Tanya Etessam thought she had her anorexia under control, but “control” is a loaded word for those battling eating disorders. The 32-year-old personal trainer and lifestyle coach from Miami has fought that battle for more than half her life, including a lengthy siege during her teenage years, starting when she was 12.
“There was a long span with ups and downs and highs and lows until I recovered—and I use that word lightly—at around 18,” Etessam recalls. Her recovery came, thanks to “therapy every day for many years and a little bit of medication,” and she credits her parents for their support and love during the whole of her journey.
“I have truly the most supportive and loving parents,” she says. “To this day, they’re my best friends. I for sure would not have gotten to where I’ve gotten without them—not even close.”
An Early Infatuation with Dance
Etessam trained as a dancer from an early age, and after high school, she moved to New York City to study at the famed Alvin Ailey Dance School, where she thrived. Ultimately, however, she decided that a dancer’s short career span was not for her and turned to a new profession: fitness. Over the next several years, Etessam earned personal training certifications, moved back to Florida, and made up for lost time by earning a four-year degree in two years, graduating from Florida Atlantic University with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and health promotion.
“My mindset is always, ‘What’s next, what’s the future, where can I grow?'” she says. Figure competition was the next answer. She challenged herself to become an IFBB pro in two years, and succeeded, earning her pro card at the 2012 NPC Junior Nationals. She competed a few more times, but by then Etessam was ready for a new challenge.
Trouble Lurking Beneath the Surface
During this period, Etessam’s anorexia was in check. Her parents had only allowed her to go to New York City because she was “relatively in a healthy place,” she says. Yet her descriptions of that period, with respect to the disorder, are littered with words such as “relatively,” “fine,” and “OK.”
“It’s always there,” she acknowledges. “I had very particular eating habits, but I was fine. I was in a healthier place. I was OK. It wasn’t hindering my life, really.”
Did the structure of contest prep contribute to what happened next? She says it did, “in a twisted way.”
“I was eating more than ever and was at my heaviest weight—extremely lean, of course, but to do figure, you need to have size and muscle and shape,” she says. “As a competitor, if you bring your food to a family dinner, it’s OK. You’re training for competition. If you weigh your food, it’s OK because you’re training for a competition. If you don’t eat dessert, if you do excess workouts, it’s OK because that’s normal in that world. I was being my anorexic self, but it was disguised because for bodybuilders and competitors, that’s the norm.”
No one noticed her behavior because she “looked” healthy, she says. Her emotional health was another story.
“I was totally messed up,” she admits. “If anything, it was almost comforting that I was able to indulge my neurotic behaviors while still being physically at a healthy weight and attaining the goal at the time.”
Things were so “OK” on the surface, Etessam didn’t notice that her descent had begun. She was engaged to be married butbroke it off with her fiancé, triggering a full-blown relapse.
“I started eliminating foods—a little bit of that, a little of that and that—and then started a little more cardio and then a little less food. Then I started tracking all of my calories again. That was the devil. It all plummeted because I became fixated again on the numbers and the calories.”
Etessam was the last to realize that she was in trouble. Her parents were sounding the alarm, but she had turned it off. At her lowest, she was down to 89 pounds—at 5-foot-7.
“You get addicted to the feeling of having that control,” she says. “It’s like, oh, yeah, I can be this thin, but I’m still killing it on my workouts. I got this.”
She was weak, freezing all the time, and wearing a sweater on 100-degree days in Miami, making it difficult to focus on training her clients. Reality hit a month before her 30th birthday.
“I was looking at my food logs and my workout logs and my weight logs, and I went back a year to the same date, and everything was identical: the weight, the food, the workouts,” she says. “Nothing was progressing in my career. I didn’t have any new goals. I was isolated. I had anxiety around travel to the point of major panic attacks and needing to come home early. I didn’t go to events because I was worried about the food.”
Food was the only aspect of her life that Etessam had control of. “Everything else was completely out of control,” she says.
The Power to Turn Her Life Around
Her next challenge failed to appear, and Etessam grasped that she was in an endless cycle, going nowhere. She had to get healthy, or nothing would ever change. She started therapy again and stuck with it. The process was difficult, and she went through a number of therapists before finding the one who helped her get her life back.
