ZAZIL - MÉRIDA, MEXICO
From the time she was five years old, Zazil Abraham believed she was fat, stupid and slow. When she started school, she pretended she was sick as an excuse to avoid her PE classes. She felt that her “body was not made to move.” She spent 20 plus years of her life struggling with her weight, with body image and overall feelings of shame. Even when she became a renowned Fitspo influencer, she still hated herself.
Today Zazil is a self love and body positive activist, a contributor to Marie Claire Mexico, and our very first Mexican community member.
We hope you enjoy this inspiring conversation as much as we do.
(This podcast is only available in English, but the full transcript of the interview is in English and French, with Spanish coming soon.)
INSIDE/OUT: I would like you to introduce yourself.
ZAZIL ABRAHAM: My name is Zazil Abraham Torres. I am Mexican, born and raised in Mérida in the Yucatan. I'm 30 years old, and I'm a body positive and self love advocate.
How did you get where you are today?
It is a very long story. Firstly, I became a body positive and self love activist because I hated myself so much. That's the root of it all. And I was super obsessed with losing weight. I grew up in a family where everything evolved around food, eating habits and weight loss. So I grew up like that, and I honestly hated myself. I remember seeing myself as a ‘fat girl’ when I was just five years old. And I would attach words like ‘I'm disgusting, I am slow, I am dumb,’ all because I was fat. So I think that's the main reason I became an activist.
I successfully lost weight when I was 24. I got really skinny. Then I realized I still hated myself, and suddenly I saw that there was not going to be a real change unless I started loving myself.
You have to change your mind to change your body, right?
It's really cliché, but it's the truth. I lost weight and I still hated myself. It was never enough for me.
So going back to your personal mythology, so you grew up in Mérida which is it the largest city in the Yucatan?
Growing up, in addition to being in an environment that was very much about controlled eating and that kind of thing, what was your life like in terms of your physical activity, for example?
I had none. I had none because there was never really a physical activity culture inside my nuclear family. So it was very alien to me. Actually, I thought my body wasn't made to do physical activity. It's a longer story, but in short, I didn't have any approach when I was a kid.
So you didn't have a culture for that, and you didn't have encouragement to be physically active?
Well, I took dancing classes when I was six, and it was my safe space. I don't know if we could consider dancing like a sport. But it was my physical activity, it definitely was. But I was super young and I didn't get to develop it more.
Do you feel that you gained confidence through dance at that age?
Yeah, definitely, because I was very lonely when I was at school. So outside of school I get to be my own self, and I found that through dancing when I was six years old.
What kind of dance were you doing?
I don't know if they call it the same now, but it was jazz. So it was like, you either took ballet classes or jazz classes. So I took jazz as I was not good at ballet at all.
I found it really painful. I found it so strict. It didn't feel good on my body.
I really resisted it. And it's interesting because I think probably every woman in the Paris community that we've interviewed - all of the French women that is - the first thing they practiced was ballet. And there's so much discipline that comes from that, so much posture. I grew up playing sports, physical sports, and it's really different. It develops a different body type. It develops a different kind of mentality in terms of team connection. So then, what about in school? Did you play sports? Did you have to play sports? Did you want to playing?
We had deportes class, which is like sports or what you call PE. And to be honest with you, I used to say I was sick so I wouldn’t have to play because I was, as I said, a fat kid. So it made me feel self conscious. I really had ingrained in my mind the idea that my body was not made to move.
So in addition to what you experienced independently through your family life and with yourself independently, how was it growing up in Mérida? Was there a big sports and athletic culture? Was it more of a school activity that people did?
At least in my perception, because my family is not one that advocates sports, it was very common for people to have extracurricular activities and do some sports after school. But I never got to do that. So it was more like a school thing. And then when kids get older they go to college. That’s it. Mérida has a very traditional mentality. So I feel like sports not something that we are really pushed to pursue after high school here.
Sometimes families make you go to college even though you don't really want to because you need to get your diplomas. Like ‘I'm a doctor’ or something like that.
Sports and physical performance are a bit of an afterthought.
Yeah. It's more like you do the same and safe thing. Get your degree and get married and have children, stuff like that. So sports are more like a far away dream for people here. Actually, the sport community in Mexico is not that developed because there is not enough money for that. People don't get enough support here to develop as athletes. So I think the main reason because of that.
What about now? I would venture to guess that you're playing a big part in a new interest in wellness related activities. From my outside point of view, I really do see that things picking up here. I’ve seen brand new HIIT training studios, CrossFit boxes, Pilates and barre, all of that. So now that you're in your late twenties (editor’s note: Zazil turned 30 in May 2019), what have you seen in the last few years and where do you think it's going?
