don’t take the opportunities I’ve received for granted.
I’m always hungry for the next project and reaching for more. And I’m at a place where, instead of questioning my confidence and my body, I trust that strength to help me get there.
This essay is based on an interview conducted by Kristin Canning.
Sydelle Noel is an actress on Netflix’s Glow and is a former college athlete.
For more inspiration from Sydelle, pick up a copy of Women’s Health‘s “Naked Truth” issue, on newsstands now.
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