I want to introduce you guys to Mera Oliveria. I met this beautiful woman a few years ago when she got engaged to and then married an old friend of mine and I immediately loved her. Not only is she outwardly gorgeous and glowing, but she has a heart of gold and a strong faith that I admire so much. Mera went out of her way to share her eating disorder journey and recovery on my blog and I am so glad she did. Her bravery and transparency inspires and encourages me, and I'm so grateful she chose Black Finch as a platform to share her story. Read on and be amazed.
Hi Mera! First off, thank you for being a part of my blog! I am so thankful for you and for your willingness to share some of your story with us. I want my readers to know a little bit about you. Where are you from and what are you up to these days?
Hi Addi, thanks for allowing me to share. I love that you are shedding light on the taboo topic of eating disorders on your blog! I hope that it can bring healing and hope to many girls who might be silently struggling with this issue. I grew up in Southern Oregon, and that is where I live now with my husband and our five-month-old baby girl. Since having her, I have been spending as much time as I can soaking up her baby-ness and making art on the side.
How did you start modeling and how old were you when you started?
I started modeling when I was thirteen. My cousin and I were interested in it, so we visited an agency. I was terrible at sports, so at first I thought modeling would be something else I could pursue. I didn't have a huge interest in fashion at first, but I liked the idea of getting to dress up and take pictures. We did it for fun anyway because that was about the time digital cameras became easily accessible. (I think I'm dating myself by that. Yeah, I'm like 27.)
Tell me about your experience modeling. What was it like initially? Did you feel the pressures to get/stay thin right away?
I started taking modeling seriously when I was around fifteen. When I was sixteen, I signed with a New York agency and then signed with two other agencies in Japan and went to work in Osaka and Tokyo. As I got more acquainted with the industry, I was drawn to how unique high fashion was and how the models were portrayed in magazines. I think every girl wants to feel pretty, and when someone tells you that you meet the world's standard, it does feels good. Although that doesn't actually mean much, as I will explain, it was especially impacting to be told that at a young age. I think that was a huge driving factor for me. I remember my first professional photo shoot at thirteen and becoming a lot more aware of my body that day. Although there are many girls who naturally have the body type that the modeling industry requires of them, I wasn't naturally as thin as that. When I first got my measurements taken to put on my comp cards (what they call a model's card that has her measurements and pictures from her portfolio on it), I was told I needed to lower them. I was given ''goal measurements'' for a bust, waist and hip size that all models at my height were expected to have. That became the standard for me as I went on, but I had no idea how to obtain that when I was thirteen, until I became obsessed with my weight.
Can you tell us more about your eating disorder experience? How did it develop and when did you realize it had become a problem?
As I turned fifteen, I started seeing more and more how I was not meeting the requirements. I started holding myself to this standard much more strongly. I noticed where my body was not ''perfect'' and compared myself to my modeling friends who were just naturally very skinny. I remember looking at one of my friend's thighs when we were driving to a casting call in LA. She was sitting next to me and I was comparing the size of my leg with hers. My thigh was so much bigger in my mind than hers. I felt like I could never reach the standard of beauty and acceptance unless I was as skinny as her.
Back home, it all started subtly. I just stopped eating certain foods and exercising a little everyday after school. I saw some gradual weight loss that made me feel like I was making progress. Then my friends at school noticed that I was not eating during lunch or only eating an orange or half a health bar. Soon, the foods I was avoiding became completely ''off limits'' and the list of restricted food started growing until I only allowed myself to eat lettuce and chicken. At the same time, my exercise habits became more consuming. My family had gotten a treadmill for another reason, so I started walking on it everyday. I went from just doing an hour of cardio every day to adding persistently walking on the treadmill while I did all my homework and watched TV. Basically I was always walking on that thing in an obsessive way.
