The courage it takes to share your story might be the very thing someone else needs to open their heart to hope
The courage it takes to share your story might be the very thing someone else needs to open their heart to hope
Katie Regittko, they/them, co-chair
I remember spending months dreaming about attending UNC. Not for the old well sips and basketball games and frat parties, but because of the 24/7 gym access and lack of support and watchful eye over my eating. The school year came, and with dredged up disdain for ending up so close to home and the stress of a new environment, so did my eating disorder in full force, worse than it ever had been before. It took on new faces, rearing its ugly head, until less than a month into second semester I was in the hospital and subsequently a treatment center.
Summer 2018, I planned to only do what I called "light restriction" during the school year. So how did it get so bad so quickly? There are some hypothesis I have: still dealing with rejection from my dream schools, being away from my dog, isolating in a single room, overworking myself, the "little fish, big pond" analogy, etc. But, at the end of the day, colleges are breeding grounds for eating disorders, especially at huge schools with a heavy athletic and fraternity/sorority presence, the textbook UNC definition.
Parts of seemingly "normal" college culture are steeped in diet culture and promote eating disorder behaviors. My first year of school, I thought it was normal to fast all day before a night of drinking, either to get inebriated quicker or to look a certain way in the outfit I had planned. Dining halls are plagued with large calorie counts in front of every option, and you can't get past a day without hearing about the "freshman 15". Comparison runs rampant--in class among your peers' knowledge, and also about the way other people live their lives. It isn't uncommon to hear about how someone spent hours in the gym or skipped eating before class. Meal plans are set up to make it easier to skip meals, and I won't even get into the horrid LFIT requirement.
When I look back at these things, on my first year of college, I have a lot of compassion for the person who struggled so badly and quickly. Not only was I transitioning from a graduating class of 30 students to an undergraduate body of 18,000, I was also grieving the death of a friend, trying to find my own way as a semi-independent adult, repairing the relationship with my parents, balancing a full course load, and wading through all the college diet culture bullshit. And I wish so badly that I could go back and tell myself to take it easy, everyone is just figuring things out.
So for the incoming freshman, who might have struggled with an eating disorder before or is currently struggling, here are some things I wish I could go back and tell Katie on their first few days at UNC:
1. Find a community
Shameless self plug, but Embody Carolina became a lifeline for me in college. Having a group of people who were focused on eating disorder advocacy and body liberation helped me to not only challenge some of the diet culture I saw on campus, but also eventually brought me the strength and resources to reach out for help. UNC is filled with hundreds of clubs for any interest you could think of--find one and become a regular. Those people will become a lifeline for you, and life-long friends.
2. Develop a consistent eating schedule
I can't stress this enough: eat and eat often. UNC classes need your full brain power. Get into the habit of eating three meals a day and bringing snacks with you. You're probably going to be walking more than usual, so eating enough is even more imperative. The fun thing is that eating can be really social in college, go to Ramsgiving or go on an excursion to Franklin street with friends!
3. Steer clear from the gym for a while
Gym culture in college is something else. Going to the gym just to go to the gym can be a bad idea if you have a history with eating disorders. If you want to move your body, opt for one of the many opportunities for joyful movement on campus. Join a dance club, play volleyball in one of the quads, hit balls on the tennis court with friends, or do fun fitness classes through the Student Recreation Center!
4. Opt for a lighter course load
This is the number one thing I wish I did my first semester. With a full ride scholarship, I felt the pressure to "make it count" VERY hard. So I filled my schedule to the brim with classes I loved and were interesting, but no matter how amazing they were, the combination of 18 credit hours and just trying to figure things out was a recipe for disaster. I would even recommend just taking 12 credit hours your first semester and seeing how that feels, then revisiting in the Spring.
5. You Belong Here
The imposter syndrome at UNC can be real, especially before you find your place. But you did it, you're here and going to one of the best public schools in the nation. It is real, and you are amazing for getting here. There is no rush to fit absolutely all of the traditions and expected actions into your first couple of months. Take care of yourself first, keep doing the things you love to do (make sure to make time for them). Some days, you're not going to want to wake up a 6am to stand in line at the Old Well and that's okay. You're a Tar Heel, like it or not.
6. Help is available, seek it out sooner rather than later
There are so many resources for help and extra support right here on campus and in the community. Chapel Hill has a free support group for people with eating disorders, and CAPS has a free body image group for students. Campus Health has an eating disorder treatment team, and there are a number of amazing providers in the surrounding area. UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders is right there for centralized outpatient support and higher levels of care. Carolina House and Veritas Collaborative are right down the road for higher levels of care. And the Embody team is always here for peer support.
Eating disorders and starting college are both incredibly difficult feats that sadly often go hand in hand. But, you are not alone. Your body needs all the love and care from you as you start this new chapter of your life, and so many of us are here to give compassion and support.
by Sarah Wahid, outgoing co-chair
At the end of last year, coronavirus seemed like a distant thing that would have no major effect on my life. Ebola was contained pretty effectively, and I was in fifth grade when H1N1 occurred. This would be just like those; besides, it was something that was happening across the world, far away from my life and those that I love.
