I technically had an eating disorder.
I say, “technically,” because I knew I wasn’t fat and didn’t need to lose weight. I never once looked in the mirror and had a distorted view of myself. I physically saw myself for what I was. I knew I was thin and consciously chose to make myself dangerously skinny.
But before I get too far into this pivotal moment in my life, I should first go back to the beginning.
Body of origin
I was a full-term baby born at a healthy weight and height but grew to be long and lean. As a child, I was a picky eater yet I never missed a meal, had a healthy appetite and genuinely enjoyed food and family mealtime. Still, it was clear my frame was built on the “small bone” side, physically embodying more of my father’s Hispanic genes (Mexican) rather than my mother’s European ancestry (Irish and Polish).
From a young age, I knew I was skinny because my maternal relatives would pinch my behind and “affectionately” call me, “boney butt.” They’d openly talk about me or even to me about how “tiny,” “boney,” or skinny I was. Looking back, I can’t blame them. There are pictures where I do look more like a starving child in a third-world country than a healthy girl from an American working-class family.
I was also a very shy kid and never labeled myself an introvert until I was a grown adult. Likewise, I gravitated towards organization, order, routine, and cleanliness and despised anything dirty, messy, or out-of-place.* I believe my parents recognized these qualities in me early on and chose to enroll me in dance class to utilize them. Perhaps they thought the discipline and physical/emotional expression displayed in dance may help me break out of my comfort zone while strengthening my natural gifts of leadership and determination.
I don’t think my parents anticipated that I would fall in love with dance. As someone who has always been a “deep soul,” a dreamer, and a romantic, dance gave me an outlet to creatively express myself without saying a word. Dance is a huge part of what makes me “me,” but like a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing can bring out the worst in people.
For instance, dance never did “cure” my shyness. Quite the contrary, I hated being in the spotlight and having all eyes on me. Even today, I prefer not to be the center of attention. Moreover, I believe dance revealed my biggest bent – perfectionism – and then intensified it. Perfectionism is the root of my evil and explains so much of my life’s experiences, including my ongoing battle with image and identity.
You are what you eat
Besides dance, my parents made sure my siblings and I were very active in physical activities. Whether that meant playing outside, swimming in our backyard pool, or participating in sports, we were always moving around or physically doing something. I am grateful my parents prioritized creative play, outdoor adventures and physical activity over watching TV or playing video games.
I would say my family ate healthy…ish. We always had fresh fruit with our lunch and fresh or frozen (but never canned) vegetables with our dinner, although there was also a noticeable presence of bread and sugar. My dad cooked most of my family’s meals and grew a garden every summer (he maintains a thriving garden today). My dad is a fantastic cook who spent his entire career as a firefighter cooking communal meals for his station. Even so, he also loves heavy food, especially fried food and fast-food (can’t really blame him!). I have fond memories of my dad picking me and my siblings up from school at lunch time to hit Burger King or Pizza Hut (to redeem our Book-It personal pizzas, remember those?!) before returning us to school. As well, he would drop off hot Pizza Rolls or oven-cooked chicken nuggets wrapped in tinfoil to my elementary school’s front office so I could have a special “hot lunch” instead of the questionable food traditionally served in school cafeterias.
Additionally, my entire family enjoys going out to eat. Who doesn’t, right? One thing I really respect that my parents did was they never allowed my siblings and I to order kids meals and we rarely had anything other than water to drink with our meals. When we’d go out to restaurants or would hit the fast-food line, my parents would always order a bunch of food for our family to share. There were times when I may have wanted something other than what my parents ordered, but truthfully, I was more grateful to have the chance to eat “out” than I was bitter over the fact that I didn’t have my own kid’s meal and instead had to share my food with the rest of the fam. I attribute this parental “strategy” to my preference for more “mature” food and have adapted the same rule with my kids today. As a result, my own children request deluxe pizza over cheese (or even pepperoni) pizza and appreciate sauteed mushrooms, garden-fresh BLTS and bruschetta, spicy foods and so much more.
I ate a pretty balanced diet as a kid and came from a family that always had dessert after dinner. (I incorporate dessert after dinner in my own family, but only if my children eat all of their protein and vegetables at dinner and have also maintained positive behavior throughout that specific day). The importance of fresh produce and protein was instilled in me early on and never escaped me. My parents were more lenient with sugar than I am as a parent, yet they also encouraged and at times, possibly mandated, physical activity as part of a balanced lifestyle. Whether or not they personally practiced regular exercise and healthy eating, they both knew that diet and exercise work hand-in-hand for total body wellness.
