“My name is Colleen, I’m 22 years old, and I’ve been in recovery from anorexia nervosa for three years.
I have struggled with food and body image for as long as I can remember. Growing up surrounded by diet culture it was more or less destined I would hate my body. At eight-years-old, my pediatrician said, ‘You need to eat more salad.’ I first dieted at 10-years-old after finding a Weight Watchers book in my living room. This was the beginning of what would spiral me into a battle with a life-threatening eating disorder, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and severe major depressive disorder.
After experiencing trauma at both 14 and 15, followed by my parents’ divorce and my desire to pursue a professional dance career, my eating disorder started to spin out of control. My thoughts revolved around food and my body. I severely restricted my calorie intake, weighed everything I ate, and obsessed over clean eating. On top of my 20+ hours per week of dance training, I was often going to the gym twice a day on my days off, as well as exercising at home. I would obsessively do jumping jacks in the kitchen while waiting for my dinner to microwave, convincing myself it was completely normal. My energy level was nonexistent, especially during dance classes, but I couldn’t wrap my head around why. I was lightheaded constantly, and passed out on several occasions, but just passed it off as being overheated. I’d hear, ‘You look amazing! What are you doing? Keep doing it!’ Since I was praised for losing weight, I was convinced there was nothing wrong with what I was doing.
It wasn’t until I was 19 that I finally decided I had a problem and needed to get help. I made the brave step of choosing to recover from my eating disorder.
When I started my recovery, I decided to start an Instagram account documenting my recovery journey. It started out very small and surface level. It was primarily followed by people I didn’t know in person who were recovering from eating disorders. Creating this account helped me build a sense of community and connect with others who were facing similar battles, which wasn’t something I had with those around me in my day-to-day life.
In April 2017, I decided to make a post calling out the dance community for promoting negative body image and disordered eating, creating the hashtag #BopoBallerina (body positive ballerina). While I hoped the post would be well-received, I didn’t think it would gain much traction. Much to my surprise, the post ended up getting over 1000 likes. Several major media outlets covered my story, and within a span of two weeks, my account went from around 1000 followers to having over 10,000. Within a blink of an eye, I suddenly had a major platform and felt a big responsibility to share my story while advocating for others.
Fast forward to 2018, and after losing a close family member that winter and then surviving sexual assault that summer, I experienced a lapse in my recovery and was diagnosed with PTSD. I found myself restricting calories again and trying to exercise away the mental pain. I quickly realized continuing to engage in my eating disorder was only going to destroy the potential of achieving my big dreams. And I had so many. I fully recommitted to my recovery, and within a month or two was back to the solid place in recovery I was at prior to the lapse. Around the same time, I signed a book deal, which gave me even more motivation to continue my recovery.
My book Brave Girl Healing, which is part memoir, part self-help, and part workbook was released this past May. Two weeks later, I graduated with my bachelor’s in psychology and spread my wings by leaving my childhood home in New York and moving in with my boyfriend in Nashville, TN. My Instagram account was full of details about my move, my excitement about graduating, and my anticipation of starting graduate school, and I was receiving so much love and support from my followers.
However, one night I was checking my DMs on Instagram and I received this message:
‘Hi, I just wanted to let you know how I feel about your account. I’m trying to recover from a severe ED and you make me not want to recover. You make it seem as if I go into full recovery, I’ll be in a large body like you and that terrifies me. I’m already scared of treatment because I’ve gained weight. You posting these ‘body positive’ photos triggers me and I’m sure it does to others. Maybe you could include a ‘trigger warning’ and make your account private. I think you should reconsider posting some of them because it’s hard on people wanting to recover and are scared of gaining weight.’
I immediately started to question my recovery. As someone in a larger body, accepting my recovery body has been hard enough due to my own self-criticism. However, having someone more or less tell me ‘your body is my worst nightmare,’ immediately made me want to lose weight and turn back to my eating disorder. I was overwhelmed with shame and doubt, and I wanted my body to disappear. Knowing that seeing my body was making someone not want to recover made me feel like a complete failure and like my body was wrong. However, instead of letting my thoughts create a dangerous, destructive spiral, I decided to take a step back, turn to my boyfriend for support, and really look at the situation from a factual, balanced perspective.
After plenty of tears and typing, deleting, and more typing, I replied to her message with this:
‘Hi there, I appreciate your honesty. However, I’m not going to put a trigger warning on photos of my recovered, healthy body. I also had a severe ED. I understand and empathize with your fear of gaining weight because I once felt the same way. However, that also shows you have work to do in your own recovery to combat internalized fat phobia. I’m sorry my body terrifies you, and I also hope you realize saying that to someone could lead to a relapse. My body is enough and is healthy. I’m sorry it makes you feel like you don’t want to recover, but I refuse to hide my body because it’s larger than you would like. Part of recovery is combatting fat phobia and realizing that body size and health and worth aren’t connected.’
It took an immense amount of effort to choose to respond to her demeaning message in a way that was both empathetic and honest. I could have just as easily took her words as fact and let it rock my recovery, but instead I dug deep and found my own strength to remember my recovery is what’s most important, not the feelings and unhealthy thoughts of someone who is still very stuck in their eating disorder.
Early on in my recovery, a message like that would have been a one-way ticket on the relapse express. However, thanks to the wealth of inner resources I’ve built through years of therapy, it was just a blip that bothered me for a week and then went away.
Through this experience and others, I’ve learned that people, both strangers and people you know, will unfortunately say terrible, untrue things about you in an effort to protect themselves or make themselves feel better. While I can’t stop the actions and words of others, I’ve learned that I can be in control of who I choose to communicate with and stay close to, even if that means having to stop talking to loved ones or having to block someone on social media.
To anyone who has received awful comments on your body, whether you have an eating disorder or not, I want you to know you are enough, worthy, and beautiful exactly as you are. Nothing anyone can say changes the fact that you are a resilient, powerful human with the potential to achieve so much.
To anyone battling an eating disorder, I want you to know that recovery is completely possible. There is life beyond your eating disorder, and there is freedom and light to be found. Three years ago I was still in the grips of my eating disorder, and today I am a successful published author, I’ve spoken at a national mental health conference and the UN, and I’m a graduate student pursuing a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling to become a therapist specializing in eating disorders and trauma, with the dream of creating an eating disorder treatment program for dancers.
I am the expert on myself, and I refuse to let anyone else define me.”
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