Oh my gosh. I think it's changed a lot in the last seven years. I remember when the first bio shop came to Mérida, it was the first one bringing organic food and chia seeds, we have no idea what that was in 2012. So in the last seven years things have changed a lot. People starting to try new things on their plates and eating new foods.
Even though it's a bit of a trend thing, people are really integrating these foods into their daily diets. I really like that because as a very traditional city, we tend to like the same things. We have a special dish for each day of the week. Like we have frijol con puerco (beans with pork) on Mondays and salpicón (shredded beef) on Thursdays, or something like that. So there's a special Yucatan plate for every day of the week.
And they're all pretty heavy and meat-oriented?
Is there a fish day?
I don't think so. Maybe during Lent we have the fried fish and seafood and stuff like that. So it's a very dictated plan for stuff to eat. It has changed a lot. In my experience and thanks to Instagram, we have this broader view of the world and we are becoming more influenced by other countries and other trends.
I actually started losing weight hardcore on 2012, when more food variety came to the city and to the country. And since I get to travel very often to Mexico City, the biggest city in Mexico, I can see everything that's happening there. It's coming to Mérida pretty slow, but it's getting here. We have more vegan places and I love that. I am not vegan but my diet is plant-based. So that's new. People is reluctant to do it, because we like meat so much, but it's happening, and people are activating themselves more, and I like that.
What about activities? Do you see any kind of new movement, studios coming? Like yoga or cardio dance? Are they good? Are they working? Do people enjoy them? Because part of eating well and living well, whether it's swimming in the ocean or sweating and moving your body and feeling, that's also part of feeling comfortable in your body is knowing what it can do and how it feels good. So what do you see happening here or in Mexico City, or in general?
Mérida is a very trendy city in regard to what's happening out there. We want to bring things here and see how it goes. I may not look like it, but I'm very lonely and live in my own world so my outlet to the world is my cell phone in a way. That's the way I get to see what's happening. I get invited to many places to try different classes, but I like to stick with my yoga and walking and maybe CrossFit. I do see that the variety of activities is growing. Many big names, like franchises, are coming to Mérida from Mexico City, and they are integrating different classes. It is not just the gym but they have high intensity training classes. I think a hockey arena is coming to Mérida as well. I like the fact that trends are coming because it gets people to try new things.
Wellness is a multi-trillion dollar industry, but there's such a disconnect in so many things in regard to self care, whatever that means, and to different people it means different things. And historically it means different things. But this thing of a $30 yoga class being something that we all need to aspire to is not realistic and it can be a real detriment. And it actually can also reinforce negativity in people's minds because it’s another way to feel that you're not good enough, you can't afford it. So I really feel that the best thing for a market when it starts opening up is to have a huge selection, because it's really easy for someone to say, ‘I don't like ballet, so I don't like dance.’ Or ‘I went to one yoga class and it sucked because I didn't like the music, or it didn't feel good for my body or it was too hard, or it wasn't hard enough.’
But I just feel that everyone has something in them that they can do…
In their body with their food. Everyone's different, whether it's plant-based or whether it's high protein or keto. It's by trial and error that we find out. The more exposure we have through things like technology, social media - one of the most beautiful things that's happening with social media, is that it is making the world a smaller place and we can get so much encyclopedic knowledge that we never had access to before. And so it's inspiring in that way. And the thing is that diversity is really great because people can try new things, but I'm like you, I agree 100%, when you find that thing that works for you, it's really important to know when to listen and to stick with that as well.
I'm a Taurus, so I'm very grounded and I tend to stick to the things I like, but I'm always open to experiment.
So what happened? What were the stages or what were the ‘aha’ moments that happened for you from childhood until now that led you to the path that you're on?
First of all, hating my body and being very self conscious and a very lonely girl. I went to a Catholic school, only girls. It's a very beautiful school. But it was tough for me to grow up like that. I wouldn't change a thing, but it was hard for me because I wanted to look differently and I had different tastes and stuff like that. I had to keep it to myself until it exploded. Then I became this very dark girl wearing all black and stuff like that.
Then I found theater when I was 15, so that that saved my life. I found out I could sing and I could act and I could dance. And I was in musical theater for around two and a half years. But when I my first boyfriend when I was 17 something very meaningful and personal happened to me when I was 17. I'm going to tell it to you because it really affected my life. I thought it was negative at the time, but now I see it was definitely a positive experience for me.
I was very embarrassed of my own body and it was, I don't know, 2004 maybe, when we didn't have Facebook or Instagram or blogs, and spaces like MySpace weren't around. I found a blog where you could upload naked pictures of yourself, and I created an alternate identity so I could upload my pictures. I needed so much physical reassurance. I felt so bad about myself that I exposed myself. Obviously, there is no trace of those pictures now. So my boyfriend at that time found these pictures when we had been dating for only four months. So when he found the pictures, obviously I felt bad because that hurt him, but it wasn't something personal. I needed that reassurance because I felt so bad with myself.
