*Content warning: eating disorders and calorie restriction*
She woke up overwhelmed with exhaustion, lightheadedness and nausea. She felt like her body was made of cinder blocks, making it impossible to lift herself up. The stuffy dorm room didn’t help; it just made it harder for her to breathe as she fell in and out of consciousness.
Using all her will, she reached for her iPhone and called her mom.
“Mom, I need help. I need you to come,” UNC-Chapel Hill first-year student Rosa Hannah said, sobbing into the phone. She was lucky her family only lived 45 minutes away in Raleigh.
Hannah was taken to UNC Hospitals where doctors immediately put her on two IVs. They told her mother she had the flu and a sinus infection. She was malnourished, dehydrated and on the brink of death.
Hannah was sick — she had a disorder that was dominating her life and manifested in her self-image; one that brainwashed her into believing food was her enemy.
She had anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by extreme calorie restriction and intense fear of weight gain. It includes body dysmorphia, which causes one to perceive their body as severely flawed, and a low body mass index. She was also addicted to laxatives and purged whenever she’d eat any food.
Eating disorder psychologist Rachel Porter says an eating disorder is a mental and physical illness that has behavioral and cognitive components. She explains that for some people eating disorders feel like a life-saving mechanism, obsessing over the only thing they can completely control in their lives — what they put in their body.
“For some, their disordered behaviors are what they have access to in order to keep them at least perceiving safety,” Porter said. “(These behaviors) offer coping for so many people. And sometimes feel like the only alternative to things like self-injury and suicide.”
When she finally regained consciousness, Hannah realized the perils of her disorder.
“That was when something really switched and when I was like, wow this isn’t sustainable,” Hannah said. “I don’t want to die. I can’t live like this.”
Now a senior, Hannah is a member of Embody Carolina, a UNC campus initiative that raises eating disorder awareness and teaches students how to support those struggling with eating disorders.
On Oct. 15, 2018, Embody Carolina and the UNC Panhellenic Council hosted Southern Smash, an event where students could smash scales with sledgehammers and baseball bats in front of Davis Library. Southern Smash is an organization and event that was founded in 2012 by eating disorder survivor McCall Dempsey.
After going through inpatient eating disorder treatment at Carolina House in Durham, Dempsey said she started Southern Smash so that she could pay it forward and help others like her.
But why smashing scales?
“I was an addict to my scale and I was so hung up on numbers,” said the 36-year-old University of Mississippi alumna. “Whether it was the number on the scale, calories, miles run — I just know so many people who feel imprisoned by numbers and exterior things that define us. So I wanted to [raise awareness] in a way that catches attention.”
In addition to visiting college campuses and eating disorder treatment facilities, Dempsey creates Smash kits so that anyone can host their own Southern Smash event. Smash kits include 10 scales and Southern Smash swag, like T-shirts and stickers.
Southern Smash also hosts panel discussions called SmashTALK after every scale smashing event. UNC Panhellenic required all new sorority members to attend SmashTALK to help promote a healthy body image in the Greek community.
During these discussions Dempsey shares her 15-year-long experience with disordered eating, emphasizing that not all eating disorders correspond with specific criteria.
“The truth is there’s a big grey area in the middle that most people fall into,” said Dempsey while she proudly watched UNC students destroy scales. “No one fits perfectly into one diagnostic code. I would go through bouts of restriction and then pretty severe bouts of binging and purging and then just binging. So I just kind of ping-ponged through the symptoms.”
Alongside Hannah and Dempsey, UNC junior Isabel Rodriguez stood on stage to share her battle with anorexia.
Rodriguez, a Miami native studying nutrition at Gillings School of Public Health, started dieting at 9 years old. Her disorder spiraled out of control when she was 15 and started competitively dieting with her best friend.
Rodriguez’s mother banned scales from the house, so after school every day she’d walk to the local Publix to weigh herself. Just like many people suffering from an eating disorder, Rodriguez was controlled by numbers.
During the peak of her eating disorder, Rodriguez would take an apple and a granola bar to school to eat, come home, work out and try to avoid any encounters with food. She began compulsively lying to her friends and family, telling them she’d already eaten dinner or wasn’t hungry.
“I’d have a bowl of broccoli for dinner or I’d say I was going to a friend’s house for dinner, and when I’d get to my friend’s house I’d tell them that I already had dinner,” Rodriguez said.
After two months of intense calorie restriction and exercise, Rodriguez was forced by her pediatrician to seek inpatient treatment at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami for two weeks where she was diagnosed with anorexia.
But Rodriguez didn’t think she was anorexic because she wasn’t skeleton-thin.
“The misconception that you have to be extremely underweight with your bones protruding to have an eating disorder can prevent people from seeking treatment, because people don’t think they are sick enough,” Rodriguez said. “The truth is, you can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.”
During her time at Nicklaus, Rodriguez was put in a wheelchair to prevent her from expending energy. Her heart rate was weak and her blood pressure was dangerously low. At night when she slept, the nurses would shake her to move her body so that her heart would beat faster.
Though they only kept Rodriguez in the hospital until her physical health was no longer at risk, she was still mentally controlled by her anorexia. Her parents decided she would continue outpatient treatment at the hospital, which lasted about one year.
Although Rodriguez has relapsed in the past, she feels she has recovered. She says events like Southern Smash help combat the stigma against eating disorders and other mental health issues.
“It’s important that mental health issues are talked about, especially eating disorders since they are so prevalent and they have such a high mortality rate,” Rodriguez said.
Other students participated in Southern Smash to support their loved ones. Though UNC senior Hannah Neumann has never struggled with an eating disorder, she says she attended in solidarity with her sorority sisters.
“I want to support my sisters who have suffered from eating disorders and to be an ally in helping them continue recovery and maintain a mindset of health and wellness,” said Neumann. “Having seen firsthand the effects eating disorders have on those around me, I think events like this are important in perpetuating positive relationships with food.”
Southern Smash gives students across America the opportunity to become allies to aid those in recovery, while emphasizing the importance of self-love and a positive body image.
“To anyone who is currently struggling,” Rodriguez said, standing beside Hannah in front of the 300-person crowd at SmashTALK. “I want you to believe me when I say that you are worth recovery, you are worth your life and you are good enough.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, consider calling the National Eating Disorder Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 (Monday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST).