Publication: Natural Muscle Magazine – 2012 ©
By Carolina Gonzalez
Photography by Carolina Gonzalez
Page Layout by Alex Gonzalez
During the last few years, Tanya Etessam has graced the stage of several Figure Competitions. In 2011, at age 22, she became the NPC Southern States Overall Figure Winner; but most importantly, Tanya has become a stronger competitor determined to leave a well-built mark in the fitness industry after years of struggling with Anorexia; an eating disorder characterized by fear of gaining weight that can result in death from starvation, heart failure, electrolyte imbalance, or suicide. This eating disorder has ruled Tanya’s life since her early teens. For nearly six years she had a disturbed body image of herself and was in a constant battle with the concepts of acceptance and control.
During our conversation, Tanya had to remember details that, like in survivor mode, she had long evaded. Nonetheless, she looks forward to sharing her positive results with the world and explains her road to recovery:
“Growing up, I remember always comparing myself to other girls; but I was not looking for anyone’s approval other than my own. I was never happy with my body, and I was trying to reach ‘perfection’. But reaching perfection was impossible because every time I got to the weight where I thought I wanted to be, I still was not happy. As a result, I needed to be thinner and thinner.”
Digging through the details and in search of the big answer as to ‘Why’ Tanya had this eating disorder, Tanya revealed that there is no big answer or better say, the answer is so complex that it is a combination of factors: “I am not sure what triggered the disorder,” explained Tanya. “In reality, I was never overweight, but I was always body-conscious. I have been athletic since my childhood. And I was never called fat nor did I received negative comments about my body or weight; but once I started dancing, the eating disorder got stronger and noticeable. But I still haven’t figured out the exact ‘Why?”
Learning that Tanya was a dancer during her years dealing with anorexia, helps people understand the big “WHY”. Probably because of the publicized stories that have sensationalized that connection. Unexpectedly, Tanya doesn’t blame the dance industry, at least, not entirely. “The pressure to be thin definitely exists in the dance industry. However, I was a contemporary modern/ballet dancer and the pressure may have not been as extreme as they might be at ballet companies; but food intake (or lack thereof) and body image, are always brought up, and the demand to be slender is still very prevalent.”
Tanya started dancing at age 13, which according to her and the dance industry is considered “a late start” compared to most dancers. This could have been another pressure that pushed Tanya to succumb to her eating disorder. “Dance was my life! I did numerous performances and competitions and won many awards. During my senior year of high school, I went to many auditions at various colleges and dance companies; I ended up getting into every school I applied to. However, I chose the professional route. I was accepted into the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Certificate Program in New York City. Right after high school graduation, I packed my bags and moved to NYC to pursue dance. I was 19 years old.”
Needless to say, Tanya had quite the bright future at her fingertips; but up to this point, Tanya, along with her family and various psychologists, had been working on Tanya’s poor eating habits. Even her dance teachers pressure her to get well in order to keep dancing.
Anorexia is a very noticeable disorder when it is evident and at later phases; but the early stages can go unnoticed even by those who develop the disorder; especially when there is always a ‘valuable’ reason to not eat or eat less. “The very first thing I remember”, explained Tanya “was the slow process of eliminating foods. As a kid, I had a major sweet tooth. I loved desserts, but I remember deciding to substitute the desserts such as cake and ice cream for a handful of fresh fruit. After that, it was substituting water for sodas, which is healthy, but I kept substituting and eliminating foods until there was basically nothing left.”
When asked about when did she realize she had anorexia? Tanya was a bit hesitant: “That is a hard question. I guess in the back of my mind I always knew something wasn’t right; however, that is almost what I wanted. It sounds so sick and twisted, but to me, ‘normal’ was a synonym for ‘fat’ and not good enough; as a result, when someone told me I had a problem, it was a positive thing in my view. I wanted to be far from “normal.”
The complexity of an eating disorder like Tanya’s can be understood; and to understand it, identifying the signs is as important as identifying the causes. “Another sign of a person suffering from anorexia, besides eliminating food, is wearing baggy clothing and sweaters at all times. I think that is one of the major signs. I always wanted to hide my body,” she added. Withdraw and solitude are also major indicators.
According to documents published by The University of Maryland and the Center for Integrative Medicine, another sign of Anorexia can be “depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior.” In Tanya’s case, she did over-exercise. “On top of my daily 4-6 hours of dance per day, I would bike, swim, and run regularly. However, my most obsessive-compulsive thing was a daily abs-routine that involved 3,000 repetitions of various crunches and sit-ups. I wanted my abs to be “perfect” and completely flat. If I didn’t have time to get it done during my regular schedule, I would set up my alarm for 4 a.m. and complete it in the middle of the night. I never missed a day of this, never!”
Tanya’s obsession with weight loss, counting calories, eliminating foods, and over exercising, did not slow her down during her dancing practices and competitions. She did not develop bulimia either, which is the purging type of anorexia. Yet, Anorexia surely causes malnutrition, as it also debilitates the body and the mind of those who have it. “My lowest point was 78 lbs at 5’7” when the standard for this age and height is anywhere from 123 to 163 lbs.”
