Body image can be as important to teens as who their friends are. Girls and boys alike can be teased or bullied by others for a variety of reasons, however if a teen feels comfortable in their own skin, the likelihood of them allowing the bullying to hurt them is less likely. Many teens turn to the celebrities – they look at the pencil thin girls, the guys with six pack abs and hopefully realize most of this is simply Hollywood or photo-shop! Below is a special guest post by Meg Quinlan.
Whether they wish for it or not, celebrities are role models. Fans follow them in their work, consume the media that examines their lives, and discuss them online and in real life. Their bad behavior is widely publicized, but what about those that are making a positive difference? These stars, all themselves survivors of eating disorders, are speaking out about their own battle and helping to raise awareness about this serious medical problem. They are making a difference, and are part of the solution to the shame and secrecy preventing many victims of eating disorders from seeking help. Here are their stories.
Actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler was a typical overachiever. Bright and talented, she filled her schedule with school, acting, student council, teaching kids and studying for the SATs. During her junior year, after a painful breakup with a boyfriend, she began to focus on losing weight. She says “all of a sudden, I felt like everything in my life was getting out of control, and here was one thing I could control.” She adopted a strict regimen of diet and exercise typical of those with exercise bulimia, her particular eating disorder. Her obsession changed and isolated her: physically, she withered to a skeleton; formerly a social butterfly, she now avoided going out with friends and exercised instead for hours; and she wrote down everything she ate, when she ate it, and when she exercised. She recalls that one day her mother hugged her, then burst into tears because she could feel all of Jamie’s bones. Her turning point came when she realized how unhappy her life had become, and she began five months of therapy to rebuild her confidence and her body. Now author of a book called Wise Girl – What I’ve Learned About Life, Love, and Loss and honored by the National Eating Disorder Association for her work on their behalf, she is resolute but realistic. She says, “The eating disorder is always going to be with me. But what I went through was traumatic enough and enough of a learning experience that I would never fall so deeply again. I’m so much happier now.”
Singer and Disney actress Demi Lovato has been in the news recently, speaking out about her eating disorder and treatment. Bullied in school, she started compulsively overeating at age 8 and soon had anorexia, which by her teenage years had escalated to include self-harm, depression, and bulimia. At 18 years old, her family and management team had an intervention, and she entered a residential treatment center. There she learned healthy ways to cope with her feelings, and resolved to set a good example for her little sister and her young fans that may be dealing with the same issues. Today she considers herself still recovering, and tries to be realistic about her progress, saying “I’m going to mess up, and I’m not going to be perfect, but as long as I try every day to get better and better myself, then I’m one step ahead of where I was before.” She now is working with Seventeen Magazine and the Love is Louder campaign for at-risk girls, and is a spokesperson for Teens Against Bullying.
Dancer, singer, and American Idol judge Paula Abdul began purging in high school, as a way to control her weight in the competitive and body-conscious world of dance. She describes her young self as a perfectionist and an overachiever, and as top honor student, class president and head cheerleader, it looked like she had it all. Yet at only 5’2”, she felt she was at a disadvantage against her fellow cheerleaders and dancers. She describes her bulimia as “a war on my body. Me and my body have been on two separate sides.” She continued this war during her rise to stardom as an L.A. Lakers cheerleader, choreographer, and then singer. After a painful divorce in 1994, she finally came to terms with her eating disorder and checked herself into treatment. Then ashamed, she tried to keep it a secret. Now, she is a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and says “I’m more proud of my recovery than of selling millions of records.”
Aussie rocker Daniel Johns of Silverchair and the Dissociatives began restricting his eating in his teens in an attempt to look ill. He was defying convention at school, wearing makeup and playing in a band, and was getting beaten up by bullies and called gay slurs. As for looking ill and deterring his bullies, “unfortunately it worked,” he says, “because then I was addicted to it and couldn’t start eating again.” Convincing himself that food was poisoned, he wouldn’t go to restaurants, and couldn’t bear the smell, look, or even to be around a discussion of food. He explains that his disorder had nothing to do with body image, and everything to do with a desire for control. “Every time…I felt that my life was out of control…I took control of food intake, because it was the only thing that no one could really take charge of.” He realized how much control he had actually lost when more than one doctor told him he was dying. Anti-depressant medications, along with the support of the people around him and his music, helped free him from the addiction that threatened his life. Later, like many who talk publicly about their addictions, he was criticized for self-promotion, which he dismissed. “When you get letters that say, ‘You’ve helped me admit to anorexia,’ and… ‘I was gonna kill myself until I heard this album,’ that makes people that say, ‘You’re exploiting your problems,’ just seem like such a little speck in the dirt.”
Actress Elisa Donovan was never overweight, but that fact didn’t stop her from increasingly restrictive dieting. She says she thought the more weight she lost, the happier she would be, yet she would only see specific body parts that she thought looked “enormous.” She continued to lose weight until her friends started to express their concern, her hair fell out in clumps, and she fainted several times. After being hospitalized, she finally sought treatment and realized how her disorder had restricted her life-she would never go out for lunch or dinner, and as she says, “I was so unhappy with myself, I didn’t answer my phone.” Speaking out has helped her, as has the desire to be a healthy role model. She advises, “There is no connection between the shape of your body and whether you can succeed, or whether you’re a smart person or a good person.”
Shame and isolation are still barriers that prevent many victims from seeking help. Every survivor of this illness can help others by speaking out, even if they aren’t followed by thousands of fans. Watch for our next installment, where we profile five regular people that have beaten an eating disorder and hear their stories.
For more information about eating disorders or to get help, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website or call their helpline at 1-800-931-2237.