Seeing the changes in my body was not the fuel that was pushing me to do this. Actually, the more I lost, the bigger and more imperfect I saw myself in the mirror. Although the scale showed me getting more and more underweight, I just could not see it. The anxiety was what was driving me, the anxiety of not being good enough and not meeting this standard I had in my head. If I ever let myself eat anything other than chicken and lettuce, I felt like an utter failure so I would try to counteract that by exercising more to ''work it off''. I had in my mind that even one bite of something ''bad'' would make me ''get fat''. (I'm putting all of these words in quotations because they were such a dominating factor to my thought process, that was obviously distorted.) Eventually the amount I exercised built up to the point that I would not allow myself to eat even a bite of chicken unless I had ran on the treadmill going at least 6 mph on the highest possible incline for twenty minutes or more, and then do the same thing after I'd eat it. It was summer, so I could spend all of my time focused on this. On top of that, I'd run more during the day and then walked at least three hours on the treadmill at night reading or watching TV. It was the only thing that would make the anxiety stop.
You might wonder if my family noticed. They did, but it appeared to them like I was extremely set on reaching my goals in the modeling industry. I remember my mom asking me if I was starving myself and I said no because I was still eating a small amount of chicken (about one chicken breast a day). My family made comments, but nothing was going to easily change my mind anyways.
I was 102 pounds at the worst point, and being 5 foot 8, grossly underweight. Still, because of my curvier body type, I looked like a lot of girls naturally do without starving themselves, so it was not obvious to everyone. I noticed it was a problem when I was in New York at a modeling convention and I was looking in the mirror. I had finally made it there. But when I looked in the mirror, I thought I was so far from what I should be. I was looking at my body disgusted by what I saw and I started pinching my ''fat'' so hard that I bruised myself pretty badly. But it wasn't fat at all, it was just my skin.
What was the wake up call and turning point for you?
Later that week, I had met with the agent that was going to sign me to work in Asia. She was taking my measurements and noticed the distain I had towards my body by the comments I was making. I was actually a bit smaller than some of the required measurements at that point. She looked at me seriously and told me I needed to be careful. I encountered some of the very stereotypical people of the modeling industry, one who even told me I should have jaw surgery done in order to get more work, but I also met a lot of others who were caring like this, aware of the grueling and unrealistic standards put forth by their industry. But when I heard this particular agent tell me to be careful, that was when I noticed I had an issue, even though it didn't cause a huge change for me right at that moment. I didn't know then how to break myself away from thinking the way I did. But because someone who defined this standard I was holding myself to was telling me that I needed to be cautious, I realized maybe this body type was a mirage after all. It didn't help that I was signing with agencies and booking a lot of work when I was that thin.
After the conversation I had with that agent was when I went to Japan. There it was hard for me to maintain my rigorous exercising. The anxious thoughts of failing became so prevalent that I started to compulsively binge eat because of them. I completed my contract and then went home. But the thinking and compulsive patterns were engrained. This pattern of compulsively eating became solidified so strongly that, of course, I gained back weight. By no means was I even overweight, in fact I was still below average then, but my measurements no longer fit the standard requirements for the modeling industry. I believed I was an absolute failure because I had gained weight. I started binge eating as well as eating things in secret because, in my mind, it was shameful to eat food. My hope was that I would lose the weight again while I finished up high school and then go back to modeling after my senior year. (I had been doing school online while I traveled.) But the anxiety and binge eating was taking over and I couldn't control it. I was in a vicious cycle of constantly feeling terrible about myself because of eating food, and nothing could break it. I was tormented and trapped by feeling like meeting these unreachable standards was the purpose of my life. I got very depressed and started having suicidal thoughts over it. That was when I really knew something in me had to change.
Tell me about your recovery, because I know it is different for everyone. What was the hardest part and how long did it take for you to get to where you are now?
