In this article, Janette Valenzo shares her eating disorder story and provides mental health resources for BIPOC and LGBTQ+. This article is also available in Spanish.
When I was asked to write this personal story, I was happy to help shed some light on eating disorders and how my Latinidad played a crucial role in the development of my health and recovery. But I quickly realized this would be the first time I am admitting on a public forum that I had an eating disorder. It’s terrifying. But I hope by the end you understand why I am choosing to share my story and these resources with you. My name is Janette Valenzo, I am a first-generation Mexican-American, and I have a history of bulimia, anorexia, and orthorexia.
Recently I put together mental health resources for BIPOC & LGBTQ+. Doing this helped ground me in my recovery and keep me focused on my own health. Sometimes when we help others, we help ourselves. Here’s my story.
Growing up Latina
Growing up, I was surrounded by the most gorgeous diverse bodies in South Los Angeles. My own body never came into question until my family moved to the suburbs. There I was surrounded by a majority of skinny white girls.
This was around the time puberty hit and my hips expanded, my stomach gained more rolls, and I became conscious of the space I took up.
My mom in her best attempts to make me feel beautifully special would say things like “It’s just how your body is.” It would sound really nice, but also contradictory when she and mis tías would also call me “gordita.” This is a term of endearment in the Mexican culture but it translates to “fatty.” What kid wants to hear that? What kid could possibly believe her body was beautifully special after being told fat in English did not mean beautiful?
So I stopped eating, hoping I could change my body.
I stopped eating
Skinny did not come easy. And no matter how many pounds I lost, I would never be like the skinny white girls.
Because as my mamá would say, “no puedes cambiar tus huesos.”
In an attempt to embrace my Latinidad in high school, I began to look for bodies that resembled mine. To my dismay, the typical Latina portrayed in the media was curvy in all the right places. She was hourglass shaped and a sun-kissed tan. I had none of that.
I wasn’t white skinny, but I wasn’t Latina curvy either. Bulimia took a hold of me as I tried to fit in anywhere that would take me.
My parents tried to help
Behind our closed doors, my dad didn’t understand. Mom did her best to help in any way she could. She would talk about her own body and her own journey towards acceptance. But I could see her own insecurities take hold whenever she thought I wasn’t looking.
She tried other ways of helping. She would provide diet pills when I asked, monitoring them. She would suggest drinking smoothies with her and make them for us. But when I ran wild on my own with her suggestions, she ceased cold turkey.
I learned to hide my anorexia and bulimia even more. And let me tell you, I could hide that really well. Because no matter how many pounds I lost, no one ever knew what to call what was happening to me. I didn’t look skinny enough to have a problem.
I looked “average,” and average doesn’t mean “you have a problem.” So with no visible problems, my mom instead tried helping one last way she knew of: feeding me with love.
Food is love
In our culture, food is love. We eat because we love. Someone cooks for you, you eat because you love them. You cook because you want them to love you as much as you loved cooking for them.
So when I turned away from enchiladas, tortillas, and so much more, I was building walls between my parents and myself. Food became an invisible barrier between my parents and me. We already disagreed on so many things. It was hard on them that I was becoming assimilated to mainstream American culture. They couldn’t understand my hope to fit in with white and skinny.
The turning point
Unfortunately, my father got cancer and lost a lot of weight from the disease. That brought me face to face with my eating disorder. As he struggled to eat, I would watch him look at food in ways that broke my heart. Here was love in a physical form and he could not take it in.
All the smoothies my mother once made me, she made to keep him nourished and loved. I ate enough for the both of us in hopes he could stay.
But when he left, my orthorexia flared because I didn’t want to take up space that could have been his. I also didn’t want to get sick. And the way society tells us to not get sick is by eating healthy and exercising. Well, I took it a bit too far and ended up back in a psychiatric hospital.
How my mother helped
My mom sat me down outside the hospital and asked me what had led me here. She asked what could keep me from getting back here and urged me to do it. Whatever I needed to do, do it, because she didn’t know how to help me anymore. She had her own struggles, and seeing me fall this hard was hurting her as well.
And that was it. I saw that what I really needed from her was communication. Having raw conversations about how we are hurting inside, and how we could hurt others, too, without realizing we are.
I had been so focused on my pain inside that I never saw the part I was playing in other people’s journeys.
My mother’s admission that she was just as lost had me see her in a new light. Yes, she was my mother, but she was also her own person and she too had been struggling. I began to speak and interact with her as a person first, and my mother second. It has helped us so much when we both are not at our best.
