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.
Leah Van Dale is no stranger to having her body picked apart.
Known to many by her stage name, Carmella, the WWE wrestler and former NFL cheerleader says she was made hyper-aware of her smaller frame from a young age.
"I grew up doing ballet, tap and jazz and I was always in a bodysuit and we were always looking at ourselves in the mirror," Van Dale tells Yahoo Life of her first memories surrounding her body image. "I was very aware of it from a young age. I was always usually the smallest girl in class wether that was a school or dance class. But I was very aware. And I felt like that was my thing. 'Oh, you're so tiny.' So I'm like, 'OK, that's my thing. I guess I'm the tiny girl.'"
In a society that has historically prioritized thinness, these comments could be interpreted as compliments. But Van Dale says instead, they sent her into a spiral that made her feel like her only worth was found in her petiteness. She says this also led people to feel comfortable commenting on her body and eating habits due to her size.
"I truly hate the 'Oh, I want to see you eat.' 'What are you going to eat?' 'Make sure you eat that,'" she says.
No matter the intention, Van Dale says these comments are offensive and reductive.
"That is such a weird thing to say. And that really makes me feel so uncomfortable. Because I eat so much," she says, noting that beyond being annoying, these comments are factually inaccurate.
"My husband [WWE star Matt Polinksy, aka Corey Graves] will be there and will defend me. He's like, 'Are you kidding me? She eats way more than I do.' I just feel like that's such a negative thing to say to someone, especially a woman. I'm a 35-year-old woman. You don't need to tell me that I should be eating. I know to eat. I never need anyone to remind me of that. And I think it's just kind of disgusting that people are still making those comments in 2023," she says.
Before becoming a WWE wrestler, Van Dale was a professional dancer for both the New England Patriots and the Lakers. Performing for some of the biggest sports franchises in the world came with an extensive set of guidelines surrounding her appearance, a formative moment in her body image journey.
"There's a lot of pressure to look your best and be fit and healthy. And I think I was sort of doing it more in an unhealthy way," she says.
Of course, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and Van Dale says she didn't realize just how much she was restricting herself at the time.
"When I look back, I realize I was just so strict with my diet and restricted myself from eating anything and everything that wasn't vegetables, fruit and lean meats. And that's just sort of how I lived my life," she says.
These habits followed her to the WWE, where she says she felt internal pressure to appear a certain way as a wrestler.
"When I started out, I had so much pressure like 'I have to be fit, I want to have a six-pack, I need to keep this up.' I mean as a wrestler, you need to have a specific physique and look a certain way. And that's kind of what set me apart too is I always had a defined body and things like that. And I tried to keep that up," she says.
This often meant pushing her body past its limits to the brink of exhaustion.
"For a long time I was always lifting heavy weights and tearing my body apart on the road with wrestling. Then when I'm home, I'm lifting weights, and I was just feeling so weak, my body was hurting so much," she says.
In addition to burnout, Van Dale soon began to realize that seeking external validation through fitness was not a sustainable or healthy practice.
"I did it just because that was what I thought I needed to do. Because I wanted to project this image. I want everyone to know that I'm fit and I'm healthy and I have a six-pack and things like that," she says.
Now, Van Dale now finds humor in the lengths she used to go to in efforts to appear fit.
"I look back and I kind of laugh at it because at the point I'm at now I do it for all the right reasons and not because I want people to perceive me a certain way," she says. "At this point in my life, I never weigh myself anymore. I do not care about that."
She still works out and makes fitness a priority in her life, but explains she has learned how to listen to her body and doesn't feel compelled to hold herself to unrealistic standards.
"I've finally gotten to a point where I don't want to restrict my diet. I don't want to tell myself I can't have something. And I feel like now this is the best I've ever looked and the best I've ever felt because I just am doing what's right for me and eating intuitively," 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.
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