I was never told certain foods were off-limits, but I was taught that certain foods should be consumed in moderation. This was directly demonstrated to me as a child when we dined out. I never expected or felt entitled to my own meal. Furthermore, because my family didn’t dine out every night or even a few times a week, I grew to view restaurants, and especially fast-food, as a treat rather than an everyday food, meal, or expectation. As an adult today, I instill the same mentality in myself and my children – all foods can be eaten, some foods in moderation, and sharing meals is important to expand one’s palette while focusing on portion control, community, and financial and social responsibility (i.e. not indulging beyond one’s financial means nor indulging in more food than necessary for one’s body and the greater planet).
Alright…the eating disorder.
As I forementioned, I had zero issues with eating or maintaining a healthy weight. That is, until I reached puberty. I uneagerly welcomed Aunt Flo while I was in 6th grade and at the ripe age of twelve. In a matter of months, I went from 4’10” and 65lbs to 95lbs and 5’5” (my current height today). It was a crazy transformation and came at an unfortunate time in my life when I was smack dab in my bully phase (which I’ve talked about many times before, but plan to discuss in further detail in the future), had a full mouth of braces plus 5 rubber bands (including one long diagonal one that stretched from top left to bottom right) and was in the process of growing out both my bangs and my perm. It was 1998, I was obsessed with smiley face memorabilia, butterfly clips, platform shoes, and Hanson…let’s just say, it wasn’t the highlight of my life.
To my mother’s credit, she was supportive of my ever-changing body and never once made me feel like the weight and height I had gained was unnatural or unhealthy even though my boobs were disproportionately large for my age and I was one of the tallest individuals in my grade.
It wasn’t until I had reached 8th grade that I began to question everything I thought I knew. I will never forget the day. My 8th grade class was attending a weeklong retreat and the fourteen-year-old hormones were running rampant. I was walking on a trail with a small group of guys and girls when my frenemy made the comment about traveling via girl-on-guy piggyback.
“You’re too big to go on Jim’s** back so why don’t you go on Nick’s.**”
I remember feeling a bunch of things in that moment.
Angry. Jealous. Confused.
I wanted to ride on Jim’s back. Of all the guys in the group he was by far the smallest, though physically fit and fully capable, while Nick was the largest (in height, weight, and stature). Yes, I had a crush on Jim but what pissed me off was that my frenemy weighed more than me. (Note: She was not heavy. She and I were comparable height, but we were built physically different – she was leaner and more muscular while I was skinnier and lankier.) I knew there was no way that Jim could possibly hold her and not me and suspected he could carry either of us without a problem. That didn’t matter, though, because she also had a crush on Jim and claimed him that day by throwing me under the bus, or rather, on Nick’s back, as she giddily took off on the trail, on Jim’s back.
[Ugh. The teen years are truly the worst.]
From that moment on, I became fixated with my appearance.
I wanted to be smaller than my frenemy as well as prettier, smarter, better dressed, and more liked. I had succeeded by the end of 8th grade (thanks in part to finally getting my braces off and growing out my hair!) but internally, I was hurting both emotionally and with my physical health. I remember my period had disappeared, along with my boobs, during those tumultuous months. Seeing pictures from that short period of time, my weight loss is noticeable in my face, neck/collarbone and overall frame. The “boney butt” term of endearment was downgraded to simply, “boney.” I looked sick.
I had lost the weight quickly by calorie restriction and exercise (I was dancing and playing competitive volleyball at the time). I would eat in public but a fraction of what I was accustomed to. I never once purged and never had an interest in doing so. By this description, I suffered from anorexia nervosa though I have a hard time believing that I had a mental illness.*** It’s hard for me to admit that my eating order was a mental illness because I knew what I was doing. I knew I wasn’t overweight, I just wanted to be better (in every sense of the word) than my frenemy. My bent towards perfectionism and the competitive nature of my relationship with my frenemy supports the personal reckoning I did to myself.
I don’t remember how much weight I had lost during those months. I do recall weighing in the low 90lb range (after breaking 100lbs sometime during 8th grade) and my mom threatening to send me to a treatment center if I didn’t gain weight. So I did. I don’t remember kicking or screaming about it, I just gradually started eating more food. By the time I started my freshman year of high school I was still considered skinny, but was back to a healthy weight.
I haven’t been under-weight since.
I was a competitive cheerleader throughout high school and danced collegiately and professionally as a college student. My sweet tooth may have grown sweeter during those years, but my level of physical activity was quite possibly at its peak. I was very fortunate to have had the ability to maintain a healthy weight while essentially eating whatever I wanted. It was a beautiful thing!
However, I had a very unhealthy image of my body when I danced professionally for the national Arena Football League. The experience jacked me up for almost a decade after.
