DIME contributor and renowned photographer Kate Dearman shares her personal battle with an eating disorder, how she conquers it, and how recovery has helped her find beauty in everyone.
A little more than seven years ago, I began my road to recovery for Anorexia Nervosa. For those who don’t know, Anorexia Nervosa is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of body weight.”
Several people over the years have told me, “I could never make myself not eat.” For a long time, I couldn’t put my finger on why this statement irked me so much.
One day I realized that there is a misconception that every girl with anorexia chooses this disorder. Contrary to this misconception, I don’t have a date circled on my calendar marking the day I started starving myself. While I could never cover the range of causes and factors that lead to eating disorders, I can share my story with the hopes that at least one person who is struggling reads it and knows that he or she is not alone in the fight to recovery.
I was a chubby kid, and for any fellow chubby kids, you know it’s hard being a chubby kid. I hit my first growth spurt right before junior high. For the first time, I wasn’t a chubby kid. I realized quickly that not being chubby had its perks, and I started controlling my food intake. My mom realized what was going on and talked with me about it — and then made me eat ice cream for dinner.
Things got better for a few years. I was stockier because I played sports and was definitely not as thin and petite as my friends, but it didn’t bother me too much until the day I got called the “DUFF” of my friend group. DUFF is a clever acronym crafted for use in high school hierarchies that stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. That stung a lot more than I thought it would.
The following fall, I was injured playing soccer, permanently ending my high school sports career. The next spring, I decided to participate in a pageant program and, ironically enough, my platform focus was healthy lifestyle promotion. My battle with anorexia started very innocently. I started going to the gym everyday and eating healthier. People started noticing as the weight came off and encouraged me, telling me how great I looked. Somehow what started as healthier food choices and a 45-minute walk on a treadmill morphed into 3-hour cardio sessions fueled by drinking enough coffee to train through not eating anything more than a little fruit each day. I couldn’t accept that I had a problem no matter how many people tried to intervene.
My battle with anorexia climaxed when I passed out backstage at the state pageant after eating hardly anything in nearly three days. I woke up with one of my best friends and fellow contestants trying to feed me a cookie to get my blood sugar stabilized enough for me to stand up. Later than night, my coach called me into his room to talk about my weight loss and what had happened that night. I will never forget him asking me, “Are you hungry?” All I could think was, “Yes, I’m hungry. I’ve been hungry for months.” That night I acknowledged my problem for the first time.
Reintroducing normal food patterns was difficult. Even though I wanted to eat, my body didn’t quite know what to do with food at first. My metabolism was so out of whack that getting back to a healthy weight was hard. I was an emotional wreck because of what I had done to my hormones. My hair was falling out as a result of starving myself for months. The fact that my mom stood by me, loved me and never gave up on me through recovery is a debt that I will never be able to repay her. She respected the emotional limits I had with food and instead of forcing me to eat large quantities at first, would just throw a stick of butter in every meal we ate. Instead of making me feel weak for struggling, she celebrated even the smallest victories of my recovery process. Instead of commenting on my weight gain as the scale went back to normal, she would just comment on how healthy I looked and would compliment me on my skin and hair as my body came back to life.
Photos by Kate Dearman.
Things were getting better, but as high school ended, I began getting nervous about leaving for college because I knew that major life changes can trigger a relapse. I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t relapse my freshman year. My freshman year was when I discovered photography. By my junior year, I knew that photography was more than just a hobby. It was a gift and a voice for me to use. I get asked at least once a week why I love photography so much. I love it because it gives me a tangible way to express to people that they matter. Ever since I started recovery, I have felt a call to show other people how beautiful they are. I want people to know they are enough. Seeing people’s faces light up when they see a photo of themselves is unlike anything else. Seeing people transform and begin to see themselves as enough is what drives me to want to make pictures everyday.
I didn’t realize the primary root of my disorder until about two months ago when I was walking with my friend Faith in Nashville. She told me, “The origin of all a person’s fears is the fear that they aren’t lovable and will never be enough, and that is the biggest lie they will ever believe.”
That night I realized that for a large part of my life, I had viewed ‘thin’ as a synonym for ‘lovable’. Since that night, I have been forcing myself to purge thoughts that feed into that lie. I am not defined by my body. My body is lovable without a thigh gap, and my worth is not defined by a body fat percentage. I finally realized that my struggle was not a sign of weakness. Admitting you have a disorder is not a weakness. In contrast, admitting that I have struggled and still do struggle with anorexic thoughts is a sign of strength and the first step to ensure that I continue walking in recovery.
I still have days that are hard. I still have moments where I have mental fist fights with junk food and get super bummed if I miss a workout. Those moments do not define me, nor do the lies that tell me that I will never fully recover. I rest in knowing that I have the strength to fight this and the army of supporters to fight alongside me.
I challenge you to look into your life and identify the lies that you’re believing and then kick them out and know that you are already lovable.
You are not a fixer-upper. You are already enough.