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Source: Zelshanna Pardo / Zel Pardo

When Zelshanna Pardo, preferably known as Zel, tells her story, she speaks passionately, but in a liberated way. She has been through a lot, enough to break the average person. But she has overcome all of it, so she has no qualms when it comes to speaking about it, discussing her past.

She has been a victim of sexual assault. Unflinching, she shared that she had been assaulted by her stepfather when she was younger. Her mother knows about it, as “He told her out of his own mouth.” However, they’re still together.

As she approached her 25th birthday, Zel was raped by a second cousin. She told family and police about it, but when he claimed that it was consensual, no one backed her up and police didn’t move forward with her case. “Because there was no one there to corroborate my story, it was basically my word versus his,” she says. Soon after that happened, she became pregnant with her cousin’s child.

She also suffered with alcoholism, something that she says is prevalent in her family, as well as substance abuse.

To cap it all off, she was obese. She had been that way since childhood and it continued on through adulthood, with her highest weight being 389 pounds.

But the 32-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina native speaks on the past without pain because she has done the work to heal herself not just physically, but emotionally as well. She has removed negativity from her life, forgoing toxic relationships (including the one with her mother) for positive ones, like the supportive one she has with her fiancée, whom she met after her surgery. They are set to marry next spring. Her fiancée is a woman, but she says, “It’s not a she because of my assault past. It’s a she because I prefer women.”

She has gone through therapy, worked on her spirit, greatly decreased her alcohol intake, and is thankful to call her son her best friend now (she, for the record, says “he is on the spectrum, but he’s awesome”). In fact, it was her son, a child born out of a traumatic situation, who motivated her to do everything to get healthy. To take good care of him, she had to take good care of herself. So she shed more than 170 pounds after having weight-loss surgery in 2016. She has completely revamped her diet, going the keto route, and controls her portions with great discipline.

Overall, she has come a long way.

So this is Zel Pardo’s story, and it’s absolutely inspiring. Find out what it took for her to not only make her health a priority, but to altogether take her life back.

“I made the decision that I no longer wanted to be a victim,” she says. “I wanted to be a survivor.”

MadameNoire: Thinking back, what were things like in terms of your health growing up? 

Zel Pardo: I was always fat. I was always the big girl since I can remember. My family is from the North, but they moved down South in the early ’90s. We picked up the eating habits of being Southern and it was like, you’re going to eat all of the food on your plate. It wasn’t always healthy, and there wasn’t always portion control. I didn’t know what healthy eating was, and everyone in my family was big. I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandmother was a larger woman. So I mean, it was normal to me to be fat, until I was getting picked on at school for being the fat kid.

When did you notice that your weight was becoming a problem for you? And what was the catalyst for change? 

I think that it always kind of was there. I’ve always been the fat friend, but it didn’t bother me because I was always around my friends and they loved me. They didn’t see me that way. When I went to college, I started to notice the difference between healthy eating and unhealthy eating. My friend, she was like a workout junkie, so she was like, ‘If you want me to help you, I can.’ But it was nothing I could ever really stick to. So all through college I was big. And then I was sexually assaulted by a family member and got pregnant with my son. I would say my son is pretty much what made me change my life. Around the time my son was turning 2, he was getting really active, running and jumping and playing, and here I was, nearly 400 pounds, and I couldn’t play with him. My knees were hurting. I was at a job where I was standing up all day. Walking around, walking up and down the stairs, I was out of breath. That’s when I realized I wanted to change. I didn’t want to be that sideline mom. I wanted to be the one not watching my son run but running with him and playing with him and being able to interact with him.

So I was working at Lane Bryant at the time and a lady came in and she was celebrating her 100-pound weight loss. I asked her how she did it, she said, “Oh, I had weight-loss surgery.” I had never heard of weight-loss surgery before. So I was asking her questions, and she had the lap-band. She gave me the information from the person she went to see. Later that night, I researched it, I watched the webinar and I made an appointment for the consultation. Things just kind of went from there.

I know you said you were a recovering alcoholic. Before you had the surgery, what role did your drinking have in your weight and overall health, and were you drinking in response to your assault? 

In my family, there’s a lot of substance abuse and mental health issues. So it’s something I grew up doing. I honestly have been drinking since maybe I was 10, 12, and doing it with family members. That’s what people in my family did. They were heavy in drugs. They were heavy in alcohol. They still are. I think that that did play a role but I won’t say it played a role in my weight. I honestly think that my drinking and my weight were a coping mechanism for my assault. Because it wasn’t anything that I ever spoke out about because it happened within my family. My mother’s husband assaulted me when I was younger and she knows about it. They’re still together. He told her out of his own mouth. My mother and I don’t have a relationship. We’ve tried to build one, it just doesn’t work out because she’s a narcissist and she doesn’t want to take responsibility for anything.

The second time that it happened, again, I wasn’t going to speak out. I was raped by my second cousin.