We practiced at a large gym, similar to a Lifetime Fitness, in a dance studio that overlooked the full-size basketball court. On the wall of the basketball court was a massive poster of my dance team (there were also individual posters of the dancers outside of the arena we performed at along with numerous team posters, advertisements, etc. sprinkled throughout my city’s greater area). It is safe to say that being on that team made me somewhat of a local icon or at least locally recognizable. As someone who loathed being the center of attention, I did not enjoy this aspect of my professional dance career. I recall receiving double-takes while venturing around town but the place where I was the most recognized (other than at the home arena where we performed) was at the gym we practiced at.
Even though my team would often have large groups of people observing us practice (through the fish-bowl type windows that surrounded our dance studio), my coach wouldn’t change her tone or instruction style. She would bark out commands, openly pick on dancers who were making mistakes, examine our bodies, publicly weigh us on a scale, and other acts of humiliation. I only danced on this team for one year, but as a rookie and one of the youngest dancers on the team, I was a prime candidate for the coach’s criticism.
Leading up to that year, I was still thin but overall, healthy. I knew I wasn’t fat. I ate whatever I wanted, exercised about 5-6 times a week, had a decent social life, and would look in the mirror and genuinely be content with what I saw. Nevertheless, my body image changed at my very first professional dance practice.
My coach would single out each individual dancer and verbally assess our individual bodies (including hair style, hair color, any skin that created the look of a muffin top, the faux tans many of us had…or didn’t…) and for the first time I saw my body as having “problem areas.”
For me, it was my boyish shape and my flat butt that made me stand out like a sore thumb amidst the more curvy or mature shapes of my dance peers. At first, coach thought I wasn’t able to keep up with the rest of the dancers because my body didn’t look or move like the rest of them (specifically, during the hip-hop styles of dance with booty poppin’). In the beginning of the season, Coach mandated I come to the studio for extra practice with her and a veteran dancer.
Watching those videos made me cringe (and still does today), but it also showed me that my coach was insane – I was not the terrible dancer she made me out to be. Rather, my dancing looked different from the others because my body physically looked different. I tried numerous exercises to lift and shape my pancake butt, to no avail. Coach didn’t care and the constant comments continued throughout the season and one game I even got benched from our opening routine because I couldn’t “pop it” like the rest of the girls. I was mortified.
Coach would also weigh us prior to every game we performed at as well as during any practice she felt the need to. I never had a problem with the weigh-ins and was consistent with my weight, however, some girls weren’t as lucky. I will never forget my one teammate who I’ll call, Red. Red was the shortest on our team, but she loved to eat and would regularly be snacking on something.
What stuck with me, though, was her ongoing battle with staying at or under her “weight limit.” She was always pushing it and my coach would openly question what she was eating. The common thread of her food intake was tied back to Asian food, particularly, Chinese food such as fried rice and orange chicken. After several threats from the coach to Red, my coach decided to give the entire team a sermon on the “dangers” of Chinese food (MSG, sodium, etc.) and it terrified me. I refused to eat any type of Asian food until I was pregnant with my son [nearly a decade later] and had the uncontainable craving for Asian cuisine.
About two years later, I was a married college graduate living in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX. At that time, the reality television show, Making the Team, was quite popular. Making the Team documented the audition process of becoming a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader as well as the team’s practice and performance season. As a young twenty-something with a dance background, I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t make the most of the moment and audition for the DCC.
Without recapping the entire experience, I will disclose this – I got cut in the first round of auditions. Apparently, the panel of judges believed I couldn’t get my body “DCC-ready” in a specific amount of time. I knew my body was “softer” than it was when I danced for the Arena Football League but saw this as a cheap excuse to eliminate me from the audition process. I knew I was one of the (many) better dancers who auditioned, though I did not look the part in front of the camera. (I wore a basic sports bra and Lycra shorts when the majority of the DCC hopefuls wore $100+ blinged-out performance costumes…speaking to several of them, I had learned there was a whole crew of girls who repeatedly auditioned year after year for a spot on the team. Many of those girls were also from the southern pageant circuit.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to have auditioned for DCC but am more grateful I never made the team. Upon learning my DCC fate, I called up my husband and met him at a local pizzeria where I happily ate 3 large NY-style slices.
I never looked back.
The shape of me
I never knew what a calorie was until I began restricting them back in 8th grade. In high school and in college, I continued to focus on calorie counting and tried to stay within a daily 1500 calorie goal.**** It wasn’t until my mid-20s, and my first pregnancy, that I began to take a real interest in proper nutrition. While pregnant with my first-born, I obtained both my fitness and licensed nutrition certifications and started a small pre- and post- natal fitness company. It was around that time that I also developed a passion for cooking. That flame has been fanned into a blazing fire ever since.
