Senior who overcame eating disorder dedicated to writing, educating others

When Leta Rebecca Cunningham was choosing a subject for the collection of essays that she would submit as her Honors College thesis, she knew right away what she would write about — her eating disorder that she developed during her senior year in high school.

She began writing about her relationship with food and her eating disorder during her freshman year at UNT, calling one of her personal essays “My Mother’s Bread.”

Shortly after Leta receives her degree in English language and literature on May 12 — one year early and with honors —her essay will be featured for a large audience. “My Mother’s Bread” will be included in Ten Spurs, a literary journal showcasing the work of the 2016 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference’s writing contest winners. Leta took the first-place prize of $3,000 in the Personal Essay category for “My Mother’s Bread.” Ten Spurs will be published in time for the start of this year’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference July 21-23.

“Something I’ve learned as a writer is that inspiration doesn’t always hit you, causing you to wind up writing a wondrous essay,” Leta says. “Sometimes, you just have to start writing. I tend to set a lot of deadlines for myself.”

From music to English literature

Leta is a 2014 graduate of Smithson Valley High School in San Antonio. With a high grade point average, she was accepted into UNT’s Honors College shortly after being accepted to UNT.

“I loved that UNT was proud of diversity and each student’s differences, and I chose the Honors College because I wanted to be in a community of other ambitious students, as well as opportunities for the mentorship, scholarship and research that it offers,” she says.

After taking piano lessons for 13 years, she planned to major in jazz studies. Before attending her first class as a freshman, however, she switched to a major in English language and literature.

“I’ve written since I was young. I knew I was supposed to be writing,” Leta says. She’s worked in the UNT Writing Lab since August 2015 and was an editorial intern for American Literary Review, which is published in the Department of English.

Leta spent the 2016 fall semester taking courses in sociology and gender studies — her minors — at the University of Leeds in England, after receiving a scholarship from UNT’s Study Abroad Program

“People and culture fascinate me. I write about femininity and the female experience, and studying sociology and gender studies has allowed me to speak about these topics more intelligently and knowledgeably,” she says.

Outside of UNT, she’s worked as a social media specialist for American Microreviews.com, a website that promotes new authors, books, journals and presses, and a reader for HippocampusMagazine.com, an online literary magazine.

Writing as therapy

From November 2015 through May 2016, she wrote for TheOdysseyOnline.com, a website that publishes first-person opinion pieces from college and university students. Her topics ranged from society’s ideas about femininity, self-love and other generation’s perceptions of millennials to the UNT Alternative Service Break trip she took to an animal shelter in Tennessee. But she devoted her February 2016 column to dispelling myths about eating disorders for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

“I’m really passionate about promoting awareness and overcoming misconceptions of eating disorders,” she says. “A lot of people think that their particular eating disorder is only valid if they must receive inpatient care in a hospital, but that’s not true. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. They aren’t defined by how much you weigh — they’re defined by the behaviors that the person exhibits towards food. An overweight person with an eating disorder should be taken just as seriously as an underweight person with an eating disorder.”

“My Mother’s Bread”

Leta’s essay pays tribute to her mother, who is also named Leta.

“It was so important to me to show the support I received from her,” she says, noting that for as long as she can remember, her mother has baked bread from scratch — “rich, nutty, soft, moist bread.”

“It’s so absolutely satisfying on its own that it requires no butter or cheese or jam,” Leta wrote in the essay. “Growing up, my brother and I would sit in the kitchen next to the oven with our knees up to our chests, waiting for the timer to signal its finish. Sometimes we became so impatient we couldn’t wait for the bread to cool enough to be sliced, so we pulled pieces out with our fingers — the steam rising under our touch, the hot bread burning the roofs of our mouths.”

Leta can’t remember the exact date that she began developing her eating disorder, or an exact reason why she developed it. She does recall the smell of bread baking in the oven and “drifting through the house and under the crack in my bedroom door, taunting me, tempting my empty stomach,” and notes that another myth about those with eating disorders is that they don’t like food.

“I’ve heard this so many times: ‘I could never be anorexic; I love food too much!’ But so do those suffering from eating disorders. Having a mental illness that attempts to control your eating habits has nothing to do with how much you do or do not enjoy food,” she says. “And different eating disorders come in different forms, and most people with eating disorders — even anorexia — eat more than a few times a day.”

As Leta wrote in “My Mother’s Bread,” for her, eating meant small snacks throughout the day and not full meals.

“It wasn’t food I ate — not exactly. I ate numbers. A package of walnuts — 100 calories. An apple — 50 calories. Half a spoonful of peanut butter — 45 calories,” she wrote. “Each of these tiny meals was planned around my high school class schedule: one snack per class period.”  

Recovering

Leta was briefly hospitalized during the second semester of her senior year in high school, to achieve a healthy weight. When she returned home, her mother baked fresh bread to celebrate. They ate it straight from the loaf pan after the oven timer went off. 

“I felt like a little kid again: A little girl with scabby knees who ate bread while it was still hot, who was too full to eat dinner because she’d eaten five slices of bread and a candy bar after school, who didn’t know what calories were, and was so, so impossibly happy,” she wrote in “My Mother’s Bread.”     

She says that getting back to a healthy weight was only the beginning of her recovery.

“The most challenging process during recovery is learning to balance the unhealthy thoughts and self-esteem issues that remain even after you’ve gained weight back,” she says. “Just like depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, eating disorders are not something you choose, but rather life-threatening illnesses that are thrust upon those who suffer from them. No one chooses to have an eating disorder and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Over a year, Leta worked on several essays about the physical, psychological and emotional relationships people have with food as part of understanding her own eating disorder. She says the writing “was therapy for me, and a reminder of how far I had come.”

In spring 2016, she presented the abstracts at University Scholars Day and received the first-place award for best thesis-in-progress in the humanities.

Leta’s thesis advisor, English department adjunct faculty member Shannon Abbott, encouraged her to enter “My Mother’s Bread” in the Mayborn Conference’s writing contest, and also apply for a financial award to attend the 2016 conference. Leta received one of the conference’s Green Light Awards, which covered registration and contest entry fees. Before the opening evening of the conference, she attended a special writing workshop for those who entered the contest, receiving critique on “My Mother’s Bread” from established authors.

“It was an act of vulnerability to let others read it, but I don’t know how I could edit my own work without feedback from others,” says Leta, who says that her mother also read the essay when it was in progress. “My writing would not get better without it.” 

Most recently, Leta read excerpts of “My Mother’s Bread” and other writings for her Honors thesis — which includes poems as well as seven essays — when she was the student keynote speaker at the 2017 University Scholars Day. She hopes to someday publish her thesis as a full-length book.

Next stop after commencement

After her graduation from UNT, Leta will enter the master of fine arts program in creative writing at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon — regarded as one of the top low-residency MFA creative writing programs in the U.S. In this program, students work mostly on their own, with feedback from their assigned faculty mentors, and attend workshops and lectures on the campus twice a year for two weeks at a time. So Leta and her beloved dog, Sammi, will stay in Denton.

“This was the most individualized program I’ve seen,” she says. “Rather than having classes with professors who are attending to hundreds of students, I’ll have one-on-one mentorship with one professor a semester who can really work with me on my writing. I’m planning on devoting the next few years of my life to my writing. I want to write, publish and teach writing as long as I can in my career.”