This article goes deep into a personal story about living with an eating disorder. If that is in any way a triggering topic for you, Chris and I would urge you to not read this post and reach out to loved ones if you are in need of support or help.
As you can tell from the title, for this post we talked to a leader of a body positivity club, Johanna Mergener. Johanna is bilingual, speaking both German and English. While she grew up in Seattle, her European ancestry remains a big part of her identity. In addition to her background, Johanna plays the violin and sings (mainly opera because she is “really passionate about bringing stories to people through the use of my voice.”) One last important character traits Johanna finds essential to her identity is that she identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. (yay for pride month !!)
Johanna was very willing to discuss her own personal experience in dealing with an eating disorder and first started by saying, “Before I start I just want to say: my story isn’t nearly as intense as other people’s. I was lucky to already be a part of a community who quickly snapped me out of what I was doing. I was lucky to realize that what I was doing was unhealthy, acknowledge that, even though I continued against better judgment for a while, finally stopped me before my habits became dangerous. I want you to be aware that people have it harder than me. This doesn’t mean my struggle isn’t valid, that it’s not worthy of being heard (because hidden eating disorders/disordered eating are dangerous, too), but this is not a typical story, it’s relatively mundane in comparison to many people in this community.” Johanna grew up in a household where bodies that weren’t considered skinny were taboo. She reminisced about the fact that both her parents had been on shake diets when she was younger and told her to “eat (especially snack) less because I didn’t want to end up ‘fat and unhappy.'” Comments similar to this one pushed her to develop habits such as, eating in secret and sneaking food when she could. As Johanna got older she started to gain more weight and soon both she and her parents noticed that she had become the heaviest one in her ballet class. She gave one specific example she remembered from middle school where she was walking out of the studio after a parent watch day and her father told her she should watch out because she had become “the roundest girl in my ballet class.” As you can imagine, comments like this one slowly started to overcome her mind, despite her constantly trying to ward them off. There was a point in time when she had lost 10 pounds in one month with little effort while on a school trip. Even though this amount of fluctuation may not have been healthy when she returned home her mother was proud of how skinny she had become calling Johanna her “beautiful skinny girl.” While this temporarily made her happy, when she gained the weight back she hit a serious problem.
In the middle of discussing the specific amount she weighed at different points in her life, she paused to say: “your body weight does not define you, just as mine doesn’t define me. It’s just a number, your relation to gravity. Don’t focus on it as much as I’m focusing on it in this story.” To continue, towards the end of her freshman year, she decided she was going to lose weight, eat healthier, and start exercising more in hopes of ‘improving’ herself. However, she quickly realized she was not interested in a full-on diet (a big reason being that she didn’t want her parents to know.) Her solution to this was to start using a calorie counting app instead. She said she kept to a 700-1,300 calorie budget when an average teenager should be consuming closer to 2,000 calories a day. Johanna added, “I lost 6 pounds in 4 weeks. By this time, my mom was proud of me. She bragged to my extended family about how much weight I’d lost when they came to visit, but I still wasn’t happy.” Even though she was calorie counting pretty intensely she said, “calorie counting was hard, though, and my lack of self-control kept causing my restricting to falter. I’d begin to binge whenever I allowed myself a small “luxury”, using the excuse of being on a cheat day.” This continued for months without her realizing just how unhealthy her habits had become.
During her sophomore year, a friend that was aware of her calorie counting obsession explained to her that, “there are so many more eating disorders than those that people talk about.” Her friend described to her a type of eating disorder where individuals secretly eat, hide food wrappers, and limit themselves if they believe they’ve eaten too much. “This description struck a chord with me because I engaged in all of those habits. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I had a real problem.”
Since Johanna understood she had a problem she has been “combating toxic thoughts, making lifestyle changes (including quitting ballet!), and trying to lead a more body positive life, including creating this [body positivity] club!”
Body Positivity Club started because she was inspired by all the other clubs at her school fighting different types of social justice, but still found little to no space for people with eating disorders to connect within her school community. “I wanted to start the club as a way to connect people who had struggled the way I had, so I tried to set it up almost as a type of support group for people who had fought eating disorders, were currently fighting, or were just curious.” At times, she has struggled to keep this club a space for discussion and not just a hangout space because not everyone is willing to share their eating disorder experiences, which is understandable because they are so personal. In the future, Johanna plans to focus the club more on educating the community on the seriousness of the topic.
In addition to running a body positivity club, she also manages a blog about her own journey. Even though it is hard for her to always find time and motivation to write, she is proud of herself and relieved to have a space to express all her thoughts. “If I can inspire just one person to join the fight for body positivity and self-love, then I’ll have done my job.”
Johanna explained that today beauty standards mainly affect herself and those around her through “negative self-talk.” These are comments that may seem harmless but really add to a toxic and fatphobic diet culture. Not only do they contribute to self-hatred but they also affect those around the individual that is giving their body negative descriptions. This is because when one person says something like, ‘I need to start my summer body’ then others around them will start to compare themselves to that person and will doubt if their body is ‘ready for the summer’ even though the idea of a summer body is not logical and one should not be comparing themselves to their peers. With all the negative remarks that Johanna hears in her life, I asked what advice she would give to people to encourage body positivity. She said small things like, “look at yourself in the mirror every single day and compliment yourself. Tell yourself that you love the way you look in that outfit, that you love every inch of yourself, that you love your body” can make all the difference. Another thing she recommends is to catch yourself every time you say something negative about your body. “Whenever I find myself thinking, ‘wow I wish my legs were as skinny as hers,’ I combat that thought with at least two good things about myself. For example, ‘her legs are beautiful, but that doesn’t mean mine aren’t.'” This helps you appreciate your own body while not putting down another person. Her last piece of advice is to wear clothes you’re comfortable in. “Wearing clothes that you enjoy wearing makes you so much more confident, and that confidence allows for a strong basis of self-love.”
In the future, Johanna would like to see everyone be completely comfortable in their own skin and have the stigma of self-love stop being weird. She told us, “I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that when they first met me/before they met me, they thought that it was weird to be confident, to be happy with your body, to love yourself.” Her other hope for the future is that “diet culture and fatphobia disappear.” This includes having more diverse people shown in advertisements, media, etc. and also having the word fat not be used as an insult.
Chris and I are beyond grateful for how open Johanna was to share her story with us. If you wish to find out more or keep up with her experiences you can read more about it at https://josrecoveryjourney.wordpress.com/