Lyric Mariah Heard was born with amniotic band syndrome. How bullying, 'America's Next Top Model' and the pandemic have impacted her body image.

"Every time I was losing weight, I felt great, because everyone was applauding like, 'Oh my gosh. Give me the ab routine,'" she says.

Lyric Mariah Heard opens up about the realities of being a model with limb difference.  (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Yahoo Life)
Lyric Mariah Heard opens up about the realities of being a model with limb difference. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Yahoo Life)

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.

Model Lyric Mariah Heard is no stranger to standing out.

It can be hard to imagine a world where a model who has appeared in campaigns for some of the biggest brands in the world, including Rihanna's Savage X Fenty and Kim Kardashian's SKIMS, feels insecure. But for the 26-year-old, who began modeling at 19, positive self-image has been a journey of peaks and valleys, tracing back to infancy.

"I was born with amniotic band syndrome, which is a birth defect that is caused by the amniotic bands that penetrate the womb," Heard explains. "They wrapped around my hand and my leg and cut off circulation." The condition permanently altered her physical appearance.

"I wear a prosthetic on my right leg. And I have three fully formed fingers on my left hand, and just no digits on my right hand," she says.

April is National Limb Difference Awareness month, and Heard says the condition, coupled with being one of the only Black students in her class growing up, made her the subject of ridicule from her peers.

"The kids [would] imitate my body. When they would wave at me, they would crumple their fingers up so it would 'look like' my hand," Heard says. Students in her class would treat her as if her limb difference was contagious and openly recoiled if they made contact with her.

"If I'd touch their pencil, they would literally make it such a big deal and run away to sanitize it, and you'd just hear all the laughter after that," she says.

This impacted her self-image and perception, especially in terms of desirability.

"I had a boy tell me in seventh grade that I better not have a crush on him," Heard says. "It just always felt like people could not wait to publicly embarrass me."

This led Heard to restrict what she ate, an attempt to minimize reasons bullies could come after her, she says.

"I just felt like, 'I can't control that you guys are making fun of my hand or my leg. But I can be the small skinny girl,'" she explains, who says witnessing the mistreatment of other girls at her school put her on edge.

"[Bullies] never made fun of my body weight. But they definitely made fun of other girls in my school who were on the bigger side," Heard says. "I stayed a skinny girl and sometimes skinnier than I needed to be. I just wouldn't eat for days, or I would eat once a day and I would just lie about what I'm eating."

She also underwent several surgeries to release the bands around her hands and legs throughout her grade school years and says the process negatively impacted her desire to eat.

"I was going through surgery and they were giving me these narcotic drugs for pain. It took my appetite away and I just got used to not eating," she says.

Heard also grew up aspiring to be a model and recalls submitting "dark and grainy" webcam photos to agencies in her area when she was in middle school. She thought making it as a model would bring her acceptance from her peers.

"I thought I would become popular. I figured, 'Who can hate a model? Who isn't going to like me if I'm modeling?'" she explains.

This desire to be like the runway models she saw on her television, coupled with the glamorization of thinness in media during her formative years, fueled Heard's difficult relationship with food.

"Obviously I did want to be a model and I wanted to be in the industry. So watching episodes of America's Next Top Model about the girls not eating and making fun of their bodies — it seemed like it was not a bad thing," says Heard.

Heard's runway dreams sat on the back burner for a few years, until she got to college.

While attending Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Ill., a photographer on campus asked Heard to be his model for a school project. When Heard got the photos back, something shifted.

"I don't think I'd ever seen myself as beautiful before that. When I got the photos back, I could not stop looking at them and that was the moment that it all clicked to me," says Heard. From there, she began doing more photoshoots and sharing them on Instagram to get her face and name out there.

"I was never the cool kid. But in college, I was. A lot of people on my campus thought it was so cool, and loved the photos and the shoots," she says.

During this time, there was also a shift in what body types were praised, recalls Heard, which made her feel more comfortable with eating.

"College is when the whole 'Kim K. era' was in, so that's when the whole girls with a small waist and a big butt was all anybody was talking about," she says. "I started to fit that bill. So I was like, 'I can eat because it's gonna go to the right places.'"