As my last semester at UNC began, there were inklings that coronavirus would become something more. I had flu-like symptoms in February and was worried I had someway, somehow gotten coronavirus. I went to dinner with my friends who had heard from others that spring break would be extended due to coronavirus, with the possibility of switching to online classes. Cases started to trickle in and appear all over the US. And as someone who has struggled with anxiety and OCD and can be a bit of a hypochondriac at times, I began to be terrified by the possibility that this was going to be catastrophic. Thankfully, Expedia always gives people refunds when you cancel a trip, because I had already decided to cancel the New York trip I had planned for my last spring break. Break came around, and the university began sending out messages about self-quarantining if going to countries or states heavily affected by coronavirus.
Over the course of spring break, circumstances worsened every day. What started as something that was paranoid to be worried about expanded into a large enough threat for travel bans, virtually all spring breaks being extended and schools going online, and multiple state-of-emergencies. My heart sank as I read the email that graduation had been postponed. It seemed like everyone started working from home apart from my parents, who are regarded as essential workers due to their careers being in the health field, and the thought of them being exposed to the virus paralyzed me with fear. My anxiety grew with the exponentially growing number of cases, but I kept telling myself that it was okay, that it was temporary. I distracted myself with anything I could to keep me from thinking about the rapidly changing world outside.
People with eating disorders know that they are often a defense mechanism. Since my eating disorder is something that has grown in times that I experienced adversity due to my race, it also made sense that it would grow during a pandemic. It may not seem relevant to talk about eating disorders with everything else going on, but I’ve realized that it is. I numbly stared at empty grocery store aisles and didn’t think it mattered at first when my therapist asked how coronavirus was affecting my eating disorder. But as numerous jokes about the “Quarantine 15” and home workout videos piled up on my social media accounts, I realized how this would be hard for everyone currently dealing or has dealt with an eating disorder. I realized that when people feel threatened, they run back to the thing that made them feel in control and comforted, that gave them some semblance of normalcy in a world that none of us have ever experienced before. When everyone is saying to use this time to do home workouts and try healthy recipes, the sense of guilt that is often associated with eating disorders starts to creep back in and intensify.
You should know that it is perfectly okay to not use this time to work out, that it is okay to eat what you can and what you want when maybe even grocery shopping isn’t safe. You don’t have to write a book or start a project or develop a perfect skincare regimen or solve world peace, and most of all, you don’t have to lose weight. You don’t have to “use” this time for anything. Don’t let yourself be ridiculed by people who keep saying that this isn’t a big deal. It is okay to feel scared, and it’s understandable to want to cling on to something familiar when things become unpredictable. I encourage you to reach out to your therapists and your loved ones. And I want you all to know that here at Embody, we understand. We are here for you during this tumultuous, uncertain time.
On another note entirely, I didn’t know that the last Embody meeting I went to would be my last one. I pictured being able to end my semester with saying goodbye to the organization that has defined my college experience. I just want to say thank you to everyone who has helped me learn and grow from this organization, because I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t found it my freshman year. So this is goodbye, at least for now. I’m excited to see the lovely people you all become and to see where this organization goes from here.
by Ashley Broadwater, co-chair
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 their 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.
by Katie Regittko, Social Media Coordinator
I want to say thank you before I say goodbye. So thank you. For holding my uncertainty and giving me something tangible to look at and feel some sense of control. Thank you for holding me through anxiety and fear.
You’ve held this body shaking and crying at weight gain. You’ve held this body in celebration of weight loss. I wish you could have told me that none of it ever mattered. None of it matters. Instead, you told me my relationship to gravity time and time again. I wish I could have those moments of intense sorrow—and even the joyful ones—back. To think of all I’d be able to do with that time and energy.
Scale, I’m horrified to live without you. I know the qualms about my weight will be there for a while. And I’m mad at you for that. It didn’t have to be this way. You gave me a false sense of reliability and ease. Now I can’t imagine existing without you. But I must.
Today, I broke you into a million pieces, symbolic of how you’ve shattered my life these past ten years. I know now that I don’t need to know my weight, and I hope I never have to again. I hope I can get to a place where I don’t want to know. But for now, it’s enough to know that you and I don’t exist as one anymore.
No longer yours,
By Rosa Hannah, Co-Chair
The New Year is right around the corner, and so are the resolutions to lose weight, exercise more, and eat healthier to become a “Better You.” It’s hard to avoid this popular wish, especially with discount memberships to gyms and diets. Everyone around you talks about how in this New Year, they’re going to be a “New Person.”
By Sarah Wahid, Co-Chair
I’m not going to lie, I’m guilty of indulging in products such as SkinnyPop popcorn. I’m a lazy person who doesn’t like messes; so the appeal of yummy pre-popped popcorn in a family sized chips bag is obvious. However, I was cramming for my finals while chowing down a bag of SkinnyPop with my boyfriend last night when I started to think about the product name.
by Katie Regittko, Social Media Coordinator
I was in sixth grade when I started to realize and explore my identity as a queer and trans person. And, like many other students, that’s also when I started to hear negative comments and derogatory slurs about LGBTQ+ people in my school. It was by no coincidence that I began engaging in eating-disorder behaviors shortly thereafter.