I had actually deleted the pictures once we got together, but he is very smart with computers. I never knew exactly how it happened. He went to my house, he said he forgot his phone, and he got into my computer and saw everything that was happening and he said things that were very painful, that really hurt me. He said, ‘You are a whore,’ all this awful stuff, it really damaged my life.
He shamed you.
Yeah. He took it very personally and he made me feel, maybe not intentionally, but he made me feel really ashamed of my body. And I stayed like that. For seven years and nine months we stayed together after that. I didn't have any love for myself whatsoever. He's not a bad person, but we were not good together.
I understand. It was a dynamic that ended up not being healthy.
We were super young. I mean, I was 17 and we broke up when I was 24, so imagine that big chunk of my life where I should be experimenting and discovering myself, not getting stuck there, because I felt so bad about myself and I felt that nobody was going to love me like he did. So I spent many years of my life thinking my body was dirty and shameful, and I couldn't explore my own sexuality and yeah, that really impacted my life when I was still so young.
After that, through my ex boyfriend, I found out the fitness world. So I began eating clean and working out a lot, and I lost weight, and then I realized there was still something wrong with me.
It's never enough.
Yeah, we broke up because I started to like someone else. And after that I realized I was just getting myself into this type of relationship again, where I felt this void inside of me that no amount of lost kilos were going to fill.
When I got into the fitness world, I found out that my body was actually capable of doing great things. That's when I started CrossFit and I practiced it for three years, and I was actually good at it. I was really good and really strong. And even though the fitness community is a bit intense - it doesn't really work for me now because it tends to be a bit intense, and I don't need more intensity in my life now - it helped me realize that I am strong enough to do many things with my body, and that I don't have to look a certain weight in order to feel happy and healthy with my body.
How did you then go from getting into that for yourself, that period of self discovery, to then packaging it up as something that you can share with other people in the way that you do now?
When I first started losing weight, I used to Instagram about it, that's the story behind it. I actually didn't start as a body positive activist. I started as a weight loss person…
Yeah. Fitspo, because it was so on trend back then, and my username was @ZazilGetsFit. I used to share my meals and my physical progress and I actually have a thing that's called fotos en calzones, which is like ‘panty pictures’ or something, it's like my thing on Instagram. It started because I used to upload before and after pictures of myself when I was losing weight and I had to wear my panties, so you can see the progress, and that is still with me, through the whole process.
It was them summer of 2016. I had been blogging about it on Instagram for three years, and I just had enough. It was so much pressure for me , trying to be ‘Zazil Gets Fit’ and not ‘Zazil Gets Fat.’ It was a lot. And my body was fighting me, like ‘please, I can't do this anymore. I cannot eat more animal protein, enough with the chicken breasts, enough with the broccoli.’ My body just said ‘please, no more.’
I stopped eating meat, moved to Mexico City, changed my username to my name, Zazil Abraham, and I started talking about self love. I found out about that term, in Spanish amor propio. I had never heard of it before. It made sense to me, but it was hard because you tend to believe your false identity. And until then I thought I was ‘the new fit girl.’ That had been my dream my whole life.
It was hard for me to give that identity up, like, ‘I don't want to be fit anymore. I just want to be healthy. And whatever that looks like to me, I want it.’ So many people that I knew through the fitness journey started saying things like, ‘Oh, you're lazy and you failed, that's why you are talking about body positivity now because you can't make it.’ And I knew that was happening. I knew some people were going to disappear from my life, but I needed it. And I found my biggest purpose in life through that, to be brave in saying, ‘I don't need this anymore, I can't keep up with this.’
I feel like I found my authentic voice through self love. I realized that there was not going to be a physical body that would give me the love that I needed to give to myself. I don't know if that made sense, but that's how it happened.
What does that look like for you? What does your practice consist of? How do you maintain your self love practice, and what does that look like?
Well, I've been going to therapy for six years now. I really invest in therapy because I need it. I come from a very superficial family. I love my family, but my father's side is very into the physical aspect. And my aunts are very dependent of men and romantic relationships. So when I was around 14, I knew that was going to be me if I didn't do something about it. That's why I spend a lot of energy and resources on therapy and go at least once a month. I try to write a lot. I began writing to heal myself and help myself. And now you have the scoop: I'm writing my first book.
Yes! I got a call from an editor last summer and we're working on it. Writing has helped me connect with so many people.
Yes, we see that a lot on your Instagram. You have very interesting posts, very interesting content. And it's really full spectrum. You talk about menstrual cups, period underwear, and then you have the fitness aspect, but from a very body positive point of view. You talk about food and about PMS - you even show what that looks like for you, what it feels like. It's relatable and it's fresh and it's very you. I'm not surprised to hear that that's therapeutic, and it is for a lot of people. So many people should be encouraged to just sit down and start writing things when you get stuck. It's a really affordable form of therapy, and it's a great complement for traditional therapy as well.
