In her early teens, Mayra Najera remembers looking through Women’s Health magazine, looking for ways maintain a healthy body weight. Najera was uncomfortable with her weight, known as the “chubbiest one” in her network of cousins. She felt empowered by articles promoting healthy lifestyles, but as soon as she looked at the cover, it was as if there was a whole different message.
“This is why I’m bulimic,” Najera said. “Because I don’t look like her.”
Najera worked through her bulimia with the help of family and friends and her own determination. Now, as a magazine journalism sophomore, she's found a job as a student chef at a local parish.
Beginning at age 14, Najera showed symptoms of bulimia. She was secretive with the disorder. She would sneak away to the bathroom to brush her teeth, but would end up using the toothbrush as a catalyst for purging. Her parents begun to catch on, and took her to the doctor’s office and a therapist for help.
“Just seeing my mom and how devastated she was, crying, I began to find other ways to help myself out,” Najera said.
She began making separate meals – the traditional Mexican cuisine her mother made was rich in flavor and fat – but then another problem arose. The more she began crafting dishes she loved, the more she wanted to eat. She loved food, and even after achieving the cut look she wanted for a bodybuilding competition in the summer of 2010, she gained 24 pounds in her first month on campus.
The sudden weight gain caused her to outgrow her clothes. She said she started wearing oversized sweatpants to classes and fasten jean-laden hangers on the wall, a reminder of the weight she wanted to lose.
“I try to restrict my body from eating cupcakes and all these things, but once you have one you just can’t stop. It’s like food has this control over me, and it’s the worst feeling ever,” she said. “An object, not a person, an object has control over me.”
Fortunately, she has now begun to better manage her weight, and has channeled her love for food in a part-time job cooking at a local parish. She read about a chef opening on a jobs website, and sent an email in July before her sophomore year to the outreach coordinator at the Alibrandi Catholic Center, Adam C’DeBaca. In it, she was direct, promoting her goals in between descriptive, vanilla and strawberry-laden food metaphors. She received a response three hours later, offering her an interview.
“Needless to say, your skills and energy certainly come across on the page, and your personal experiences show us that you have a good understanding of the direction and focus of our fresh food program,” C’DeBaca said in his emailed response.
She later aced the interview and landed the position. Once a week during the fall semester, Najera prepared dishes for children at the Westcott Community Center. Not only are the dishes made with locally sourced products, they are low-fat, healthy options that appeal to the kids.
“When I see those kids, it resembles my little sister back at home, because she’s obese as well,” Najera said. “And what I can’t do for my sister now because I’m not back at home I feel like I should be helping other kids as well.”
After her studies, she hopes to go on to host her own television show where she can promote a healthy lifestyle change for those with eating disorders. She wants a show similar to Oprah’s – but doesn’t want to be Oprah, she pointed out; she’d prefer to be her own personality. She’d prefer to be Mayra.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a voice,” Najera said. “I want to be a voice for the voiceless.”