Photos by Terra Atwood
This isn’t about food.
This isn’t about skin and bones.
This is about stories and battles.
Every eating disorder is a distinctive experience – these are the accounts of Pepperdine students who live with them every day.
Mackie O’Malley, Freshman
Freshman Mackie O’Malley ended up at Pepperdine because of her therapist.
“Sasha is the reason I’m at Pepperdine,” O’Malley said. “She was an alumna.”
Sasha White received her master’s degree in Clinical Psychology in 2005 from Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.
White gave O’Malley a rock with a cross she drew on it and told her to look into the university.
“Being here reminds me of her and what I’ve been through,” O’Malley said. “There’s so much more to the story that people don’t understand.”
Doctors diagnosed O’Malley with anorexia nervosa before her sophomore year of high school.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height, age and stature, and, in many individuals, distorted body image, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
“I couldn’t fathom it,” she said. “I realized it was more than losing a lot of weight from playing lacrosse and field hockey. It was a problem and concern. It was an illness.”
After her diagnosis, O’Malley realized the extent of her disorder when she went to the grocery store with her mom to get food.
“It was the scariest moment of my life,” she said. “It was a concern to walk down the aisles and pick up foods that I was not comfortable putting into my body knowing that I would have to put on weight.”
O’Malley spent the next two years in and out of high school.
“My freshman year and senior year were my only two full years of high school,” she said.
She was hospitalized four times.
“I wasn’t allowed outside at the first hospital I went to in New York,” O’Malley said. “It was just a matter of putting weight on me.”
She left after two weeks. A few months later, she returned.
“It only got worse,” she said. “They transferred me to another hospital for about six months. We ate six meals a day and in order to go outside, we had to make weight consistently.”
After O’Malley left the hospital, she relapsed.
“The whole reason it started was because I felt this lack of control in my life,” she said. “It was just this vicious cycle. I kept getting sick again because I wasn’t getting the right mental treatment that I needed.”
Things began to turn around her junior year, when O’Malley attended a treatment house in Texas.
“I had around-the-clock care and that’s where I met Sasha,” she said. “Even though I didn’t make the weight strides I did at the other facilities, the mental strides helped me be on my own.”
Texas was the final treatment facility O’Malley attended.
“It’s been about two years since I’ve fully started recovering,” she said.
After she left, O’Malley graduated high school – on time.
“I did whatever it took to be able to walk with my class,” she said. “I’m grateful every day that I kept going because I think it showed me that time doesn’t stop just because something happened in your life. You just have to keep pushing.”
The push for recovery continues. O’Malley said she takes it one step at a time by eating six meals a day with friends and ensuring she has at least two rest days from exercise a week.
“I know that every time I don’t listen to my eating disorder, I’m just validating that I need to be here and I deserve to be here,” she said.
The validation also comes from the rock White gave O’Malley during her treatment. O’Malley keeps it in her dorm room.
“It’s always a part of you,” O’Malley said. “But I know that every year, the voice will get quieter. Every year will get better and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
O’Malley wants people to know: “It’s not about the food. It’s about the external conflicts that you internalize and it’s a form of self-harm. Don’t be afraid to make sure that people are OK. Just hear them out.”
While other students worried about what to pack for studying abroad, one student, who wished to remain anonymous, had another concern.
Doctors diagnosed the student with orthorexia a few weeks before studying abroad.
“It’s not recognized yet as a national eating disorder but it’s a form of anorexia that is an obsession with healthy eating and healthy lifestyle,” she said.
The student was a gymnast for most of her life and switched to competitive running when she was 14.
“I was always extremely active,” the student said. “I was raised to eat healthy, so that’s always been in my mentality.”
Her eating disorder began after her senior year of high school when she stepped onto the scale, she said.
“I never saw myself that heavy before,” she said. “I never needed to lose weight but it was the number that triggered [the eating disorder].”
The summer before she attended Pepperdine, the student said she downloaded the MyFitnessPal app.
“That’s when the calorie count started,” she said.