The term ‘self care’ is very trendy right now, and I am all about massages and masks and stuff like that. But sometimes self care is defined by you. Maybe you're a mom of three and you work and you have a different life that’s very different than mine - your self care maybe looks like five minutes a day for you to go to the bathroom alone.
Light a candle and sit for five minutes. To take a few minutes to yourself. And breathing.
Never underestimate the breath. It's free.
Exactly. I'm very anxious, so every time feeling really anxious I just remember myself to breathe. So yeah, whatever feels good to you and whatever feels therapeutic to you, just go ahead and do it.
Back to what’s going on here in Mexico - what do you see happening with beauty?
Not so long ago, when it came to beauty, it was all about what you could find on the drugstore. Like brands filled with chemicals and brands from the United States. Nothing was really happening here Mexico. Now that people are seeking a more holistic, natural kind of lifestyle, many new national brands are appearing, and I really like that.
And your favorite activewear brands?
Well, unfortunately I haven't tried many Mexican brands, mostly because I work with Aerie. I've been working with them for the last two and a half years as an #AerieREAL ambassador. My favorite Aerie line is called Chill, Play, Move. It's not particularly sportswear, it's not leggings that you could run with. It's more for staying at home and doing yoga and chilling. If you see me on the street, I'm probably wearing Aerie.
Tell us more about your collaboration with the brand.
I was in Pittsburgh on summer 2012, and I was in this area called South Side. The main Aerie store is right there as well as their headquarters, though I didn’t know that part until years later. I was in the store, and I saw a picture with a girl that was showing her stretch marks. And I was shocked like, what the f*? It made me uncomfortable. Like, what happened, why is she not photoshopped? And then I got closer to the picture and saw that the note that the photo had not been retouched and that she was a professional model. But you could see her pores and her stretch marks and hairs, and that was annoying to me. I didn’t know why. I just so wasn't used to looking at Photoshop pictures.
Yeah, well, when something makes us uncomfortable, it can often shine a light on what is not comfortable with yourself.
But we're also just conditioned not to see things in a natural way.
That's what happened to me. It was the first time I got to see a model with no retouching. So they came up with their AerieREAL campaign which uses no retouching and real bodies, and I fell in love with the brand. I was living in Mexico City and one day I received an email from Aerie asking me to be their ambassador. So it was like the dream of my life coming to reality.
And you have also worked with Nike?
Yes. I actually was on a Nike campaign for Latin America in 2017 next to this Mexican Olympic gymnast, Alexa Moreno, an androgynous model named Afra Cuellar and a Mexican muralist named Paola Delfin. We all did this campaign called Believe in More. It was awesome because there was this body positive girl on the landing page of Nike Latin America. I love the brand, and it was an amazing experience. I mean, Nike turned around, looked at me and really saw me.
Are there areas in the wellness or lifestyle or arenas that you would like to see change or evolve or improve in some way?
I'm going to talk about Mexico particularly. I would love for people to stop caring so much about weight loss in an unhealthy way. In my book, I’m writing a chapter about the diet culture, and I actually posted a question on my Instagram story asking, ‘What is the worst thing you've ever done to your body in order to lose weight?’ It hurt me so much to read the answers. It was insane. People taking laxatives, eating just one apple a day. There's actually this thing that people put in their mouth so they cannot chew food, solid food, so they only get to drink everything they want to eat. People messing up their kidneys. It made me really sad.
So I started writing this chapter entitled No Importa Cuanto, which means ‘no matter how...as long I'm losing weight’. I would really like for people to stop caring so much about weight. I know that being really overweight can be bad for your health in some cases, but I believe health can come in so many sizes. I'm sure of that. If people would focus more on feeling good and moving and nourishing themselves, and not just on losing weight, so many things would fall into place.
What does empowerment mean to you?
Empowerment means being your authentic self. As simple as that sounds, that's my answer all the time.
Do you feel that women go further together?
And I think you facilitate that.
Thank you. Definitely yes.
TIPS AND ADDRESSES
1 tip to improve performance: Finding the practice that feels good and empowering for your body. That’s what will keep you coming back to it and feeling your best.
1 trainer or practitioner: Definitely Adriene Mishler from Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. Her videos have helped me immensely with improving my yoga practice at home.
1 app: Headspace. It’s awesome, especially for beginners like me.
1 podcast: Medita podcast by Mar del Cerro
1 site: Mark Manson (author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a blogger and internet entrepreneur).
1 beverage: Water, water and more water.
1 inspiration: P!nk has always been and forever will be the woman who inspires me the most.
1 woman we should interview and why: Maris Degener. I just saw her I am Maris documentary on Netflix and she literally changed my perspective on anxiety and yoga.