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One Model’s Road to Recovering from an Eating Disorder

"DIETING" SINCE CHILDHOOD, HER EATING HABITS SPUN OUT OF CONTROL UNTIL SHE GOT HELP AND FACED HER ISSUES HEAD-ON.

By Esmeralda Seay-Reynolds

I began modeling when I was sixteen years old. I was tall and blonde with pale skin, big eyes, and even bigger ambitions. I was going to become a supermodel and drink tea with Grace Coddington, paint watercolors with Karl Lagerfeld, and rub shoulders with Sofia Coppola. It was a big plan for a young girl from rural Pennsylvania, but I was smart, hardworking, and loved the industry. In the end, I didn’t land so far from my dream. I was a rising model, traveling the world and making serious connections, but inside, I was falling apart.

Almost a year ago I entered Evergreen Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, considered by many as the premier facility for eating disorders in the United States. It was a locked facility of grey and green walls, and much of my time there I was filled with resentment. But never in my anger, did I blame fashion for what I’d done to my own body. Modeling wasn’t what made me sick; conversely, it’s what saved me.

My whole life, I was raised to believe perfection was not an idea, but an achievable goal. My mother—a strong willed woman whom I love dearly, but who had exacting standards when it came to my appearance—had my hair dyed starting in second grade and chose what I wore every day. She also, with my father’s support, put me on “diets” starting at seven. Given this, it’s not much of a surprise I developed an eating disorder, but what is surprising is how long it took people to notice.

I was 15 when my problems truly began. I was already fairly thin, and it’s hard to say exactly what triggered it, aside from the obvious desire for recognition from my otherwise oblivious parents. It started with salads and what I perceived to be a normal amount of calorie restriction for a girl who wanted to lose a few pounds, but within a month, I was eating nothing for days and purging what little I did eat. I recall once crying over eating a mushroom, then running upstairs, blasting my bathroom radio, and climbing into the shower with my clothes on so I could vomit without being heard.

My diet had stopped being a diet. I kept cutting out foods and purging because I got a rush from it. With every new bone that appeared in the mirror, I got a kind of euphoric high—a feeling of pride and accomplishment that even being a straight A student didn’t give me. I began leaving classes to look for ribs and bones in the bathroom mirror, and when I was in class, I would find myself stroking my collarbones and wrapping my hand around my upper arms (always my least favorite part of my body). If my index finger and thumb couldn’t meet, I’d fly into a panicked fury. It was an addiction, not just to“thinness,” but to the feeling of control it gave me, the sense of power and achievement that came with knowing I could control the way my body looked, when everything else was in chaos. The problem was, I wasn’t in control at all. My sickness was.

A year later, my eating disorder had become a way of life, and it could easily have continued that way, but then something big happened: I got signed. It was Monday, June 10th of 2013, when I walked into a modeling agency’s open call and was offered a contract. I was 16, and by that September I was traveling the world, deemed a “top newcomer” and “one to watch.” I was working with the best in the business, with more money at my fingertips than I knew what to do with, and it seemed as if all my fashion dreams were coming true. But all the glamorous parts of my job that I should have been enjoying, I couldn’t.

I remember being in Paris, staring out my bedroom window at the bright lights of the Eiffel tower and the dark mysterious winding streets lined by ornate houses and cottages, too tired and too cold to dare to wander outside. I remember photographers stopping me in the streets after fashion shows and the little girls clamoring in wonder at “the model” before them, but being too distracted by my own disordered thoughts to even remember to smile. I was hungry, exhausted, and my brain clicked so slow it was hard to even talk at a normal pace. Everything around me seemed to fade into a grey of depression and anxiety.

Then, just after I turned 17 and had been modeling for a little over a year, my bookers told me they were “concerned.” About what? I thought to myself, though deep down I knew exactly what they’d meant. They told me that clients (designers, casting directors, etc.) had called asking if I needed help. I was, apparently, way too thin. I remember feeling embarrassed, humiliated, and completely furious. I couldn’t see what everyone else saw when they looked at me. Where they saw illness, I saw control and self-discipline.

A few days later, after my agents had sat me down, I had a seizure. I was in a doctor’s office because I’d cut my finger, and then, suddenly, everything went black. All I could think was that I was going to die without ever having been kissed. When I woke up I was on the floor, a disarray of knocked over papers and bins all around me, my body pinned down by my doctor, his eyes filled with a mix of concern and terror. My organs were going into failure.

 

Esmeralda before she started working with Heather Marr.
Esmeralda before she started working with Heather Marr.