She lost weight until her parents intervened.
“They told me, ‘You’re getting out of control.’”
The first semester of her freshman year, the student said she stopped her unhealthy habits.
“I went home for winter break and lost six to eight pounds without even trying,” she said. “I thought, ‘Now that I took that weight off, I need to keep it off.’”
Her thoughts led her to revert back to calorie counting second semester. By time she returned home for the summer, her situation worsened.
“I was overexercising to overcompensate for eating something I felt bad about,” she said. “I only ate fruit and salad for lunch with no dressing.”
She stopped going out to eat with friends and would no longer touch foods she loved as a kid.
“It became a fear of food,” the student said. “For the longest time, I didn’t even know I had a problem.”
It got to the point that she weighed herself multiple times a day, she said.
“Whatever the number said would determine the way I would eat that day,” she said. “My weight and exercise were my identity for a while. It was all I thought about. I didn’t want to admit it was an eating disorder.”
The student stepped onto the scale again and weighed 90 pounds.
It wasn’t until her grandmother told her she needed to get help that the student said she received treatment. She underwent a program where she visited the hospital from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., attended group therapy and ate two to three meals in there every day.
“My parents considered not sending me abroad,” she said.
When she realized the program was not the treatment she needed, the student said she went to a nutritional therapist instead.
“She is exactly what I needed,” the student said. “Her philosophy is not living a life of restriction, which has been amazing for me.”
Her parents decided not to restrict her from studying abroad.
“This first semester abroad was rough because there is so much uncertainty every day,” she said.
Despite the uncertainty, the student said going abroad helped her.
“Being abroad has really helped because of the community I’ve been surrounded by,” she said. “It’s been refreshing to be surrounded by people with healthy relationships with food. They don’t even know they’re inspiring me.”
With the return to Malibu approaching, the student said she isn’t afraid.
“Now that I’ve been abroad and dealt with uncertainty, I’m not too nervous for next year,” she said. “I’ll struggle forever but it will get much easier.”
On the hard days, the student reminds herself of a question her therapist asked her via a weekly FaceTime call.
“Do you want people to remember you for your skinny legs and arms or how you impacted their lives?”
The student wants people to know: “You don’t need to fit the stereotypes to be going through an eating disorder. So many things we think are good for us, like over exercising and calorie counting, are so triggering and can lead to eating disorders without us even realizing.”
Emma Stenz, Junior
Growing up, junior Emma Stenz was always the tallest girl in her class.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to be tall, I have to be fit,’” Stenz said. “I’ve always been image-conscious.”
An athlete her entire life, Stenz never worried about what she ate until her junior year of high school.
“I started to be unhappy with my body,” she said.
With a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, Stenz restricted herself to 1,000 calories per day and ran four miles on top of her daily three-hour basketball practices.
Sedentary teen girls between the ages of 13 and 18 need 1,600 to 1,800 calories per day, while active girls require 2,200 to 2,400 calories each day, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.
“I had no self-love or forgiveness during that time,” Stenz said.
Within a few months, her mom, teachers and friends confronted her about her severe weight loss. She went to receive treatment about six months later.
“I was diagnosed with an eating disorder but because I didn’t weigh two pounds less than I did, they didn’t consider me clinically having one,” she said.
Her situation was still severe.
“The doctor told me, ‘If you keep this up, you’ll be hospitalized in two months and dead in a year,’” Stenz said.
Dead in a year.
The words petrified her.
“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “That was the start of my self-awareness for recovery.”
Stenz saw a nutritionist and clinical psychologist until she attended Pepperdine.
“I learned that eating disorders go against all logic and human nature and not worrying about food makes life so much easier,” she said.
Her first year at Pepperdine wasn’t so easy, though.
“Freshman year was hard because the Pepperdine population is so beautiful,” she said. “I was in the midst of all of these women advertising dieting and mentally it was hard to stay strong.”
Since Pepperdine is close to LA, Stenz said there is also a strong pressure from the media to body shame and treat food like it’s an enemy.
“It makes girls who never thought about how they looked or what they ate to start doubting and questioning themselves,” she said.
But LA isn’t the only place that evokes inner uncertainties – returning home to Dixon, California, is always hard for Stenz.
“That was the place I had all of those problems,” she said. “When I go home, it feels like I’m back in that mindset.”
Despite the challenges of her freshman year, Stenz said Pepperdine has become a new home.
“I’ve found a lot of solace in Pepperdine,” she said. “The Christian environment, strong morals of people and great friends I’ve made have helped me.”
But bad days are still present.
“On hard days, I’m an anti-social, grumpy person that doesn’t want to be touched or looked at,” she said. “Just because I’m not underweight right now doesn’t mean I can’t have bad days.”
Even though every day is a struggle, Stenz said she reminds herself of her body’s capabilities.
“Physical activity and using my body for a purpose, that’s what helped me,” Stenz said. “The point of having a body isn’t the aesthetic. It’s using your body to enjoy life.”
Stenz wants people to know: “So many eating disorders are hidden and you can’t tell. It’s not a rich, white girl problem – it’s universal. You don’t have to be diagnosed to be struggling with something. You should always be checking in on yourself mentally and physically.”
When she returned from studying abroad, one student, who wished to remain anonymous, wasn’t the same.
“Coming back from abroad, I was dealing with depression, which I’ve always dealt with and taken medication for,” the student said. “But I was overeating and using food to cope.”
Upon her return from abroad in April to December of her junior year, the student said she gained 30 pounds.
“I didn’t feel like myself,” she said. “I felt like I was in somebody else’s body.”
She decided to go to the doctor when she returned home for Christmas.
“I was in absolute tears and said, ‘I cannot look like this. This isn’t my body anymore.’”
The doctor prescribed her a new depression medication with the side effect of an appetite suppressant.
“When I saw that it would help suppress my appetite, it made me really happy,” the student said. “I didn’t want to be miserable and starve myself, but I’m not starving.”
When she returned to Pepperdine second semester, the student went to the gym every day and cut sugar out of her diet entirely.
“I only drank water and ate salad for three months,” she said. “At one point, I lost 10 pounds in 10 days. Seeing the numbers going down on the scale was the only thing making me happy.”
It didn’t take long for her to lose weight and people to notice.
“I thought I needed to look better than I did before all of this,” she said. “I don’t want the image of the fat girl to be the image people hold of me. It became this goal that was constantly in my mind.”
Instead of comparing herself to others, the student competed with her freshman year and abroad self.
“I wanted to be the person I once was at Pepperdine,” she said. “We really try to put on a front, it’s the Pepperdine way.”
All the student wanted was to return to her old weight. She anticipated to step onto the scale and see 120 pounds displayed.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to look in the mirror and think my body is beautiful unless it looks how I want it to, which is 120 pounds,” she said.
No one was aware of what the student was going through – including herself.
“I wasn’t skin and bones and I didn’t throw up,” she said. “Because no one would’ve guessed I was struggling, I didn’t consider it an eating disorder.”
One of the only people who knew about her situation was a therapist at the Pepperdine Counseling Center. The student said she started seeing the counselor second semester to help with her body image issues.
“When the therapist wrote on her diagnosis that I had an eating disorder, it was kind of like if someone said, ‘I love you’ on the first date,” the student said. “Once it was out there, she couldn’t take it back.”
The student received treatment until the start of her senior year. Although she said she considers herself to be in a good place, she does not think she’s overcome her struggles.
“I’m OK with how I look right now, but if I gained the weight back it would happen all over again,” she said.
Despite her unknown future and figures on the scale, the student is certain of one thing.
“If I have a daughter someday, I don’t want her to ever know about what I’m going through or go through this herself,” she said. “I want my daughter to be able to have the most healthy and respectful eating habits.”
The student wants people to know: “I wish myself and everyone else knew where the line was between having body image issues or wanting to be healthy, and having an eating disorder. I still don’t know.”
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