Jennifer Wayland, 15, who attends Parkway Central High in Chesterfield, Missouri, quietly existed in a lonely well of low-self-esteem, shame about her body, and as she puts it, the feeling that she "took up too much space." Then she found the courage to tell her mom and so began the tough road back to regaining control of her health and self-confidence.
The ninth grader earned a prestigious award for the compelling essay she wrote on her struggle with body image and disordered eating. On May 1, Sharon Robinson, the daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, presented Wayland with the grand prize in the 'Jackie Robinson Breaking Barriers' essay contest, sponsored by Major League Baseball and Scholastic. The other grand prize-winner was Luke Lunday, a fifth grader who has cerebral palsy and shared his determination to ride a bicycle on his own. The contest received more than 18,000 submissions.
Wayland cracks open a subject that's still difficult for many people to understand or discuss freely. Eating disorders, and mental health issues surrounding body image in general, are largely borne in silence: Less then 1 in 10 seek treatment, and of those who do, many fail to fully recover. At least 8 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder—mostly teen girls and young women. The mortality rate for anorexia nervosa (one of the most severe manifestations) is the highest of any mental illness.
Of her breakthrough moment, Wayland wrote:
Admitting that I needed help to get out of the enormous pit I had dug myself into was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. Telling my mother took more courage than I thought I would ever have. I wrote down what I wanted to say, what had happened over the past months, in a letter, and we both sat in her room while I read it to her. I told her I needed her, if only to make sure I ate enough. Now I realize I needed her to tell me she still loved me, and that I was lovable no matter how I looked.
In an interview with Yahoo! Shine, Wayland described how her struggles with food and self-esteem began in eighth grade. "I was tired and stressed all the time, calculating calories, like, 'how many calories would one piece of toast with butter have?'" In her essay she described her feelings of inadequacy:
As I looked at the girls who danced or played soccer year-round, as I craned my neck to be more and more jealous of the tall, willowy girls, it hit me that I was gross. Disgusting, in fact, because I didn't have those legs or those abs. Those girls had "good" bodies, and I did not. So I told myself that I would get that body, and I would feel good when I did.
What she discovered was quite different:
It wasn't fun, eating less and less, counting every calorie, spending hours on the Internet looking for motivation and methods to lose weight, and doing endless exercises in my room. It wasn't fun to lie to my parents and my friends. And it really wasn't fun to discover that I just hated my body and myself more with each passing day.
When Wayland went away to summer camp after finishing middle school, she found some relief. "I was active all the time, it was like a vacation and I began to eat more," she told Shine. "I opened up to some of my closest friends and they convinced me that something needed to change. I was sick of being like this, I didn't want this for the start of high school."
Wayland frankly describes her struggle to get well:
The other hardest thing I've ever done was recover, which means I went back to a healthy weight. Every meal was agonizing and impossibly stressful for a while, and stepping on the scale was out of the question. The first few months were as hard as the last few had been, but I had to have persistence. I fell back on the old fear that I was unlovable and my insecurity about myself generally as a person a few times, but I had to keep telling myself my health was worth that and more.
"In eighth grade, I thought if I opened up about this, no one would accept me," Wayland said. Instead she found herself overwhelmed by support. "People say they relate to my essay because it's straightforward and honest." She hopes to share the message, "If you are healthy, you don't have to look like the pictures in the magazines, because those are fake. If you are comfortable in your skin, you don't have to change yourself to look different."
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