Raising eating disorder awareness one scale smash at a time

Hannah (left), Porter, Rodriguez and Dempsey pose for a picture after the SmashTALK event in the Carolina student union.

*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.”

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An Embody Carolina member painted this scale with a succulent pun.

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.

Anorexia has a mortality rate of roughly 10 percent, and an estimated one in five people with anorexia commit suicide.

Rosa Hannah (middle, in gray) wraps a scale in a trash bag before shattering it with a sledgehammer.

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).


From college dropout to corporate climber

Photo caption: Tim Larson, left, and Tyler Reese smile outside of Marco’s Pizza in Durham after Reese accepts his position as district manager.

The following is a story I wrote for John Robinson‘s Feature Writing class at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

He tapped his pencil against the old wooden desk, glanced at the stagnant clock and sighed. This was the moment Tyler Reese decided to officially drop out of his second year at Wake Technical Community College.

“I realized I had wasted a bunch of money and just kind of dropped out,” Reese said. “I hated school, I hated studying. I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to amount to something.”

Reese is among the majority of students who drop out of college within six years in the United States — many of whom have accumulated thousands of dollars in student loans.

Reese planned on getting his associate degree by taking part-time classes at Wake Tech for two years, then transferring to Appalachian State University — his father’s and sister’s alma mater — to finish the degree.

Instead of following through, Reese focused on delivering pizza at Marco’s Pizza — a job that he’d had for roughly four months before dropping out of school.

Reese began working as a delivery driver because the schedule was flexible and allowed him to continue his studies. After dropping out, Reese kept the job, he says, because it paid the bills and he could imagine a future there.

Reese’s parents, Paul and Sandy Reese, grew concerned about their son’s future, and hoped he would reconsider a postsecondary education.

But Reese stood his ground, content with the delivery job’s pay and hours, and within four and a half years he was promoted three times.

First, from delivering pizza to being a shift manager in Durham, then months later to the general manager of the Durham store and finally to the district manager, overseeing six different stores in central North Carolina.

To top it off, he’s only 24 years old.

“I honestly thought it would be a very long process,” Reese said, adjusting his classic black Marco’s Pizza baseball cap. “I didn’t see this coming down the road. I didn’t know what my opportunities with Marco’s would be.”

Typically, jobs in the food industry do not require college degrees, and many employees are able to climb the corporate ladder to riches without the burden of student loans dragging them down.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high school graduates over age 25 who work full time averaged a $726 per week income in the second quarter of 2018, while college graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree over age 25 who work full time averaged a $1,310 per week income in the same time period.

That translates to roughly $38,000 per year before taxes for 25-year-old high school graduates and $68,000 per year before taxes for 25-year-old college graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Though Reese skipped his degree and started working full time at age 19, his salary corresponds with the latter at $64,000 per year before taxes.

Reese worried that without a college education he wouldn’t be promoted any higher than general manager.

“General managers don’t really make that much,” Reese said. “Obviously at my age, it’s a lot, but I just kept thinking down the road as a 40-year-old man making $35,000 to $45,000 a year, is that really sufficient? To me it wasn’t, and that’s why I always kept school in the back of my mind.”

But Reese’s worries vanished when he was promoted to district manager.

“I figure now I won’t go back to school,” Reese said with a grin. He paused, shook his head and laughed before his next sentence. “I figure I’ll go ahead and make millions without the student loan debt.”

Tyler Reese is the youngest of Sandy and Paul’s three children; his brother, Hunter Reese, is 28 years old, and his sister, Alex Reese, is 27 years old.

Reese was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated from Leesville Road High School in 2012.

During his senior year of high school, Reese started taking honors classes — something that he’d never done before. He says he felt compelled to take harder classes to prove his intelligence to his family.

“My dad and my sister went to App State and my mom was valedictorian at Adrian College. So I just wanted to prove myself and go to college,” Reese said.

Reese, who now lives in Morrisville, drives hundreds of miles each week  to inspect stores in his district, which often results in a 14-hour workday. And for the past four years he has consistently worked overtime, averaging 60 to 70 hours per week.

He credits his success to his customer service skills and work ethic.

His father agrees.

“He truly does want the customer experience to be the best possible,” Paul Reese said. “I believe the franchise owner and other Marco’s executives recognized these abilities and that underscored the decision to promote Tyler.”

Reese’s biggest advocate? His sister.

Alex Reese couldn’t be more proud of her younger brother.  

“How many people can claim [to be a district manager] at such a young age? Without his work ethic and passion, Tyler would not be in his current position,” Alex Reese said. “He set his eyes on a goal he wanted to accomplish, worked his way up through the ranks and achieved it.”

Reese’s strong customer service skills stem from his charisma and ability to be personable with anyone — especially his employees. On his days off as a general manager, he didn’t hesitate to throw on his Marco’s Pizza polo shirt and help out in-store when employees called in sick.   

Jordan High School student Joanna Vargas has worked at Marco’s Pizza in Durham for one year; she says she thinks of Reese as a role model. Reese’s new title requires him to divide his time equally between six stores, which Vargas says upset her.

“I was so happy for Tyler when he got the job,” Vargas said. “But I was sad to see him go [from working in Durham everyday to every week], because he trained me and I look up to him.”

In addition to his team’s support, Reese maintains a strong relationship with his customers. One Durham customer, Reese says, stopped by a local beer shop while his pizza was cooking and bought Reese a $20 gift card.

Other customers have asked Durham employees when their favorite former general manager would return.

“I’ve had a lot of customers ask me to come back because they miss me,” Reese said. “It makes me feel good.”

Marco’s Pizza Owner and Area Representative Tim Larson owns the Durham, Chapel Hill, Morrisville and Pittsboro locations. He plans to open eight more stores in 2019.  

Larson acts as Reese’s mentor, teaching him the ins and outs of the corporate business world.

“[Tyler] has a very strong work ethic. He is very coachable, which is what I was looking for — somebody I can groom to take over the business from an ownership standpoint,” Larson said.

Ownership? Already?

Larson laughs.

“It would be something where he would grow into the ownership of the business over years,” Larson said. “Ownership is gradual so it could be a matter of a small percent leading up to bigger percents over the course of years.”

Reese confirms his long-term plan is to own a Marco’s Pizza franchise in the next five to ten years.

“My ultimate goal is to take over [Larson’s] territory when he retires, and hopefully open my own franchise with Marco’s,” Reese said.

Considering Reese’s trajectory, that day could be just around the corner. Meanwhile, whether he’s sprinkling cheese on a pizza or analyzing a store’s marketability, there’s one thing Reese can attest to: Hard work really does pay off.