“I was lucky enough to find someone who really clicked,” she says. “It was a very bad downward spiral. If I didn’t have her, I probably wouldn’t have come out of it.”
Two years later, Etessam has filled out to about 120 pounds, and she’s taken command of her life. She’s moved on from therapy and is focused on using her personal experiences to help her clients with their own fitness journeys. She also has a new business, creating and selling elegant aromatherapy candles and essential oils, as well as new goals to pursue, such as making the Forbes list of “America’s Richest Entrepreneurs Under 40.”
Her progress report is encouraging.
In therapy, Etessam was introduced to the concept of intuitive eating, and she learned to live without food scales and eating schedules.
“I don’t time my meals,” she says. “I got so sick of that with competing. I found it to be just an additional disordered behavior. Basically, if I’m hungry, I eat. If I’m not, I don’t.”
In fact, she eats a lot—and frequently. Her high-volume, low-calorie diet includes “a ton of vegetables,” along with lean protein, fruit, and nuts. The goal is to keep up her calories and maintain her physique. Eggs with nuts and fruit comprise a typical breakfast, followed by fresh fish and veggies at subsequent meals.
It’s easy for Etessam to keep to that diet as she’s eaten that way all her life and loves it. She’s not big on carb foods like pizza and pasta, but she enjoys chocolate and eats it frequently, and she likes to make really thick protein shakes and eat them with a spoon for dessert.
“At one point, when I was in therapy, it was a goal to have a fear food at least once a week,” she says. “Now I don’t, but it’s not that I want something like pizza and I’m not having it. I really don’t crave it.”
Etessam doesn’t kid herself.
“Is it still disordered eating?” she asks. “Yeah, probably. I think I’ll always have that in some sense. It’s the way you let it affect your life or not that makes the difference.”
Etessam’s training schedule has remained the same since she started working out seriously, during her New York City days.
“The only thing that has changed is the amount that I eat,” she says. She does 4-5 cardio sessions a week for 45 minutes each and likes to keep it intense. “I either run or bike or do the StairMaster. I do super-high-intensity sprint-like intervals throughout the 45 minutes. By no means is it easy.”
She weight trains on a classic split, performing two upper-body workouts and two lower-body workouts per week, and favors ultra-high reps of 30-50, with short rests between sets. The workouts themselves change, combining free weights, machines, bands, and other types of exercises to keep up the variety.
“I never do the same workout twice,” Etessam says. “I make it up as I go along.”
Although it’s not an exact match, the Jacked in 3 plan in BodyFit is similar to Etessam’s approach to training.
As she describes her training, it’s difficult to imagine her keeping up that program while her anorexia was raging.
“It still is mind-blowing to me how I was physically able to do it,” she says. “That’s just the mind power of the disease. You put everything into that workout. The rest of the day, I could barely function.”
Staying on Track
Thanks to her time in therapy, Etessam has learned to stop herself from sliding into disordered behaviors, a challenge she meets daily.
“My therapist and I made a list of any behaviors that if I started to notice them, I knew I needed to get ahold of it because they are signs that I’m going backward,” she says. “They could be little things, but whenever I notice that type of behavior or thought, I refer to the list—of course, I know it anyway—and I catch myself.”
She cites a recent episode where she had to overrule the voice in her head that is always present, goading her that she could use to lose a few pounds, that she should stop eating this or that, that she should do a little more cardio.
“I was in the grocery store and I was really craving fruit, and I was pacing back and forth, like, should I get the fruit? I had put it in my basket and taken it out. Then I thought, ‘Oh, my God, Tanya, what are you doing? Buy the fruit and eat it.’ I did it, and I’m here to tell the story.”
She is able to handle these moments thanks to “a lot of experience with it and being in a healthy mental space to be strong enough to say you don’t want to go back,” she says. “I want big things for my life career-wise and goal-wise. I know that’s not going to be happening if I go back.”
Dealing with disordered behavior is an ongoing thing, she acknowledges.
“You just have to take control, in a good way, and recognize your behaviors—the ones that are bad and the ones that are good—and assess what’s important to you.”
To learn more about the principles of healthy eating, check out Foundations of Fitness Nutrition in BodyFit.