It was not until I met Jesus that I found freedom from all of my eating disorder behaviors. My recovery from my eating disorder is defined by my reconciliation with God. The two just cannot be separated. Trust me, I had always been offended by Jesus, but when He made Himself known to me at that point, I could not deny His power to save. To tell you the whole story would make this extremely long(er), but one major point was when I eventually read a bible I had been given when I graduated high school, after avoiding it for as long as I could. On thing I read said, ''Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.'' My thought patterns needed to be transformed. But I found this renewal could not be done by my own doing. It had to be done by the work of Jesus in my life as I trusted Him. It was like the bible says, ''If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here.'' But the biggest breakthrough overall was later down the line when God revealed that this whole time I had been allowing the opinions of the modeling industry define my worth rather than the opinion of Jesus, which was expressed by the act of the cross (the ultimate declaration of our worth to Him, willingly dying to redeem us).
The hardest parts were the moments when I felt like I would never be able overcome my eating disorder. But the other big breakthrough I had was when I read that a product of the Spirit of God at work is self control. I realized that if I have been given the Spirit of God through the power of Jesus, then I no longer had to be a slave to my eating disorder. Through prayer and relying on God, I took back control of my eating.
The other huge aspect to my healing was journaling all of this down throughout the process. Every time I had a reoccurring episode, I would go write down what triggered it. Eventually I started to see more thought patterns and could begin to break free from their control. I started to pin-point what exactly was bringing on the anxious thoughts and decided to set my mind on the things above. I can only contribute this to the working power of God's grace at work in me.
It was not an overnight process. Over all, from the beginning to the point of my major breakthroughs, was almost a six-year time period. It has been almost another six years since those breakthroughs and I still have to actively take my thoughts captive when it comes to thinking about my body image. The idea that ''thin is beautiful'' is so deeply engrained in our culture, that the verse I quoted above, telling us to no longer be conformed to the patterns of this world, is even more applicable. There have been times of wrestling and heartache and times of great victory and joy. But over time, I have found that healing comes in layers. After the immediate washing away of brokenness, there are small fractures you find as you bear more of life. When I got married and my body became my husband's, more layers were discovered and healed. Then the same thing happened again when I got pregnant and my body allowed my daughter to have life. And still, I find myself in situations and relationships where I have to readjust where my worth is found. But I am confident that Jesus is the only one who heals the whole person- body, mind and spirit. My relationship with Him didn't address only my eating disorder, but every aspect and fracture of my life. He has the power to break every chain, bringing liberty to the captives and recovering the sight of the blind. I can totally attest to that.
You have said that you think EDs come with a lot of preconceived ideas and expectations, especially from people who have never experienced it. I totally agree with you and think it is hard to just talk about them in groups of people because of that. If you could change one thing about what people tend to assume or prejudge about EDs, what would it be or what would you tell them?
I would tell them that there is a broad spectrum of eating disorders. Eating disorders aren't only bulimia or anorexia. An eating disorder is a psychological disorder indicated by your relationship to food being disturbed or abnormal, with of course, a huge range of severity within that. I would add that it takes control of your life (or in other words, it's an obsession that keeps you from living a conventional life). For example, there is such a thing as Binge Eating Disorder (B.E.D.), a real medical condition that is not associated with the extreme behaviors of throwing up or restricting food. It is actually the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder among U.S. adults today. Yet, it is widely unheard of. Based on my own discussions, I have found that a lot of people who have had E.D.s have encountered B.E.D. behaviors within their experiences. The restriction period of my eating disorder did not last as long as the compulsive binging behaviors, which went on for a long time. I personally think that E.D.s are as diverse as the people who experience them- all of them are unique.
With that being said, if someone tells you they had an eating disorder, or that they currently have one, the physical state of their body is not necessarily and indicating factor. Eating disorders are much deeper than the skin. I don't talk about my history very often because I don't like the immediate once-over people make with their eyes. And usually people don't know that the words ''eating disorder'' mean more than only anorexia or bulimia. It's not like they portray it in the movies.
To learn more about the extent of eating disorders, check out this link where it lists sub-categories of eating disorders as well.
I really admire and appreciate your open-ness and willingness to share your experience with other people in the hopes to help and encourage those who may be going through something similar or are just struggling with body image. What advice would you give to people who have an ED or who are just struggling with body image?
If you have an eating disorder, reach out to someone who can come along side you. There is always hope and I know that you can get through this and be freed from it. Seek psychological help. I know it is almost impossible to believe, but your weight is not worth dying over, you are beautiful.
To anyone who struggles with body image, and I am speaking to myself here, you must know that true beauty is not a standard the world can define. You were made in the image of God, the reflection of the Creator within all of creation. Because you were created by God, intricately knitted together with reverence, every part of you carefully thought out, you are beautiful. Period. I don't care that everything in you and the world tells you otherwise. That's the truth. So stop judging yourself and other people by the screwed up standards put forth by our society. Like most vices, achieving the objectives of vanity is only a fleeting pleasure. It is here today and gone tomorrow.
Another thing I would tell you is to avoid dieting. I know, that also sounds crazy in today's world. But I had to learn to think of the word ''diet'' as everything I consumed overall. Instead of making restricted dieting plans, make your ''diet'' an everyday-diet that consist of healthy foods and allows everything in moderation. The yo-yo-like thinking of dieting was the beginning of my eating disorder patterns. When you're ''off'' the strict diet, it is easy to start binging on all the things you left out before. So instead, slowly enjoy all the food you eat and put in to place healthy, realistic guidelines to take care of your health and your body. If you ate a doughnut, I hope it was good! Don't condemn yourself, just switch it up the next day.
Also, stop comparing yourself to other girls' bodies. I've read that this is the first era in history where women are expected to be so thin. I'm going to share a Melissa McCarthy quote I just read. She said, ''There's an epidemic [among] our girls and women feeling bad about themselves based on what 0.05% of the human race looks like.'' I would add that it's 0.05% of humans and a bunch of manikins without any extremities. It's just not reality. When God created you, He wasn't thinking that He would make you better or worse than [insert that girl's name here]. He was creating an intricate being who is more than their weight-to-height ratio.
You don't have to feel bad about yourself anymore because of what the world says about your body! You are loved by God. The opinion of Jesus is the only opinion that matters in the end of it all. Look at what His opinion says of you- His love for you was so great that He willingly died on the cross to redeem you from the brokenness of sin. Your weight does not define you! Neither does your nose, your butt, the length of your toes. You were created by God and He died to redeem you. That's your true worth. Nothing else.
Lastly, I think it's wonderful that you have a beautiful daughter that you get to encourage to be her healthiest self and to love how she was created. What is the most important thing you want to share or do with your daughter as she grows up to encourage her to have a healthy body image?
That's a really good question... The most important thing I want my daughter to know is that she is not defined by anything other than the love of Jesus on the cross. If I could rewind my life, I would have avoided so many unfortunate decision if I had known and lived by this truth. I want her to cherish her body because it is God-given. As her mom, I know that I must take my own advice and stop shaming my body as well. I don't want her to see me looking in the mirror and rolling my eyes at my cellulite, or that pregnancy temporarily made my stomach skin look like the inside of a ripe summer squash (lol transparency here). I want her to know that life is about more than how she looks. I don't want her to see people who have fuller body types as ''less-than'' or ''ugly'' and make comments about them behind their backs. I want her to see herself and all others by the definition of the cross. When I look at her five-month-old self now, I know that she has no idea what body image is yet. It's scary to think that society is going to have a part in shaping that for her. It just goes to show us how impacting our society is in defining what beauty is to us. We can choose to believe these fake portrayals of beauty that are displayed in magazines, or we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds and look to the cross, the place beauty is defined. John Piper said in an article I read about ''self-love'' that all of a person's perceived discontent stems from their failure to attain what they value most. With that said, I hope to guide my daughter not to put great value in the things of outward beauty, those that the world will tell her she can never truly obtain; but to value the things that Christ freely gives.