Historically, eating disorders have been depicted in mass media (television shows, magazines, and works of fiction) as illnesses associated with white, straight, cisgender female adolescents. However, they affect people of all demographics and backgrounds. In fact, there have been multiple studies that show that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately susceptible to developing eating disorders.
Research shows that as early as twelve years old, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at a much higher risk of binge-eating and purging, including laxative abuse and/or vomiting, than their heterosexual peers. Additionally, a survey of nearly 300,000 college students found that transgender students had over four times greater risk of being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and two times greater risk of eating disorder symptoms such as purging. The most recent study on the subject conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association and the Trevor Project found that 75% of LGBTQ youth have either suspected or been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and 71% of transgender students have been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Essentially, LGBTQ students, and especially those who identify as transgender, are more likely to experience eating disorders and their symptoms than their straight and cisgender peers. And this may not be a coincidence: several factors and experiences play a role in the development of eating disorders in queer youth. These include, but are not limited to, stress surrounding coming out, internalized negative beliefs about oneself, and discrimination and bullying. LGBTQ people may also face challenges that prevent them from seeking out or obtaining treatment and support such as the lack of culturally-competent treatment, lack of support from family and friends, and insufficient eating disorders education among LGBTQ+ resource providers who are in a position to detect and intervene.
Many general factors that can contribute to developing an eating disorder include a need for control, experiences of trauma, underlying mental illness, and societal pressures that glorify a “perfect body”. Eating disorders do not exist in a vacuum--97% of people with eating disorders have at least one comorbid psychiatric illnesses. For me, one of the earliest major stressors in my life was an identity impairment caused by being a closeted queer and trans person afraid to come out. When that was mixed with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder and anxiety, underlying traumas, and exposure to diet-culture-plagued media, I resorted to disordered eating behaviors that quickly spiraled.
As a young person struggling to figure out my sexuality and gender identity, I felt like there were no resources or people to help me during that time, and walking in the hallway to hear slurs like “that’s so gay” or “tranny” only made me feel even more ostracized. Similarly, I felt like my identity was being discredited when I came out as gender non-binary because my peers and teachers alike refused to call me by my correct pronouns. So without a community to turn to as an outlet to help me navigate and grow confident in my identity, I turned to creating an identity in another community.
In my experience, dieting websites and programs were a direct gateway into darker pathways online that promoted and advocated for eating disorder behaviors. While dieting programs and calorie-tracking websites taught me how to restrict my intake, pro-eating disorder websites and blogs taught me how to take that obsession further and hide it from others. Although I finally got what I wanted – a seemingly “supportive” community – I paid the price of years of suffering physically, socially, and emotionally.
Eventually, I did find a healthy, supportive community who encouraged me in recovering. However, the “stickiness” of the eating-disorder label followed me for a while, and there were bumps along the way. It is important to note that recovery is a process, not perfection. Now, I am proud to say that I am confident in my identity as a bisexual, non-binary, femme powerhouse in recovery from an eating disorder rather than someone whose only sense of self is connected to food and weight.
It was not an easy road to get here, though, especially as a member of marginalized communities. For me, it took hitting a rock-bottom and realizing “I can’t live like this anymore”—literally and figuratively—and years of treatment. (This isn’t true for everyone though—everyone struggling with food or body-image deserves help no matter where they are. Don’t wait for it to get worse before seeking out help!) Then, I had to learn how to navigate recovery as a non-binary individual when almost all of the resources on the subject is catered to women. What helped most was finding a community of queer and trans people, both in recovery from an eating disorder and not, who could affirm my identity and make me feel accepted. I decided to give up my eating disorder and instead start focusing on helping communities around me who experienced the same identity issues that I did. Recovery gave me the strength to put my heart and soul into volunteer work at my local LGBT Center where I spent time helping facilitate a youth support group, lead state-wide youth outreach, and plan social events for queer and trans youth. I made my goal to provide the resources that I needed when I was younger to youth who may have been dealing with the same struggles I was.
There must be a change in the way we discuss and prevent eating disorders, as we are leaving entire populations behind. For example, one of the main barriers that kept me from seeking out treatment for my eating disorder was the extremely gendered culture of recovery (i.e. female-only treatment centers). Popular culture has a responsibility to increase awareness of LGBTQ identities in general and reflect the accurate nature of our lives to include mental health and eating disorders.
We have to begin having these difficult conversations about who we really represent in body positivity and eating disorder awareness. There is no “normal” way to have a body, be a certain gender, or to love someone. What may be an offhand comment can irreparably harm a someone’s self-image.
This week is Transgender Awareness Week, and it’s time to talk about eating disorders among the trans community. Currently, transgender people are affected by eating disorders more disproportionally than any other demographic. Through awareness, prevention, and treatment, we can change that.
by Sarah Wahid
When I was a little girl, probably around four or five, my family took a trip to Disney World, as one does when you have a daughter who has memorized entire Disney and Barbie movies and dressed up as a princess every Halloween. When I was asked by Ariel, my favorite princess, who I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, "You. I want to be you when I grow up. I want to be a white princess."