This article was created as part of a writing workshop organized by Boyle Heights Beat and ELACC.
By Elvira Sánchez
My name is Elvira and I have been living in Boyle Heights for nine years now. I am 28 years old, but it was two years ago that something made me think about changing and considering giving my life a new course. I am making changes that will benefit me in the future. I’m taking baby steps, of course, because I don’t want to make a mistake again. Little steps lead to great changes, they say.
I adapt to changes easily, and so it was easy for me when I came to live to this community. I was born to a Mexican family, with well established customs and a great respect for our traditions. But many of those customs and traditions are very hard to change. Food, for instance.
Pozole is one of my family’s favorite dishes. Same for carnitas for First Communions or birria at weddings. And so, from tacos to garnachas, my life flowed disorderly. I grew up with a generous grandmother who shows us our love with her home-made dishes. The more you eat, the more you love abuela.
I remember that being chubby was not seen by my family as a sign of illness or disorder. All the contrary, in my family chubby children are seen as beautiful and cute. We don’t know about fat or cholesterol, much less on how devastating a heart attack can be. Those illnesses are for grown people, according to my family.
Nevertheless, life and people around you make you see another reality, making comments that are perhaps well intended, but that end up being damaging. We start noticing a certain rejection and criticism, and we develop fears and insecurities. Your own family talks behind your back. I remember one time, I was 8 or 9 years old, when one of my uncles said at the dinner table that I was overeating, and my grandmother responding that I would grow up, develop and lose the weight. Which, of course, never happened. What did come was adolescence with a bunch of insecurities, a good dose of nicknames from my brothers and, of course, many false diets of the kind that promise “perfect” bodies, pills, acupuncture and many bills from nutritionists.
My struggle with weight began at an early age. I was always chubby, struggling and looking for a thousand ways of losing weight, but something always got in the way of my goal. It’s all that we bring with us, bad habits formed over years of negligence. How could I fix a part of my personality overnight?
At 10 I went to a medical checkup where the doctor said I was healthy but overweight. He weighed me and asked a few questions. Then he handed me a diet, such a rigorous diet that I felt I wasn’t eating. Then at 13 I began another diet to get ready for my 15th birthday. Taking protein drinks and weight loss pills I was able to lose enough to satisfy society’s expectations for a 15th birthday. That didn’t last long and I soon gained back all the weight I had lost.
A year later I had gained a lot of weight and decided to once more go on a diet. I went to acupuncture, but that was not sufficient. I went with another nutritionist, who gave me an even worse diet than the one I had when I was 8. For four months I only ate a can of tuna, a tomato and lots of water. That wasn’t the diet but I was so frustrated that I decided not to eat.
At school in the mornings my breakfast would be a plate of cucumber and beet with a little salt and lemon juice. Since that wasn’t enough to lose weight, I began taking fat burning pills. Instructions on the box said I wasn’t supposed to exercise, but since I wanted rapid results I went and signed up for an aerobics class.
You can imagine the result… yes, one day I was taken to a hospital emergency room. I was physically exhausted and my metabolism was working twice as hard without food, since I had stopped eating. Two or three shots returned me to reality.
I was practically obsessed with losing weight. When you grow up and you realize that you don’t fit society’s and the media’s standard, you get overwhelmed and feel depressed thinking that you are not perfect. What girls at 15 or 18 want is to be be beautiful, slim and perfect. We want to be admired by the boy we like. We don’t think of any other thing but of how we dress, smell, what shoes to wear. And when reality makes you face the fears you don’t want to accept, everything crumbles. It finishes you emotionally and puts you into a depressive state where you just end up hurting yourself even more. And it’s even worse when you open your eyes and see that you have changed so much and that you’ve allowed that all of this that you have been carrying since you were a child takes control of your life.
A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with a number of conditions, some caused by my excess weight, like heart palpitations high pressure and pre diabetes. The doctor explained to me that I needed to take charge of my situation. At the beginning it’s hard to process all the information. I didn’t accept what the doctor was trying to explain. My state of denial sent me to total isolation in my room for several days, going into a state of depression.
Nobody wants to live with an illness, much less one so young. During that time I locked myself in my room alone with my thoughts. I reached the conclusion that I had to change my way of thinking in order to be able to lose the weight. I understood that no matter how many diets or how many hours of exercise I did each day, if I don’t rethink my way of eating nothing I do will matter.
One day I decided to participate in a nutritional program my doctor offered. In that meeting he explained how to eat adequately, especially if you have diabetes, and the explanations by the experts made me feel more comfortable. They showed me how to serve reasonable portions and how to balance a meal, and especially how to keep the metabolism going, by eating five times a day. I tried it for a month and in that period I lost my first five pounds. It wasn’t much, but I couldn’t expect that my over 100 pounds of excess weight would simply disappear.
With that small amount of weight loss I already felt better, I wasn’t sad or preoccupied. I heard about the nutrition clubs around my home and I decided to try one. I’ve heard a lot of negative comments about these places, but I decided to go and find out and form my own opinion. I met some interesting people who shared their experiences with me. I soon began to feel comfortable and started to establish some challenges and goals.
My goal is to lose 100 pounds by the time I’m 30. At this point I have already lost 25. It’s not much, but it still makes me feel good and, more importantly, I feel motivated.
I am constantly struggling to not lose sight of my goal, since there are always obstacles to overcome. There are two fast food restaurants right across the street from my home, but everyday I walk past them with my head high and paying no attention to temptation.
Photo above: Elvira with her parents Hugo and Elvira Sánchez. Photos courtesy of Elvira Sánchez.