From the looks of her Instagram feed, it might seem like Alexis Ren, a 20-year-old model with more than 9 million followers, has an idyllic life. After all, the Los Angeles native is generally seen posing on beautiful beaches or under waterfalls.
But now, Alexis admits she’s been less than forthright with her fans. “I would look at my profile and be like, ‘Look at this girl! She has, like, the most perfect life!’ and I would feel so guilty for not feeling blessed all the time.”
In April, Alexis began tweeting vaguelyabout her health issues, confessing that those happy photos actually masked the truth — posting, in part, that she was in a “toxic state of mind,” suffered from food guilt, and would overexercise as a way to punish herself. Recently, she opened up more about how she coped with the death of her mother and — for the first time — shared details about her struggle with disordered eating.
“I kind of was just like, ‘I’m just going to be upfront with everyone,'” she says. “I have nothing to hide.”
As a model, Alexis earns a living showing off her figure. But research shows that photos on social media — which many young women turn to for inspiration — can have a negative impact on how people view their own appearances. “Looking up to girls for inspo is a beautiful thing, but comparing yourself is what creates the anxiety and self-hatred,” she says to the young women who count themselves as fans. “It’s really important that young girls know the difference.
Alexis was 17 when she lost her mother to breast cancer on Mother’s Day three years ago.
Alexis, who has two sisters and a younger brother, was homeschooled and extremely close to her mom. She didn’t always enjoy the same relationship with her father, a lawyer whom Alexis says worked a ton while she was growing up. “We’re looking at each other like, ‘Oh fuck, now we should probably be [closer],'” she says of the period after her mother passed away.
When Alexis turned 18, she went to Australia to model for several months, which she says helped her mourn. “You can take a parent’s death one way or another. You could be like, ‘Oh my god, fuck. I just want to get rid of this pain,’ and party or whatever,” she says. “But I took it as, ‘OK, now I’m living for me and my mom. Now I have to live my life to the absolute most.’
Over time, and without even noticing, Alexis gained some weight while abroad — a change she says her modeling agency pointed out when she returned to Los Angeles.
“They were like, ‘You did gain weight and if you could start working out a little bit more…'” she says, trailing off. “I just felt so out of control.”
“I knew I was letting my mom down by doing everything that she wouldn’t have wanted me to do.”
Alexis had never been chastised for her weight so the criticism shook her. She began working out more frequently — and dieting, something she’d never done. “I felt bad because I knew I was letting my mom down by doing everything that she wouldn’t have wanted me to do,” she says. (Her mother had been a health nutritionist.)
Alexis met Jay Alvarrez around the same time her eating issues developed. (They discovered each other on Tumblr and Jay asked out Alexis via Instagram.) Their relationship got serious quickly: “I tried to replace [my mom] with another person, which obviously doesn’t work out, especially when you’re young and you put your faith into a person who has different intentions,” she says.
Jay, a model and music producer who was well known by the time they met, managed the duo during their two-year relationship, booking modeling jobs for both of them in exotic locations like Greece, Spain, and Hawaii. When the couple began filming YouTube lifestyle videos, like a highlight reel of their summer, which received more than 22 million views, the project forced Alexis to be on camera constantly and face her appearance. “I was my worst critic ever,” she says. “The only sense of relief I had was to be able to monitor my eating and my workouts.”
The unpredictable travel schedule made it difficult for Alexis to find the foods she wanted to eat and maintain control over her increasingly strict diet. Restrictive eating also left her feeling bloated when she did put food in her system. “It was a vicious cycle where when I did eat, I just felt worse, so I didn’t want to eat, and ate less and less and less,” she says. “I was scared of food.”
Alexis also upped her exercise regimen to compensate for any food she did eat. “Everyone around me was like, “Alexis, what are you doing?'” she says. “But I felt like my body was the only reason why people liked me.”
“I felt like my body was the only reason why people liked me.”
Her body didn’t respond well: Every time she went back home to Los Angeles for a few days, she’d experience flu-like symptoms, such as exhaustion and fever. “I would catch things really easily because my immune system was so shocked from traveling, overworking myself, and not eating as much as I should have,” she says.
She traveled with Jay for up to 11 months a year, although she doesn’t blame him for her eating issues. “At that age, he didn’t know how to handle what I was going through,” she says. “I needed a mother, not a boyfriend.” (Jay did not respond to a request for comment.)
After about two years of dating, the pair broke up in the summer of 2016. She later tweeted about the size of his penis, which led to accusations that she was body-shaming him. (Her tweet has since been deleted.)
“I was just letting him know how it felt,” she said, adding that many people hated what she did. “I’m over it,” she says. “I’m happy.”
It was only once she was single again that Alexis began to listen to her friends’ and family’s concerns. “I just got to the point where I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to change because this is not working,'” she says, adding that the burden of knowing how many fans idolize her figured into her decision to begin practicing healthy habits worth looking up to.
For about eight months, she took a break from traveling altogether and posted up at home in Los Angeles. Her godmother, Joni Lerner, a life coach who’d been close with Alexis’s mother, introduced her to Maggie Tanielian, a certified personal trainer and health nutritional coach.
Maggie took Alexis grocery shopping, taught her coping strategies like packing food when she’s out and about, and coached her through food guilt. “I was texting her every day to tell her what I was eating or that I ate something that made me feel so guilty. She’d help me get back to a healthy mind-set,” says Alexis. “Everything started to fall into place when I started to stop worrying, when I wasn’t being so anal about it.”
Now Alexis works out about every other day, taking a yoga or Pilates class, or doing exercises with her trainer. “It’s not obsessive, it’s just something I do now,” she says. She enjoys a well-rounded diet that includes carbs, lean proteins, and veggies.
Alexis has put on several pounds during her recovery — a change she’s had to get used to. “It scared me at first but I had the right people around me,” she says, adding that she’s learned to embrace her weight gain.
Although Alexis recently tweeted that she’s the healthiest she’s ever been, she still copes with occasional food guilt. “It’s always kind of there, like with my mom’s death. Like, I’ll be fine, and then suddenly it will just hit me every once in a while,” she says, adding that she no longer acts on it.
Alexis is used to people commenting on everything she does — or at least everything she shares. But she tries not to care what people think, even when they suggest she’s lost weight or looks too skinny. Instead, she’s learned to focus on the core people in her life — who she refers to as her “Post-it People,” since she has literally listed their names on a Post-it.
One person who’s no longer on her Post-it is Jay. They are no longer in touch and Alexis doesn’t particularly want to discuss him. “The past was in the past,” she says. “I was putting him before myself, which I thought was an act of love, but it’s not. It’s not healthy to ever put someone first before yourself.”
Alexis isn’t dating anyone at the moment and she’s been busy working on her career. She’s been taking daily acting classes, has been cast in an upcoming psychological thriller called Tarot, and is working on photography and fashion design. Her line of fitness gear, Ren, which will be sold online, is due out in June.
By Harper’s Bazaar