In our new series On the Table, we explore the various ways eating disorders and body image-related issues can impact a person in daily life, through the lens of one young woman who has experienced these struggles firsthand. This month, our Social Media Editor discusses the challenges of working in an image-driven field while simultaneously trying to recover from anorexia.
It’s been nearly a decade since I got my first real taste of the fashion industry. I was 19 when I flew from my rural Midwestern college campus to intern at a top modeling agency during New York Fashion Week. While my young age was unremarkable in such a competitive industry, it was the first time I had to navigate the city (and its subway system) alone and under great pressure.
It was my job to juggle the young models’ hectic schedules, ensuring they got to their castings and shows on time—no simple task before the advent of the iPhone. I spent the better part of that week getting lost repeatedly and subsequently being chided by bookers, sacrificing my own basic needs (you know—food, sleep) for the sake of a career I’d been working toward my entire life.
I was petrified to be myself because I was so focused on measuring up to a certain image.
That first Fashion Week was a fitting glimpse into my tumultuous entrée into the fashion industry. At first, I was petrified to be myself because I was so focused on measuring up to what I thought were prerequisites to a successful fashion career. Most of them had little to do with skills or experience, and much more to do with image.
Having this rigid vision in mind was especially challenging since by that age I’d already been struggling with an eating disorder for several years. Unsurprisingly, disordered eating runs rampant in fashion, which made me feel (and sometimes still does) as though my own behavior was normal, respected, and even revered. I was willingly putting myself in a situation not unlike that of a recovering alcoholic taking a job as a bartender: It was dangerous, if not plain stupid. But at 19, I lacked that awareness.
Disordered eating is rampant in fashion, which made me feel as if my own behavior was normal.
It wasn’t until a few years later, while recovering in the hospital, that I realized the irony of my situation: The very thing I believed would put me ahead in my career—being thin—was actually holding me back, as I had to take several months off work and school over the years for treatment. And although my eating disorder has encompassed a hell of a lot more than simply food and weight, I allowed my environment and its myriad triggers to reinforce the disorder.
As a result, I was for a time much thinner than is healthy for me personally, and the following things happened: I could fit into a sample size and various fashion folk told me I looked “great” even though, internally, my heart rate was in the 30s—putting me at high risk for cardiac arrest. At one point during my inaugural Fashion Week experience, I was mistaken for a model backstage at a show. And I did feel a sense of security—albeit a false and fleeting one—by taking up less space, even if I could never really see myself. But all along I knew, deep down, that these things were meaningless. That thin body was not mine to keep, or even worth keeping at the expense of everything else.
I did feel a sense of security—albeit a false and fleeting one—by taking up less space.
Eventually I started to listen to that small, quiet voice within because I, quite simply, wanted to live. That’s the easy answer, and much easier than the recovery process itself, which is ongoing and never linear. During my time in hospitals and treatment centers, I’ve worked incredibly hard to “normalize” my eating behaviors, as my doctors call it, instead of engaging in severe restriction and compulsive exercise.
But it’s jarring and a little bit disheartening to come out of these structured, insular environments and realize that most people—especially in the fashion industry—have a complicated relationship with food. Eating three meals and three snacks every day per medical recommendations does not feel “normal” in a place where people are prone to skip lunch, drink bubbles for dinner, and/or extol the virtues of some cockamamie cleanse (see also: skinny tea).
Leaving the fashion industry would leave me hungry in an entirely different way.
Nearly 10 years after that first Fashion Week, I continue to work in this field, though not in the capacity I initially expected. I’ve had to find a delicate balance between doing the work I love and doing so in an environment and community that shares and supports my values. But it’s still a daily challenge, especially during Fashion Week when stress and triggers are multiplied and finding time to eat is often like searching for a needle in a haystack. It’d be a hell of a lot easier to do what countless people have suggested to me over the years and simply change industries. It would also be a lot less fulfilling and leave me hungry in an entirely different way. Masochistic as it may seem to some, I like a good challenge and that’s why it’s worth it to me to face it head-on every day.