This leads to the second conversation that would bring me one step closer to committing to my recovery.
How my sister helped
My younger sister told me that seeing me struggle was hurting her as well. It shocked me. Not because she was hurt but that she was scared to tell me. It was a cycle repeating itself.
I was terrified of ever telling my parents what they did was hurting me. But here was my sister unable to tell me that I was hurting her. So I told her enough is enough. This ends now. What can I do to help you? She laid it out all for me and I really listened to her.
Everything I wish my parents had known, I now teach my younger sister. The calorie counting, the nitpicking in the mirror, the body comparisons, all of it had to stop with me. It is a slippery slope and I refuse to see her do the same. I have made it explicitly clear to my aunts that weight is not to be mentioned as an indication of how a person is doing, nor who they are. I ask my sister to share what she loves about herself. I show her a diverse range of beautiful dancing bodies because she’s a dancer and I know that comes with pressure to look a certain way.
Communicating and learning
Whenever I see my worries reflected in my sister, I step back and ask myself if I am harming myself or her.
And it’s true that sometimes the need to be better for her outweighs my want to be better for myself. Sometimes it’s easier for me to commit to her health than my own. And for now it’s working for both of us. I commit myself to recovery hoping she will never have to endure what I did.
And I see the difference communication has done for my family. Where my mother would not say anything when I only ate one small meal a day or went on a run in 100-plus degree weather, now she’s the first to say to stop and offer to take us out to lunch to talk. I smile knowing how far we have come.
Safe places for BIPOC
Growing up, I didn’t see a safe space that reflected who I am. I realized that this was the biggest deal breaker in asking for help. Perhaps in a BIPOC community I could have been vocal without feeling judged.
Because I’m both Latina and queer, I really felt stranded at times by straight white American culture. That’s what inspired me to create mental health resources for BIPOC & LGBTQ+.
Mental health was not really a thing we spoke about in my Mexican household. In fact, I was told to never mention it. When I started to recover, I started asking why. Why aren’t we talking about this? I think some of it is personal, some cultural, some gender-based. But not talking about mental health is really about stigma, fear and judgement. And I want it to change.
Mental health resources for BIPOC & LGBTQ+
I created mental health resources for BIPOC & LGBTQ+ because my orthorexia and anorexia have been flaring up during this pandemic. If me, a queer Latina who has spent a decade gathering resources and learning about mental health, is struggling with her recovery, how are others doing? We need to know that there are spaces for us, especially since we’re feeling increasingly isolated during this time.
I compiled this list by going through Instagram, the social media platform where I find myself comparing myself to other bodies. If I transform Instagram into a resource rather than scrolling for hours wishing I was this and that, then I could take some control back of my own health. Each day I worked on this list, I felt less alone.
But even as I worked on it, I saw that I had to hold myself accountable in my recovery. I would work on the list and “forget” to eat. But after the second day, my mother cut through crap and called me in. My sister said I was running on empty and that would help no one. And I finally opened up to my boyfriend that I really appreciated when he would cook for me, because it reminded me of what food really has always been to me: love.
No food meant no love, and with each bite I remembered the root of food in our culture.
I’ll admit I cried writing the sentence above. It scares me to reveal I am still struggling now even as I share these resources. But this vulnerability is important. I’m not perfect, and I don’t know everything. None of us do.
Advice for BIPOC parents*
*Please take this as you will. I understand everyone has a different experience and I would never want to tell someone how to raise their child.
My specific suggested advice to BIPOC parents is this: listen and don’t be afraid of not getting it right the first time when trying to help your child. Know that there will be a struggle for your child to accept your own cultural beauty and health ideals because White America has such a powerful influence on our version of ideal beauty and health standards.
For the parents of first-generation children, understand that there is a learning curve. It makes sense that the societal ideals of the new home country and ideals from the previous home country clash.
Accept that your child is just as lost as you, and they need you to be open to learning with them. Talk about your own journeys with body image and food. Share the pressures you have faced and how you may still face, and listen to how your children need you. Because that’s the thing: we sometimes may know what we need but are too afraid to say anything. Just like I was with my mother, and like my sister was with me.
To those BIPOC and LGTBQ+ children struggling, you are not alone. There are spaces that reflect you. I hope this helps.
Janette Valenzo is an actor, a teaching artist, and a mental health advocate based in Southern California. She is also a writer and has performed original spoken word in D.C., LA, and the OC; while her acting has taken her to various stages throughout the country. She loves to travel internationally and locally. You can follow her on Instagram @janettevalenzo