My Eating Disorder Recovery Through Photography

My Eating Disorder Recovery Through Photography

I am very proud to be in the after chapter of my eating disorder story – it’s a much happier and healthier place to be. 
Spreading Positivity Beyond the Court Reading My Eating Disorder Recovery Through Photography 8 minutes Next Double Vision

Written by ALL IN Co-Founder, Melissa Katz

We love a good before and after story. Here’s where I’s where I am now. But we sometimes skip over the messy middle part where the work and change happens. I am very proud to be in the after chapter of my eating disorder story – it’s a much happier and healthier place to be. In the spirit of being ALL IN and normalizing conversations around mental health, I’m going to rewind my story to the messy middle and share a small part of one of the hardest periods in my life.

On the outside, I was an athlete, playing field hockey goalie at Monmouth University, in my second to last semester of college, double majoring in graphic design and photography, taking 18 credits, with a  3.9 gpa, and working as a waitress. 

On the inside, I was dealing with a whole lot more. Here’s an excerpt from my journal from March 2010. 

“I feel like a failure right now. I just ate 2,550 calories and I could care less what workout I did today, I had no self-control. Because I ate so much, punishment is no eating tomorrow… I need help. I’m failing again. I’m not going to not eat anymore. Why do I do this to myself?”

My body image thoughts had intensified over my four years of college, from what I considered a normal amount of female self-awareness my freshman year of college, to intensely negative self-talk, scrutiny, obsessive thoughts, and destructive actions my senior year. Punishment, shame, failure, depression, embarrassment, anxiety, anger, isolation, perfectionism, exhaustion, sadness, secrecy, obsession, revulsion, sickness, control; these were my primary emotions for several months of my life.

It was the middle of the night and I was desperate. I searched ‘how to know if you have an eating disorder,’ and a quiz showed up as the first result.

  1. Do you attempt to restrict calories or foods? 
  2. Have you been preoccupied with your weight and/or shape of your body?
  3. Avoided eating certain foods due to fearing something bad could happen to you?
  4. Felt out of control over the amount of food you ate one or more times in a week?
  5. Worried frequently about the nutritional content of different foods?
  6. Felt intensely disgusted or anxious when looking at your body in a mirror?
  7. Felt guilty or upset after eating one or more times a week?
  8. Intentionally made yourself vomit or exercise excessively to prevent gaining weight?

I had checked every box. My stomach dropped.

I knew I was in a bad place but surely I didn’t have an eating disorder… that was for… other people. I didn’t consider myself skinny. I wasn’t obese. On the BMI scale I was borderline overweight which I was keenly aware of and contributed to my obsession with not gaining any weight. In that moment, I denied having an eating disorder but I did recognize that I was having some kind of problem which I classified as poor body image, low self-esteem, and a heightened awareness of my diet and athletic performance. 

Through exhaustion and desperation for change, and because this now felt like a medical issue, I decided to reach out to my athletic trainer. I trusted her to listen without too much judgment, maybe offer up some suggestions, and more importantly, not tell anyone else and jeopardize my spot on the team – which was my greatest fear. 

I remember feeling really scared and on the verge of tears when I shared what I was experiencing. I was at a loss for words but equipped with the printed-out quiz to do the talking for me, or at least get things started. My trainer was warm, supportive, and non-judgemental. From there I got some medical tests to ensure my health wasn’t at immediate risk. I spoke to a nutritionist in hopes some education and an eating plan would help. Unfortunately, my poor mental state and negative behavior continued to progress and my trainer told me I needed to talk to a mental health professional. I strongly refused. But she was my athletic trainer and wasn’t equipped to help me in the way I needed; she told me I had no choice and urged me to go. Thankfully, she went with me to my first appointment with a counselor on campus and helped me feel more comfortable. 

I continued to go to counseling at least once a week for the rest of the semester and over the summer. I started a recovery notebook where I journaled and drew. I continued to check in with my trainer. I shared what I was going through with my head coach which went really well and wasn’t held out of practice like I was afraid of. I opened up to two of my closest friends and was met with love and support. But my mind and my actions were still really intense and negative.

Then something happened in school. In my Advanced Lighting Techniques Photography class, I had presented a final project that was really subpar so my professor said I could take an incomplete and redo a completely new project over the summer or fail the class. I had a crazy idea; one that filled me with fear. I would create a project that explored my current emotional and mental state through studio photography. And with that, I started the hardest chapter in my recovery.

I started to treat myself like a creative science experiment that I was observing and experiencing in the same moment. I was really digging deep into what I was feeling, when, why, and how I expressed those emotions. I was noting and naming all of the terrible feelings I was having, what triggers were associated with what feelings, and considering how I could start to shift my feelings into a healthier space. In my recovery journal I spent weeks reflecting and developing a plan for my photography. My best friend Kim became my creative collaborator and helped me shoot photos in the studio, posing as the subject while I set the shot, focus, and lighting, and then switched with me as I became the subject versus the photographer. 

This project process helped me understand who I was during this period and portray it in a very personal and visual way. Before graduation, art students have a senior show. Through the encouragement of my professor, I showed this project as part of my showcase to all of my family, friends, teammates, and complete strangers. Until now, I have only shared my project with a couple of people since my senior show. 

Here is My Body In Work

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Here are some beliefs I’ve developed throughout my recovery and hold true today:

  • My self-worth is not defined or dependent upon my athletic performance, my weight, or my productivity. 
  • My self confidence has to come from myself, no one else. 
  • There are many types of bodies in sports and in life. There is no single way to look to be an athlete, to be beautiful, to be healthy, or to be happy with your body. 
  • I can love my body as it is and work towards my athletic goals at the same time. 
  • There is no such thing as perfection. 
  • There is no finish line for my body. Each day is a renewed commitment to care for and celebrate myself. 
  • I can love whoever I want, with pride.
  • I am enough just as I am. 

I’m sharing a small piece of my story and my photography in hopes it might help someone else. 

If you are suffering, please advocate for yourself. Reach out for help. Confide in a friend, parent, coach, trainer, or someone you trust. If you do not have someone, reach out to a mental health professional or the NEDA helpline

Call (800)931-2237 
Monday-Thursday 11am-9pm ET 
Friday 11am-5pm ET


1 comment

Bonnie Blackman

Bonnie Blackman

So powerful a read; open, authentic, and self reflective. I taught art and photography and your work is exquisite. Proud of you and your mission to help others.

So powerful a read; open, authentic, and self reflective. I taught art and photography and your work is exquisite. Proud of you and your mission to help others.

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