Eventually, her interest in school began to decline and she dropped out in 2016, during her junior year, as her desire to model began to take precedence.

Heard worked as a spa receptionist while pursuing a full-time career in modeling and she soon began working with other photographers who would pay her to be a part of their portfolio.

In 2018, she moved to L.A. in hopes of getting better casting opportunities. She soon booked her first paid deal with fashion retailer DollsKill, which she says marked the beginning of her professional modeling career. From there, she began landing bookings for brands such as Pretty Little Thing and Tommy Hilfiger.

But when the pandemic hit, Heard says some of her unhealthy habits returned.

"Everybody was in the house. I was slamming down food, So I gained weight," she says. Around the same time, she booked the 2020 Savage X Fenty show, which led her to obsess over her body. "I remember just going on such an extreme diet for that show, constantly working out and watching what I ate."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 1: In this image released on October 1, Lyric Mariah attends Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 presented by Amazon Prime Video at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, California; and broadcast on October 2, 2020. (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 Presented by Amazon Prime Video)
Lyric Mariah attends Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2. (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 2 Presented by Amazon Prime Video)

This unhealthy behavior continued well past the job, leading Heard to one of the lowest points in her health journey.

"From that [show] to 2021 is when I developed one of the most toxic relationships with the gym," she says.

Even though her weight loss came about in an unsustainable manner, Heard became accustomed to the seemingly endless compliments from fans on Instagram.

"Every time I was losing weight, I felt great, because everyone was applauding like, 'Oh my gosh. Give me the ab routine,'" she says.

Since the comments seemed harmless, if not flattering, she began to feel trapped between outward perceptions about her body and the realities of what it took to maintain her looks.

"It was so hard for me to notice it was toxic, because again, you're posting and everyone's like, 'I wish my body could look like that.' And I remember thinking after a while, 'I can't.' I could not accurately give anybody tips on how to look like me because I was doing it in unhealthy ways," says Heard.

"There was a point in time where I was going to the gym for two hours a day. And all I had was a Celsius [energy drink] or a smoothie," she continues. "That was it all day. And I remember getting to a point where all I would do is shake when trying to work out."

Eventually, Heard realized she wasn't as in "control" of herself as her disordered eating habits led her to believe.

"At the beginning of last year, I was 98 pounds as a 25-year-old woman," she says. "It took my body feeling like it was quite literally giving out for me to realize I had no control over it anymore. And the idea that I did, it had been a lie the entire time."

In an effort to position herself to heal, Heard began reading recovery stories from people in similar situations.

"I was reading this article from another woman who was struggling with an eating disorder, and she asked the reader, 'If you believe that you have so much control over this, then ask yourself, 'Can you go out right now and eat a burger even though you're not hungry?' And I was sitting there like, 'No.' Even if I wanted, like a piece of chicken. There's no way I can eat it without basically gagging through the entire thing," she says. "And that's when I realized, 'Wow, this has nothing to do with control because I have none.'"

Now, Heard has embraced a renewed perspective on her body while embarking on the beginning of her own recovery. While she feels that she's made progress, she's been reluctant to show up as her authentic self online.

"I didn't know how to post on Instagram with this new body once I was in my recovery because your brain is telling you, 'You look so different,'" she says. This led her to over-focus on the "lack" of compliments on her new posts, something she admits was likely confirmation bias.

"I wasn't seeing a lot of people make comments about my body or about my abs or my stomach or anything like that," she says. "It's almost like subconsciously you are just missing it."

Now, she's trying to correct that mindset by removing the value of appearance-based comments and working toward body neutrality. She isn't in the market for any commentary on her body — good or bad.

"At this moment, I think I'm in a love-hate relationship with my body," Heard explains. "I'm stepping over into a new threshold of becoming a grown woman and so I'm currently a little indifferent with my body."

She is also weaning herself off the need for external validation.

"[Now] when I go to the gym, my motivation is not to post for other people or to get other people's applause. If I get it, That's beautiful. If I don't, that's also beautiful, but it's still going to be for me at the end of the day," says Heard.

After a lifetime of struggle with body image, she's no longer penalizing herself to obtain the praise of others.

"I'm not going to under-eat, I'm not going to basically punish my body just to appease other people. I'm growing out of that stage of self-punishment," 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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