For some, this may come as a surprise, but for the majority of my teen years, I was consumed by an eating disorder. It has been difficult for me to speak about it openly because I kept it a secret for so long.
Part of the reason I was able to keep my struggles hidden so well is because of the myth that all people with eating disorders look a certain way. This myth is extremely dangerous because it causes friends and loved ones to look past other potential warning signs, and, therefore, keeps people (like me) from receiving treatment for these deadly illnesses. Eating disorders are mental illnesses. While many eating disorders do have physical symptoms, they don’t all manifest in the same way.
Another reason why I was able to keep my eating disorder a secret was because our society has made dieting and forms of disordered eating very normalized. TV commercials are flooded with ads for diet companies, magazine covers have text such as “Lose weight fast!” and “Try this new trick to get rid of cellulite” and grocery store shelves are full of diet foods and pills. Dieting has become such a norm that people very rarely question these behaviors, even though they are often dangerous. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “35% of ‘normal dieters’ progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.” I am part of that 20-25%.
I started struggling with my body image around eight years old, and my first experiences with dieting were in 4th grade. I remember still being in elementary school and learning what calorie counting was, and I decided that I needed to restrict my calorie intake. High school is when my biggest struggles really started. What began as a seemingly innocent, harmless diet turned into a full-blown eating disorder. I had started to get more serious about dance, and I decided that if I was going to be successful, my body needed to change.
Eventually, my life became consumed by restricting my intake, tracking every bit of food I ate, and constantly searching for new ways to lose more weight. I was constantly striving for an unattainable standard of perfection. This was no longer a simple diet; it was something that was overtaking my entire being. I was in the midst of an all-out war with my body and mind, and no one knew but me.
One of the things that helped me rationalize my eating disorder was the fact that people constantly praised me for my weight loss. These compliments served as positive reinforcement for my maladaptive behaviors. I was convinced that if people were praising me, what I was doing was healthy and good. This only served to make me spiral deeper and deeper into my eating disorder.
No one ever suspected my eating disorder. No one ever forced me to get treatment. However, in the summer of 2016, I finally decided that enough was enough and that I no longer wanted to spend my life consumed by an eating disorder. I decided to advocate for myself and my well-being, and I started therapy in order to tackle the roots of my eating disorder and the generalized anxiety disorder that developed along with it. I am proud to say that I have been in recovery for nearly nine months, and I am in the best place mentally and physically that I’ve been in in many years.
I’ve learned that retreating back into my eating disorder will never make anything better.
I’ve learned that while allowing myself to experience emotions can be extremely difficult sometimes, it is much better than trying to numb myself.
I’ve learned that diet culture is toxic, dangerous, and unnecessary.
I’ve learned that food isn’t good or bad, it’s just food.
I’ve learned that all bodies are good bodies, and thinness is not an indicator of health or worth.
I’ve learned the power of vulnerability and authenticity.
I’ve learned that reaching out for help is a sign of strength and bravery, and that living with mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of.
I’ve been able to turn my pain and struggles into something beautiful and meaningful through my Instagram account/blog @leenahlovesherself. I’ve also created a social media campaign called #BopoBallerina, which strives to show the world the beauty of body diversity in dance. While my eating disorder has shaped me into the person I am today and I wouldn’t be the same me if it weren’t for my struggles, recovery is what has given me all of these incredible opportunities. If I hadn’t made the difficult, brave choice to commit to recovery, I would still be consumed by a deadly eating disorder, and I wouldn’t be making all of the amazing accomplishments I am now.
So, yes, I had an eating disorder. I am not ashamed, and I refuse to hide it from anyone for any longer because sharing my story can help to spread awareness, and, therefore, save lives. There is so much beauty to be found in life after an eating disorder, and I am determined to change the world.
Colleen Werner is a professional dancer, singer, writer, and mental health/body positivity/self-love advocate based in New York. Her Instagram account/blog, @leenahlovesherself, has deeply inspired thousands, and after creating the hashtag #BopoBallerina, Colleen was featured by Yahoo, National Eating Disorders Association, Dailymotion, A Plus, Dance.com, and by several international news outlets. She plans on becoming a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in eating disorders and also aspires to start an eating disorder treatment program created specifically for dancers.
Photo credit: Paul DuBois