by Sarah Hall
for The Beacon
At a community presentation on body image May 9, Lauryn Cudworth shared a survival story that was, at turns, both harrowing and hopeful.
The 2016 Plymouth High School graduate – now a 24-year-old power lifter who has won state and national titles, lifting 1,171 pounds, winning a gold medal and earning her pro card at the Arnold Sports Festival just two months ago – told a hushed audience of about 50 how an eating disorder nearly claimed her life when she was a teenager.
Anorexia, she said, is “a mental illness that eats you alive from the inside out.” It whittled her down to 89 pounds before she was hospitalized at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and immediately put on a feeding tube, which was the start of a long, slow trek towards recovery and self-acceptance.
All three speakers on the panel put together by the high school’s WeACT Club shared different perspectives on the common theme that although appearance may be superficial, our perceptions of it have profound impacts.
“Thanks for coming tonight and taking a forward step to find confidence and appreciation for the bodies we are given and the bodies we live in,” PHS senior and WeACT co-leader Shania Arneson, introduced by club advisor and PHS Spanish teacher Laura Koebel as the force behind the effort to offer a presentation on body positivity, told the crowd gathered at Generations in Plymouth.
“Body image and the way we see ourselves affects all aspects of our lives – including our relationships with people, food, exercise, self-esteem, self-confidence,” Arneson pointed out. “We hope that through this journey, we can start to wake up and see ourselves for who we really are, instead of what we look like.”
Cudworth said her own body dissatisfaction “began with one person calling me fat in middle school, and I just couldn’t let it go.”
Alexandra Fritz, therapist with Ozaukee County Therapies and the Providing Access To Healing or PATH Program in Plymouth Schools, reiterated the point that random comments can cause lasting damage –and offered a bit of practical advice.
While it’s common for people to complain about carrying extra pounds, presuming that it’s OK to criticize themselves, Fritz warned that it still has a negative impact.
“When you comment on your own body, you are indirectly commenting on the bodies of everyone around you,” she reminded the group.
Cudworth’s adolescent self was desperate to fit in – and became addicted to losing weight.
“I lost ‘those last five pounds,’ and then I lost 10, 15, 20, and it was never enough,” she said. She started working out about five times a day and “was up all night, either exercising or crying.”
A telling detail was that “I was not brushing my teeth, because I thought toothpaste had extra calories in it,” she added.
Cudworth called it “a slow suicide” that’s “not really about food or weight – but is instead about control, self-perception and trauma.”
People would always want to know why she wouldn’t just eat, and it took her years to realize that it was because controlling food intake is “easier than dealing with the demons in your head.”
Like Cudworth, 95 percent of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25, noted Keegan Rhynas, education coordinator for Mental Health America in Sheboygan County.
“A really scary statistic is that only 10% of them will seek help,” even though many are at high risk for suicide, he added.
Cudworth herself cited an estimate that once every 62 minutes, someone dies as the direct result of an eating disorder.
At the height of her illness, “each day, I woke up disappointed, because I woke up,” she said. She lost hearing in her left ear as her body began to shut down.
On November 9, 2012, Cudworth had a nightmare that she was attending her own funeral, which left her shaking and in a cold sweat. It was an epiphany.
“I realized that none of this was going to fulfill me, and it was only going to kill me,” she said. Her eyes welled with tears and she scolded herself that this happens “every time!” when she reaches this point in her story.
In a gripping video, she shared photos that showed an emaciated, almost unrecognizable version of herself during a two-week stay in the hospital. Nine-days at a treatment center followed, before she went home since insurance would not cover further in-patient care.
Then “it was just me against me” and Cudworth learned she had to do “the complete opposite of everything my mind was asking me to do.”
Her true turnaround began after she took notice of a female weight-lifter and decided that she, too, wanted to be strong. She took up the pursuit as a senior in high school.
“Little did I know that powerlifting would be the thing that would take me farther in recovery than anything else ever would,” she reflected.
Now she is so body-confident that her Instagram username is “urroyalthighness.”
Healing also involved freeing herself from insecurities and fears.
