It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
TikTok star Tefi Pessoa, 33, has garnered a considerable portion of her 1.7 million followers on TikTok through her colorful commentary on celebrity culture. But she has also used her platform to discuss her thorny relationship with food.
"My mom is from Colombia and my dad is from Brazil. So these are hearty plates," she tells Yahoo Life, explaining that meals were a symbol of connection in her family.
But the cuisine that unified those around her would soon become a source of isolation for the Miami native, who says diet culture pulled her away from the communal aspects of food.
"When you are first-generation, a lot of your identity comes from the food you eat. And I think for a while, because I was so obsessed with diet culture, I cut myself off from my identity," she says.
Pessoa's battle with disordered eating habits began at a young age, and she still vividly recalls the first time she was made aware of her size. She was eating a piece of cake at a birthday party when an adult approached her and said she had cellulite. She was 13.
"By the time I finished that cake, it was no longer the same cake," she says of the moment that marked the beginning of her contentious relationship with food. "After that, food became something to be mindful of."
Pessoa was also a dancer, and says her time spent in various ballet classes exposed her to a host of restrictive narratives about food. As a young girl, she recalls being told she "shouldn't eat fruit after 6pm because it would be stored as fat," which she now says she recognizes as "such bulls***."
But at the time, she was so wrapped up in dance and seeking approval that she began comparing herself to others.
"Most professional ballerinas are, like, 5-foot-1, like, 90 to 110 pounds. I was like 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, which was normal," she says of her high school stature. And while she now knows there was nothing wrong with her weight, at the time, she remembers wondering why her body was so different, citing the imposing comments from others as proof of a problem.
"High school is when people were starting to take dance really seriously and working on their auditions for conservatories, and that's when people started making comments about your body," she says. These remarks, she says, were often made "under the ruse that they wanted to help you," and for a while, she believed them.
"You trust adults to tell you what to do to prepare for this big life," she says, explaining that she was able to continue her restrictive habits for a while under the guise of being focused on dance. But eventually, cracks began to show, raising suspicion from those closest to her.
During a dinner with her grandfather when she was 17, she remembers the concerned and nervous look on his face when she only ordered soup for dinner, explaining that where he comes from, refusing to eat was a symptom of heartbreak. And in some ways, that is exactly what Pessoa was experiencing, even if not in the traditional sense.
"My grandfather was beside himself; he almost started crying, and I'll never forget that," she recalls.
Beyond the influence of shaming ballet-class rhetoric and the unwarranted comments of prying adults, Pessoa also grew up in a toxic era of diet culture, marked by the harsh weight-centered critiques of celebrities and a general glorification of thinness as displayed by popular programs such as America's Next Top Model.
This side of the early 2000s is something Pessoa, who made a name for herself on TikTok through recapping some of the biggest pop-culture moments of the aughts, knows all too well.
"Britney Spears would come out and say that she did like 1,000 crunches a day. So I soon started doing 1,001 crunches a day, you know," she says, comparing being a teenager to a "constant audition," for acceptance.
"I just felt like the only way to be successful was to look a certain way, and your body was your biggest accessory," she says.
Meanwhile, "The idea of breaking bread with your family at the end of the day was not positive for me," she says.
Still, it would be her culture and community that rallied behind her when her diet habits exacerbated to the point where she required treatment.
"I went to rehab when I was 23 and it was probably the happiest moment in my life," she says of the six months she spent at an inpatient rehabilitation center for her disordered eating in Colombia.
She is careful not to share the exact details of the behaviors that led her to the point of needing treatment, citing the mimic-prone nature of eating disorders, but she does explain that her body had "stopped responding" to what she was doing to it in a way that caused her need outside help.
"I was completely out of control. I had taken things to such an extreme state," she says.
"I remember I looked at my mom, and I was like, 'I can't do this anymore,'" she says of what would become a pivotal moment in her healing journey — when her mom was set to leave for a trip to Colombia but realized she could not leave her daughter alone. "She took me with her. And my family kind of came together and found a place where I could go that was really close to my family," she says, pointing out the bittersweet irony of the moment. "So I had kind of abandoned my community for a long time. But when I needed my community—it was there."
In the decade since completing treatment, she says it has been an uphill battle, and while she is in a much better place than she was 10 years ago, building a positive relationship with food and her body is proving to be a lifelong process.
"I think it's just something that will always be there. And I can't be mad at myself so much for letting it always be there," she says, expressing the importance of finding compassion for her inner critic, whom she identifies as her younger self.
"It's like the voice in the Wizard of Oz. But when I look behind the curtain, it's me at 8 years old in a ballet outfit. And I have to tell her, 'I know you're really scared, but you're a kid. So you got to let me do this,'" she says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.