Luckily Tanya had a very supportive system at home and at her dancing schools. “My family is very caring and protective, and they jumped on the situation right away; but I was so self-absorbed that I really can’t tell you when exactly they or my friends noticed the problem.” Tanya’s family quick response was also due to their prior history of dealing with this disorder; her father and one of her aunts, from her mother’s side, suffered from it as well and had learned to manage it. Usually, when confronted, people with eating disorders will go into denial; but Tanya’s family helped her to go into treatment almost immediately right after her troubles aroused. “The recovery was very gradual; for over five years I received therapy, and although I recognized I had a problem, it took me a while to recover.”
There is no magical pill or miraculous treatment that can ‘cure’ this condition instantly; but there are many resources and organizations that help people with anorexia to manage the disorder. “It is really a never-ending battle,” added Tanya, “nevertheless, once you have ‘recovered’ from it, you are able to control it.”
For Tanya, a perfect way to manage her desire to control food and weight has been to control them in a healthier way through fitness and nutrition. “I found fitness towards the end of my dance career”, explained Tanya in a joyful tone of voice. Her dance career ended at the beginning of a new chapter in New Your City. Perhaps the anxiety from being away from home, the standard pressure to remain thin in the dance industry, fear to lose control over her eating habits again, or perhaps a simple yet complex change of goals, Tanya took a new directions in her life. “Fitness completely changed my life for the better. After I quit dancing, I decided to start lifting weights, initially just to stay in shape; but surprisingly, after a few times I was captivated and absolutely loved it! Soon after I decided to take it to the next level. I learned how the body needs fuel to function, and that food is not the enemy! I learned to exercise my body and build muscle over my frail bony frame. Furthermore, instead of eating a few carrot sticks a day, I now eat 6 full and nutritious meals.” In other words, Tanya turned negative into positive.
As a result of Tanya’s new passion for fitness, she quickly got a Bachelor of Science Degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion from Florida Atlantic University (FAU). “Once I decided to change my life, I did not want to waste any time, so I overloaded on courses and actually completed my 4-year degree in only 2-years! I also hold various certifications. I am a Certified Personal Trainer from American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM); I am also a Level 2 Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach from Poliquin International Certification Program (PICP), and I am a Certified BioSignature Hormonal Body Composition Practitioner from PICP as well.”
Contrary to Tanya’s long years of dealing with anorexia and conventional therapy, once she found the positive results of fitness, weight training and food intake to fuel the body, it took her only a few years to achieve an improved lifestyle. Tanya’s daily routine is now completely different from her ill years, and although her control concerns still remain, she has a more constructive approach. “When I learned about fitness and started working as a personal trainer, I became more into weight training myself; and the decision to compete came later on,” she explained.
Although envisioning herself on stage was not something new for Tanya, due to her previous presentations and competitions as a dancer, being on a figure competition stage did not come to her as a primary and natural goal. “I decided to compete after I met someone who competed, and the dedication truly was inspiring.”
It is appropriate to conclude that competing definitely suits Tanya’s personality. She is excellent at maintaining a schedule, a meal plan, and she works hard to achieve a set goal. Gladly, now she does it in a positive way.
Nowadays, Tanya has learned to like her body, to accept it, and to keep it strong. Being weak does not suit her, and certainly, her family, friends, and herself are happy she has learned how to manage her eating habits and live an encouraging lifestyle. “I don’t see myself ever not eating again! I love to eat now, and I have much appreciation for all healthy and nutritious food.”
Currently, Tanya weight trains 6 times per week, does sprint or interval-based cardio 2 or 3 times per week, and eats 6 full meals a day that includes lean proteins, vegetables, healthy fats, and healthy complex carbohydrates; she also keeps her body properly hydrated.
Tanya will be competing at National Shows this year; she is looking forward to acquiring an IFBB Pro Card and gracing the Olympia stage in the near future. She is also looking forward to working and offer guidance to young girls and boys suffering from eating disorders. Tanya hopes that sharing her positive knowledge and story will help them to succeed. ”I want to help them by teaching them how to become healthy again, not only with food, but also with their lifestyles, inner thoughts, and finding a positive approach to their needs.”
Tanya’s future is bright and healthy. She believes that the chances of her going back to inadequate nutrition and excessive weight loss “ are slim to none.” With a positive attitude, she added: “In the past, I was so confused and unhappy. I was weak in many ways. Now I am happy, well-built, and full of energy, I feel the strongest I have ever felt!”
Congratulations to Tanya on all of her personal and professional achievements! Her story is inspirational and a constant reminder that finding ways to a healthier lifestyle is possible and attainable.
Date of birth: August 5, 1988
Place of birth: Boston, MA
Current Residence: Weston, FL
Competition Weight: 130lbs
UPDATE: Sept 2021 – To learn more about Tanya Etessam, visit her website: https://www.byetessam.com/