If you were to meet Fadia Perez today, you’d describe her as nothing short of stunning. She’s tall and lean, with high cheekbones, a figure that most women would envy, shiny jet-black hair, and a magazine-quality smile. Not surprisingly, she’s been encouraged many times in the past decade to pursue a modeling career, and she even considered it seriously once or twice. But it wasn’t always that way for Fadia. She was born in Mexico City, where she lived with her mother, grandmother, and younger sister. Like her mother before her, she struggled with her weight as a child.
By the age of twelve, she weighed sixty pounds more than she does now in her thirties. And that led to an understandably difficult childhood. She explains, “At the time, I’d been a fat kid as long as I could remember. I was never comfortable with myself. My mom made me wear these cheesy dresses because they were the only ones I could fit into. I had stretch marks on my legs, so I was embarrassed to go swimming. I had to wear long shorts instead of a swimsuit. And the other kids would call me names like ‘meatball.’ In sports, I wasn’t just the last one picked. I wasn’t picked at all. The teacher usually had to place me on a team. Then the other kids would say, ‘Awww, not the fat girl! We’re going to lose for sure now!’ I usually ended up just playing with my sister.
“My mother always taught me to pray for what I wanted. So every night I would pray, ‘Oh God, please, please, please, make me slim.’ When I woke up, I’d keep my eyes closed and pray again, ‘Please let me be slim now.’ Then I would open my eyes and pull down the sheets and cry when I saw that I was still fat.”
One day Fadia’s mother had seen enough. She said to her daughter, “I don’t want you to suffer like me. The teenage years are worse. I’m going to take you to the doctor. You’re going on a serious diet.” And she did. For the next six months, there was no candy or milkshakes. She followed a sensible diet and exercised. How did she like it? “I hated it,” she admitted. “And at the time I hated my mother for making me do it.” It must have been difficult not to be able to eat the same foods as the other kids at school. And to not enjoy candy at all seemed cruel to her at the time.
But by the end of six months, Fadia had lost fifty pounds. For the first time in her life, at the age of thirteen, she felt pretty. Instead of baggy dresses, she got to wear cute tops and slim jeans, and she looked and felt good in them. And she didn’t have to suffer any more “fat girl” comments at school. She liked who she was for the first time. As a result, Fadia learned the value of discipline and sticking to a plan. She learned that achieving a worthy goal requires hard work. And instead of being resentful of her mother for making her go through it, she was grateful and has thanked her many times in the years since.
Unfortunately, Fadia’s newfound body and healthy body image didn’t last.
The following year was a tough one for Fadia’s family. Her mother lost her job and money was tight. As much as a parent tries to hide such things from her children, it still creates stress. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps for no reason at all, Fadia started feeling fat again. Only she wasn’t. “I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a fat image of me. I saw a big belly and big hips. I felt ugly. None of my clothes seemed to fit right anymore. I was getting more insecure.” So even though she was now eating a healthy diet, she started cutting back on her food. First she cut out tortillas, then beans. And when Grandma was making dinner, Fadia would say, “Just give me half a portion, please.”
But once she noticed Fadia’s weight falling, Grandma would say, “You’re getting too skinny. I’m giving you a full portion.” And that’s when Fadia started lying about what she ate. “I would tell my mom that I had breakfast when I hadn’t. And I started hiding food in my clothes or in plastic bags or flushing it down the toilet. I became mentally obsessed with the next meal. All day long I would think about how to hide my food. I would think, ‘Tonight Grandma is making tacos, and that’s difficult to hide, because it has a hard shell with a shape.’”
Despite growing taller since achieving her healthy weight, Fadia lost another twenty pounds in three months. Her eating and weight loss were so unhealthy she started losing her hair and growing weak. And her menstrual periods stopped entirely. For about a month her mother left town to look for a new job, leaving Grandma in charge. When Mom returned and saw how much her daughter had changed, it frightened her. Fadia’s tongue was white, her hair was thin, and her skin was pale. Mom took Fadia to the doctor immediately to find out what was wrong. He asked if she was eating properly, and of course she and her mother assured him that she was. So the doctor checked for parasites in her stomach and intestines, but found none. That led him to an even more dire hypothesis: cancer.
Her mother was devastated. How could this have happened to her sweet fourteen-year-old baby girl?
Fadia watched her mother’s reaction to the news and took stock of her own condition. She soon came to the conclusion that she couldn’t keep doing this to herself or to her mother. She decided to start eating again. But that turned out to be easier to say than to do. As Fadia explained, “When you don’t eat for that long, it’s hard to eat normal again. I had to wean myself off of pitching food.”
By then the tests had ruled out cancer, and the doctors settled on anemia as the culprit. So Fadia had to suffer painful iron injections daily and beef liver drops on her food, which she describes as “the most disgusting thing you could ever eat.” So that gave Fadia even more incentive to eat properly again.
It took her a year to regain that twenty pounds. But she did. At sixteen she was back to a healthy weight, which she’s maintained for the two decades since. Out of guilt and shame, she didn’t tell her mother about her intentional weight loss and hiding her food until two years ago. But in her mid-twenties she read a magazine article about anorexia and realized that’s exactly what she had had. She thought she had been alone with her problem.
Looking back, Fadia has been on both ends of the spectrum of weight problems that plague many young people today. But her story has many lessons for kids facing similar issues. First, while it might not work for everyone, with the discipline of a reasonable diet and exercise, the problem of being overweight can usually be managed.
Second, regarding anorexia, having an incorrect and unhealthy body image is not uncommon. Both children and their parents should be aware of the signs: rapid weight decline, fear of gaining weight, distorted body image, and in extreme cases hair loss, weakness, and irregular periods in girls. But as she did with her excess weight, Fadia learned to overcome her anorexia. She insists that “no matter how bad and out of control your life can be (and mine was), you can always change it. But you must realize that you are the only one who can change it. Once you do that, you control the food. The food no longer controls you.”
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- How would your describe your weight? Too heavy? Too slim? June fine?
- What do you think the ideal weight is for you at this age? How much do you weigh now?
- Have you ever tried to gain weight or lose weight? How did you do it? Did it work?
- How do you think it made Fadia’s mother feel to watch her child get sicker and sicker and not know what was wrong with her?
- If you wanted to lose or gain weight, what do you think is a healthy way to do that?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
Connect with him via email here.
Sign up for his newsletter here to get one new story a week delivered to your inbox.