Yep. And then I realized I was pregnant, and that’s the only reason I spoke out about that. Even with having my son and drinking, it still went hand in hand. In my mind I’ve just realized that it was a coping mechanism. I tried therapy. I tried so many things but I don’t think I was in a place where I was ready because I wasn’t in a forgiving spirit. I was still in a place where I was vengeful: “Why me? Why does this keep happening to me? Do I have rape me on my forehead?” It was happening within my own family and my family knows, and they actively know because this person has done this to other family members, but no one wants to say anything. So he’s still out, roaming the streets and there are no repercussions for him. But I was suffering with being a victim of rape again, and then I have something I look at every day as a reminder. That was my thought process then. But now I love my son. My son is my best friend. I don’t see him for the rape. I see him for who he is. He is the light of my life. And I knew in order for me to be there for him, I can’t help anyone if I can’t help myself. I couldn’t be a successful parent, I couldn’t be successful in my career, I couldn’t be a successful partner to my fiancée if I’m not physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally healthy. I had to get my mental together and I think that’s why people need to understand that weight gain and loss is not about the physical.

Has anything been done about your cousin? 

No. I went to the police, they did a rape kit, I filed the police report. When I found out I was pregnant, I went back and at that time, I had reached out and told two family members. I told my mother and she could not keep it in her space, so she called down to Charlotte and basically told everyone about the situation. So by the time it got back and he was questioned by police, he said it was consensual. Because there was no one there to corroborate my story, it was basically my word versus his. I was the only person in my family to speak out against him.

People have asked me, “Why not go after him for child support?” One, because that would make it ok. Two, I don’t want him to be any part of my child’s life. No part at all, because that’s not a child that I asked for. But what happened was, God took a situation that was satanic and devilish and turned it into a blessing for ME. So that is my son and that’s all there is to it.

So once you chose to practice forgiveness and embrace your son, which then motivated you to have weight-loss surgery, how did your diet and fitness regimen change? 

I’m not going to lie. I don’t work out. And the thing is, huge misconception: You do not have to kill yourself in the gym to lose weight. If you want to build muscle, tone, all of that? Great. You don’t have to do it with a 20-pound weight. You can do it while you’re sitting down with a 5-pound weight. You just increase your reps. You can do it with a can of green beans! You don’t have to go out and spend all of this money on personal trainers. After my surgery, my diet changed in reference to portion control. That’s what weight-loss surgery is. You change your portions and it’s a tool to do that. You could have weight-loss surgery and if you’re still eating the same crap you were eating before, you’re not going to yield any results. So I started to make healthier eating decisions. After the first 80 pounds I stalled, but I continued to lose inches. The scale wasn’t moving, but that’s when I realized I don’t want to go by the scale. I go by the way my clothes fit. Coming from a 28 to a 12 in jeans is amazing. So for me, it’s about a goal. If I can fit these clothes? Great. I base my victories not off of how many pounds I’ve lost, but off of my non-scale victories.

And obviously it’s worked well for you. If you haven’t been exercising but have solely been focusing on portion control and lost all of this weight, you have had some serious victories. 

It’s 80 percent about what you eat. That’s what it is. It’s only 20 percent physical because you can work out all day, but if you’re still eating trash, you’re not going to yield any results. People are always focused on how you’re burning. But it takes a lot of calories to lose one pound. I mean, do something fun. So many people go into diet mode. It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. That’s the mentality you need to have. This is something I want to maintain and do for the rest of my life. Do something that’s manageable, do something that works for you. Stop crash dieting. Don’t take no pills. Weight loss surgery is not the easy way out, it’s actually very, very tough. But it’s still all about maintaining. That’s why I decided to go keto. I love keto, I eat all of the time but I’m eating healthy things. And you have to surround yourself with positivity so that you’re always in a positive mindset. If you’re portraying negativity, that’s the type of life you’re going to lead. That’s what I had to understand. If I’m constantly being negative, I’m blocking my blessings.

Do you think you will have skin removal surgery as you continue to lose weight? 

I don’t know. I love me. Extra skin can sometimes be discouraging, and I’m like, “If I didn’t have this skin I could be in a smaller size.” But what I had to do again is love myself. Who’s to say that if I had skin removal surgery there wouldn’t be something else I would want to change? Do I really want to risk going through another surgery and going under the knife for aesthetics when I’m essentially healthy? At the end of the day, stretch marks, loose skin — whatever. I’m healthy, and that was my main goal.

And what kind of words of encouragement would you offer to other people who are dragging their feet about making a change, whether it’s with the help of weight-loss surgery or just by overhauling their diet and fitness?

Make a vision board. Start with something that small. Make sure that you put it in a place where you see it. It can be quotes, it can be pictures, it can be anything. Start with something as small as a vision board that you’re going to see every day that’s going to motivate you. Because when you have that motivation, it’s going to come. And once you are motivated, make sure your mind is made up. And remember, consistency is key. We all have bad days. It happens, but again, it’s about a lifestyle change. When you recognize that, that’s when you’re going to see the change.

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