It took me awhile to get to a healthy place of body positivity. I attribute my journey to recovery to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and His mighty power to redeem and restore. My nutrition education also contributed to my maintenance of a consistently healthy weight in my adulthood. In fact, it’s interesting to note that my weight has hovered within 5lbs of what I weighed on my wedding day fourteen years ago. Additionally, I had the same starting weight with each of my five pregnancies and gained exactly 29lbs with every pregnancy.*****
Physical activity has always been a part of my life and continues to be today. I prioritize exercise as part of my lifestyle and strive to exercise 3-4 days a week. I also try to maintain a diet that is 80% “clean” and 20% carefree, because y’all know I love my restaurants, desserts, wine and cocktails! Most importantly though, I look in the mirror today and have both honor and respect for the body I’ve been gifted and all that it has been through.
After getting married and having five children, my body shape has certainly changed but my appreciation for my body has only grown.
Besides growing and birthing five children, I experienced a few health challenges as an adult which included melanoma, a 15mth breast cancer scare, and the diagnosis of the incurable eye condition, coloboma. Each of these experiences, along with the “body story” I detailed above, has influenced my perspective on overall health and well-being. Likewise, I believe each situation I experienced occurred to serve a greater purpose as I parent my five children. I cherish being a mom and seek to be a positive role model for each of my children, especially my four daughters. I know all of my kids are listening to the words I say and are watching how I treat my body as well as my personal relationship with food and exercise. I don’t want anything I do to ever affect them negatively.
After all I’ve been through, I am sensitive and acutely aware of the dangers that negative body image can inflict on a person as well as its damage on a formidable mind. Negative body talk is not tolerated in my home. Period. My experience has taught me that words, facial expressions, and physical actions matter. So do images, especially the images of “filtered perfection” and hyper-sexualized celebrities and “influencers” seen so often on social media today. Everyone’s body is uniquely designed and comes with its own unique strengths and challenges but is a powerful machine and a beautiful creation nonetheless. I desire for each of my children to love the skin they are in and the body God has gifted them with.
Lord, help me to instill a positive body appreciation in each of my children even when the world will attempt to skew what You deem to be good, right and true.
For me, it was the perfect storm of perfectionism, competitiveness, need for control, and societal inspiration that led to my eating disorder (as a young teen) and negative body image (as a young adult). Sure, I wanted to look good, but I also wanted to be the best.
I’ve admitted to this many times before and I’ll mention it again – I was deeply influenced by culture during my life before Christ. I spent countless hours reading trashy magazines like Tiger Beat, Seventeen and Cosmo, watching TRL music videos and admiring the fun, flirty, and thin supermodels, pop stars, and teen actresses. I desired to be like them and I wanted the success, image, body, and boyfriends they had, so I embodied their behavior and lifestyle as best as my young and naïve self could.
It was toxic. All of it.
I have often thought of “young me” and how my experiences could have been different. I also think of how “young me” would be if she were living today and let me just say, I am SO THANKFUL social media was not around when I was growing up! Culture played a large role in my life story and I know culture is primed to influence my children’s stories as well.
Understanding culture’s influence is the heartbeat behind my ministry. I truly believe “we are what we eat.” For better or for worse, the content we consume ends up consuming us. Throughout the rest of July, I will be dedicating several editorials to addressing issues of the body and how current culture is shaping body image today.
Stick with me, friend 🙂
*The labels “Type A” and “perfectionist” were never used to directly describe my personality when I was child, but I acknowledge today that perfectionism is my biggest sinful bent. I didn’t even know what perfectionism was, nor did I admit suffering from it, until I was a married adult with kids. When I eventually discovered, accepted and understood my introverted personality as well as my natural bent towards perfectionism, I obtained so much wisdom and insight into my life before Christ.
**I changed the names to protect their identity.
***Yes, I am aware people may say that not acknowledging my disorder as a mental illness is proof that I had a mental illness. Even so, the fact that I never saw, thought or believed my body was fat or overweight makes me feel that my condition was not a complete mental health disorder but rather was a product of my competitive, perfectionist nature. If it was a true mental health condition, I am grateful to have fully recovered and to have received healing and restoration through Christ.
****As an adult today, I average 2500 calories per day, sometimes more and sometimes less. I absolutely love good food, drinks and any reason to splurge or celebrate!
*****In case you’re wondering, healthy pregnancy weight gain for a woman who was a healthy weight pre-pregnancy is 25-35lbs