Trigger warning: mentions of eating disorder behaviors
McCall Dempsey ate food out of trash cans then made herself vomit. She watched her heart beat out of her chest after swallowing too many diet pills. She allowed herself to eat only certain low-calorie foods. She stepped on the bathroom scale multiple times a day.
She believed her worth depended on her weight and appearance. She wanted to be perfect.
Her life was far from perfect, but she didn’t let that show.
When she was in the depths of her eating disorder in college, she also dressed up and took pictures during Bid Day for her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. She partied with friends. She met her boyfriend, Jordan, who would later become her husband.
“I acted like I had it all together. I looked normal,” she said. “That’s what you do as a Southern woman – act like everything’s fine. I sold shirts and planned parties for my sorority, then binged and purged after.”
After 15 years of living two lives, Dempsey grew tired. She wanted her life to mean more. She quit what she thought was her dream job working for an advertising agency called BBR to enter a residential treatment center, Carolina House, in December 2010. She lived there for the next three months, going through different kinds of therapy with other residents.
During her time at Carolina House, she realized she wanted to pay it forward.
In 2012, Dempsey finally realized how. She realized her calling: to start Southern Smash.
Southern Smash is a program of The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness that provides college students the opportunity to smash scales and engage in activities aimed to boost self-esteem, as well as listen to a panel of people talk about eating disorders and recovery. The scale smashing and activities happen during the day, then that night, she and other panelists speak about their experiences. Dempsey dares students to love themselves.
Southern Smash will turn seven on November 16 this year. It all started with Dempsey’s idea of smashing scales and an organization named SoleSisters at Louisiana State University asking her to speak after looking at her blog and social media.
“I’ll speak for y’all, sure, that sounds like it could be fun,” Dempsey said. “What are your thoughts on also doing a scale smash?”
“A scale smash? What do you mean?” Sole Sisters asked.
“Like, where we smash bathroom scales with baseball bats,” Dempsey said. She worried they would find her idea weird, but she believed it embodied a way to support others in a relevant way.
They loved it. They wanted to smash diet culture and mental health stigma.
Dempsey held the first Southern Smash at Louisiana State University. People smashed scales on a grassy area in front of the blue lakes.
Southern Smash came to UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus for the seventh time on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019 in front of Davis Library. In that space, tables featuring treatment centers covered the brick ground.
In the middle of the tables, the scales sat in plastic bags on a black foam mat. Many students smashed scales with all their strength using a baseball bat and sledgehammer that Dempsey provided. Encouraging pop songs played in the background.
Smashing a scale and listening to others’ stories helped Sarah Wahid. Growing up, her peers made fun of her for being the only South Asian student. Her awareness of her race came as early as four years old, when she wanted to be a white princess.
Tired of others calling her weird, she believed she had to change her appearance to earn their respect.
She started to restrict her caloric intake and compulsively exercise. The weight she lost never felt like enough, and she realized that.
The scale used to control Wahid’s life, but it doesn’t anymore.
At the smash, she heard laughter. She heard baseball bats whacking scales. She heard friends talking to each other.
She saw people taking videos of their friends hitting the scales, smiling. She saw the empowering messages people wrote, reminders they are worth more than a number, more than their weight. She saw groups of people talking.
Wahid is the co-chair of Embody Carolina, an organization that promotes eating disorder education, awareness, body positivity and intersectionality. She works with Maggie Helmke, an outreach coordinator, whose first Southern Smash occurred this year. Wahid considers Helmke to be one of her closest Embody friends, and she appreciates how Helmke makes herself available when she’s needed.
Helmke also struggled with the scale last year, stepping on it multiple times.
She doesn’t want to step on it anymore.
This year at Southern Smash, Helmke had to run to get there in time after her geology class.
Her stress melted when she arrived. Like everyone else, she felt joy from hearing scales shatter. But what meant most to her was seeing her friend who is nonbinary, Katie Regittko, smash a scale.
Regittko has struggled recently with her recovery from bulimia, so when smashing a scale made them radiant, their body relaxing, Helmke worried a little less for her friend’s wellbeing.
Helmke realizes that some people don’t feel ready to smash scales, but that doing so is a great first step in recovery and body positivity. She felt encouraged seeing her friends outside of Embody partake in the smashing.
She admired the strength she saw in students smashing scales, both in their ability to pick up something as heavy as a sledgehammer as well as their ability to smash something that often takes over the life of someone dealing with an eating disorder.
Amy Sullivan, a Smash Coordinator working with Dempsey, has struggled with the scale as well. She was in treatment for anorexia when she heard Dempsey’s story. This story played a part in showing Sullivan that recovery is possible, something she had trouble believing.
She decided to keep fighting for recovery.
When she was deep in her eating disorder, she spent a lot of time alone. She didn’t tell anyone about her struggles.
She wanted to share her story to give hope.
“I vowed if I made it through the storm, I would give back and share my story like those brave women had done for me,” Sullivan said.
Her story came full circle when Southern Smash came to her alma mater, Texas A&M University. Instead of feeling triggered, she felt hope and renewal, having come far in recovery.
She listened to scale-bashing. She felt power in her arms as she smashed alongside her parents and former therapist. She experienced her dream coming true as she shared her story.
Before, she didn’t want to touch anything related to eating disorders with a ten-foot pole, scared someone would discover her secret. Now, she embraces her story.
Dempsey, like Sullivan, engages in her work selflessly. While Dempsey still smashes scales, she doesn’t do it for herself anymore -- she does it for the strong people she’s met.
She does it for the woman who wouldn’t go to Southern Smash her first year because she was sick with her eating disorder, but by senior year, was a panelist. And she does it for so many others too.
That’s what Southern Smash is about: people realizing that the scale doesn’t control them, that they are stronger than their eating disorder, and that they are worth more than their weight.