“It’s about owning your story,” Cudworth said. “I’m living proof that recovery is possible.”
“My eating disorder will forever be a part of me, and I will battle it every day of my life,” she admitted.
But her biggest advice to herself and others struggling with self-perception is that “you are not your thoughts, you are your actions and thoughts only hold power if you give it to them.”
Rhynas, too, urged the audience to recognize negative self-talk and challenge it, focus on positive qualities, skills and talents and avoid comparisons with unrealistic body standards rampant on social media.
“If you’re having a negative thought, ask yourself, is this helpful?,” he said.
Discrimination and stigma based upon weight is nonetheless common, Rhynas noted.
For example, “people who are overweight get passed over for job promotions. They tend to be seen as less qualified even with the same resumes and history,” he pointed out. “Medical professionals tend to spend less time with overweight individuals and when they do engage with them, they tend to gloss over many other aspects of their health and focus on their weight.”
What we see on TV, computer and movie screens, lifestyle trends such as the fitness boom, cultural differences, gender norms and commercialism all influence body image.
“It’s important to remember that we all have biases, and we need to think about that when we engage with people,” Rhynas said.
“Another myth is that weight equals health. Weight is a terrible proxy for health, but it keeps getting used as one,” he continued.
Body mass index, or BMI, is one of the biggest culprits because it’s used as a measure of fitness, but does not take into account bone density and other critical factors, according to Rhynas.
In addition, what are considered to be ideal weights are generally based on the Caucasian body type alone and do not take into account differences between ethnicities.
Instead, Rhynas advocated a Health At Every Size or HAES approach that rejects the use of weight, size or BMI as proxies for health, dismisses the myth that weight is a choice and acknowledges that health exists on a continuum and weight varies with age and circumstance for everyone.
“Bodies are bodies and we don’t have to make these assumptions based upon them,” he said. “The preoccupation with weight in the medical field is something that hurts many people every year.”
Rhynas described the most common types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder and bulimic nervosa.
The LGBTQ+ population is at especially elevated risk, he noted.
Body dysmorphia is when someone is struggling with an over emphasis on a particular body part. Rhynas cited studies showing that 45 to 70% of individuals with a disorder have experienced suicidal ideation and 22 to 24% have attempted suicide.
When disordered eating has a negative impact on quality of life, it’s time to seek help, Rhynas said.
Early intervention is key: “The most effective treatment is the earliest,” he noted.
Later on, during question-and-answer time, an audience member challenged the notion that early treatment may always be possible, pointing out that the ongoing therapist shortage often means that it can take months to get an appointment with a therapist.
“Finding a therapist is not a walk in the park right now. It’s really tough,” Rhynan admitted.
Fritz suggested that patients can sometimes be seen by a therapist faster if they contact a counseling practice directly rather than going through a physician’s referral.
She also recommended two widely available self-help guides, “The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like Your Looks” and “Your Body Is Not an Apology Workbook: Tools for Living Radical Self-Love.”
When it comes to finding a therapist, she advised scheduling a consultation, looking for someone who specializes in body image issues and asking lots of questions.
“This is not one size fits all,” Fritz said. “Make sure you find a therapist you have a vibe with.”
Professional assessment will determine whether the problem is disordered eating versus eating disorders, body dissatisfaction versus body dysmorphia or gender dysphoria, restrictive eating versus loss of appetite, and so forth.
Treatment might then be in-patient, partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient, at a specialty clinic or through a particular therapy office.
“We do see a huge correlation between eating disorders and trauma,” Fritz continued.
Rhynas explained that it’s ingrained in us to think that we have no control over trauma, and eating disorders can offer the illusion that an individual is instead in charge.
WeACT, which coordinated the event and conducted fundraising sales and raffles there, “is a club of amazing young adults at Plymouth High School who come together in an effort to change the world,” said their advisor Koebel. “They meet every Wednesday in my room and we talk about issues in the community we want to change and issues in the world we want to be aware of.”
For more information about body image, eating disorders and where to find help, contact Mental Health America in Sheboygan County at 920-458-3951 or visit their website at http://www.mhasheboygan.org.