 

My parents yelled at me to eat, offering options of food, under the delusion that I’d “accidentally” gotten so thin. My mother screamed at me and told me how “ugly” and “disgusting” I looked. Never once did she or my father ask if I was ok. They couldn’t fathom that I’d done this to myself on purpose, or that their little girl had something  “wrong” with her. Only my bookers understood the complexity of my situation. They told me what I needed to hear: that they cared about me and that they just wanted me to be healthy. They were kind and supportive, but most importantly they got me exactly what I needed, or more precisely “who” I needed. Her name was Heather Marr.

Heather may be one of the top trainers in the U.S., but to me, she’s the woman who saved my life. Heather listened to me and didn’t make me feel ashamed or embarrassed for my messed up eating habits or thoughts. She taught me how to eat and exercise, that protein wasn’t going to make me fat and that I didn’t need to exercise for hours to stay lean. She changed my body, but she also changed the way I viewed it. Instead of bones I started looking for abs, and instead of trying to encircle my arms, I felt for their strength. My body was strong and capable, and my brain was speeding faster than a Ferrari. It made me feel powerful, important, and beautiful.

My organs completely recovered within a month and I went on to have the best runway season of my career. In the Fall/ Winter 2015 shows, I walked for Marc Jacobs, Giles, Fendi, Saint Laurent, Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci, Vionnet, and various others whom I was also offered campaigns with. Every day I made the choice to get up and eat, despite the voice in my head telling me not to. My ED (eating disorder) would say don’t eat, you can be in control, just put down the plateyou don’t deserve to eat todayyou don’t matter anyway, nobody really sees you anyway, why not disappear? but this time, I knew not to listen to them. I knew that I had people around me who were watching out for me, whom I could depend on, whom I did matter to, and who did see me. It was hard, some days so hard I’d break down and scream into a pillow, but I did eat, everyday.

 

Backstage at a fashion show after starting her recovery. @esmeraldangel
Esmeralda backstage at a fashion show after starting her recovery, Fall/Winter 2015, @esmeraldangel

 

Backstage at the Fendi show 2016.
Backstage at the Fendi show 2015.

 

I stayed strong throughout the rest of my modeling career, and after I switched out of the field last year to my agency’s acting and artist boards, I went—with their support—to Evergreen to finally tackle some of the deeper issues related to my eating disorder. In the insanity of being in a locked building for four months where you have supervised pee times and daily vitals taken, I had the hardest and best experience of my life, because not only was it recovery, it was discovery.

I discovered the truth about my disorder and about myself. And that was this: My disease had become a part of me, but it wasn’t as the friend I thought it was. It was a safety blanket. Unlike jobs, unlike affection, I could rely on my not eating to make me thin. It always came through for me. But my anorexia was an addiction, and the safety blanket it provided was killing me. So what kind of safety was that?

Now, almost a year later, I have an apartment in the West Village, a new kitten and a pint of Chocolate Mint gelato in my freezer. I’ve been out of treatment for nearly eight months, and being healthy is still difficult at times, but I refuse to relapse. I eat three meals and snacks a day, meet with a nutritionist and a therapist once a week, take long walks by the Hudson, and occasionally grab a cupcake from Magnolia’s Bakery while I stroll through Bloomingdales and giggle at the ad campaigns of my model friends.

 

Esmeralda now, @esmeraldangel
Esmeralda summer 2016.

 

I no longer see my body as an art project, but rather the portfolio holding the art. Now when I put on my sneakers or put down a fork it’s because my body is telling me to, not a voice in my head. As for my appearance, I try not to look in mirrors too often, or even photos of myself (which as a former model, can be rather hard to avoid), but when I do, I remind myself that my body is something that needs to be taken care of so I can achieve the things I really want in life, not the thing to be achieved. And also, that the way my body is, is beautiful, because it’s the way it was meant to be, and that’s all that matters. I am 19 years old, and am currently working on getting two books published. One is a novel with artwork and the other is an art and poetry book; both were written during my stay in treatment. I’m pursuing acting with a fire-like passion and working on a script for a movie. I’m aiming for the stars, for the whole freaking universe, and maybe that’s a lot, but I’ve fought for this life, and I’m going to sure as hell going to make the most of it.

(Author’s note: If you’re out there reading this, and you recognize yourself in this story, even a small part, know you’re not alone, you are not insane, and just because people may not see you, or the pain you’re in, that does not mean you are not worth seeing or the pain you are in is not real. You matter and you can get better.)

Make the most of this relationship.

THE FEED