There once was a girl with long brown blonde hair hanging in the wind, her form perfectly posed to the ground like a statue. Her eyes were determined and she was ready to run. Her posture proved she was were she belonged - her element, her realm, the kingdom in which she could take flight. As she flew, the reality of cheers and clapping hands were drowned out by a voice that was loud and present no matter how fast she ran. This would be the snapshot of her most people would remember. The girl who ran. The girl who had it all together. She was beautiful. She was fit. She was smart. She was athletic. Her schedule was busy. Her family was great. Trophies, ribbons and awards lined her bedroom walls.
I met this lovely young lady named Adriana Cook on a summer evening in 2014 to photograph her senior portraits. She was one of the most pleasant, accommodating and positive seniors I had ever worked with. Her genuine smile and warmth was encouraging and she possessed this rare ability to make those around her feel important, respected and at ease. She was in fact, everything she seemed. Beautiful, fit, athletic, popular—and her family was indeed great—present and supportive. I took photos of al of those trophies and ribbons and awards - so many we didn’t know how to include them all. She really did have it all together. But she wasn’t good enough. She just wasn’t good enough. At least that’s what she thought. Thats what the voice inside told her on repeat. A continuous loop of hateful words thrown at her like bullies would on a playground. Even though their words remain, you can walk away from those bullies on the playground. You can try to remove yourself, find a safe space. When the bully is you, there is nowhere you can run to, there is no escape.
She did not look the way she wanted to, the way she thought she should. She wasn’t thin enough. Her reflection in the mirror was like confronting an enemy, someone you would avoid at all costs because you knew how mean they would be to you. She became very physically active during her junior year of high school—exercising and running track. She had also downloaded a calorie tracker on her phone-something she would obsessively look at it. Running combined with critically tracking everything she ate would get her where she wanted to be. Or so she thought. It wasn’t good enough. Running wasn’t working. Tracking calories was not working. She stopped eating. Seconds turned into minutes, minutes into days, days into months—the enemy in the mirror refused to tell her she had turned into a skeleton. The villain in the mirror only showed her a girl who still was not thin enough, a girl who was just not good enough. For a while she could hide how small she became because she was so active. That was the reason. Oh she’s so thin because she’s a runner. She’s athletic. She’s a beast. She’s a machine. The truth was, she was starving herself. She was literally tearing her body apart. The parts that she needed were gathered on the ground around her feet and she could not see it. She blindly stepped over what she was losing and tried to lose more. She would look around everywhere she went and would breathe a sigh of relief that she was the thinnest one in the room. A sense of accomplishment. It was not about out doing anyone else, she was not trying to be better or look better than anyone else, she had entered a competition with herself. She was running on empty, no fuel, zero nutrition. She wasn’t feeding her body anything, almost like a punishment. Her compassionate heart would never consider withholding food from anyone else—always willing to give and serve anyone in need. But she couldn’t hear her own body cry out to her, like she had locked a part of herself in a cage and refused to feed her. So began this harmful cycle of eating less and less and running more and more. The girl who could no longer sleep climbed out of bed each morning to literally measure her worth on a scale. It never mattered what numbers would show up, it would never be good enough. The nice girl with the welcoming face had a difficult time maintaining a genuine smile. Her positive attitude faltered and her responses to everyday circumstances were angry and short. Dizziness and fainting spells became the norm.
Social interactions became a terrifying event. Parties, dinners, family get togethers, fun with friends. An absolute nightmare. There was no clear way of accurately tracking what she ate if she did eat. She really didn’t want to eat. Would they notice? How could they not notice? Everyone wants to offer you food, thats just what people do. Go get you a plate! There is plenty of food! Why aren’t you eating? You need to eat girl!!!! Although people do mean well, and she really did need the nutrition for her body, sometimes we can unknowingly contribute to someone else’s private pain. Yes, she did need the food—that was her immediate need, the larger picture though was she needed understanding, she needed care. A meal was not going to fix her problem. Of course there was no way of knowing what she was dealing with and people do mean well, but consider there may be an alternative to insisting that people eat at social gatherings. Many people, myself included have issues with food—there may be a lot of different reasons why one does not partake of the food prepared. Maybe they have food allergies, maybe they are fasting, maybe there is a texture issue. Maybe they are on a specific diet they would rather not announce to the world. Maybe a health consideration—skin flare ups, upset stomach. Or maybe someone is struggling to stay alive and food will be the thing that “kills” them. Sometimes people just cant understand why you aren’t eating. Food becomes a quick fix. It makes you happy. It fixes everything! Food is necessary but it’s not always the solution. Instead of trying to cram a plate of food in someones face, get to know them. Ask them questions about themselves. Make everyone feel comfortable. Offer what you have and then let it go. We don’t want anyone to isolate themselves any further and make things worse for them. The common thing that unites and gathers people is food. Hey, you want to meet for lunch? Pizza night? We’re going for a picnic. We’re having a barbecue in the backyard, come on over. Food brings us together. If people aren’t eating, there may be a larger picture we cannot see or understand or explain in 2 minutes. Be kind, try to understand. Meet people where they are. No one knew. No one. It was her secret. She’s a girl on the go and she has the body that accompanies a busy lifestyle. She’s a runner for crying out loud! That active veneer was difficult to maintain though and people did begin to notice the change in her body. Sure she’s fit. She’s active. But is she too thin? Is something going on? Is she sick? Concern began to grow from many people in her life. It’s a tricky thing to address and confront. What kind of questions do you ask, if you ask any at all?
Nights were spent without sleep. Every waking thought was about food. She desperately wanted to eat but could not even think of “treating” herself with even a simple meal. The questions for herself changed from what she could have and what could she get away with to how could she get rid of it? Anorexia almost always transitions to bulimia. At some point you realize you can only starve yourself so long before you actually die. Adriana saw this as a new solution. She could eat! She could taste the food! She could satisfy certain cravings and she would also be able to eat in front of people now. She wouldn’t have to explain away why she couldn’t eat certain things anymore. She remembers making herself throw up the night of prom. A night reserved as the last party of your youth. A night meant to enjoy your friends, getting all dressed up and closing out her senior year. Her only concern should have been spilling something on her dress, instead she was still worried about how she looked in that dress. Another purging episode occurred on the morning of her high school graduation. The girl who had it all together walked across the stage, degree in hand and desperately hoped to end a painful chapter and run expectantly into the next phase of her life.
Maybe college life would be better. The summer before she began classes she was caught. She no longer had a secret. She entered a treatment center and hoped she could have a fresh start - a brand new season. New people, new goals, a new outlook on life. She did it! She got better! She started off freshmen year well — grades were steady and she was breaking records in track. But she was still having to wear a belt on size double zero jeans, and then one night she found herself on the bathroom floor of her dorm and she thought she was going to die, alone. After hours and hours of purging, she passed out and woke up to find herself covered in blood and vomit. This is how far it went. Thankfully this would be her wake up call. She got up, cleaned herself off and drove home in the middle of the night. She had relapsed. She couldn’t do it anymore. College life had become more isolating. She was punishing herself, tearing her body apart one pound at a time. It was lonely. Struggling with something so terrifying and heavy alone is like constructing an entire world that only you roam in. She couldn’t do it any more, she had to come home. Adriana found herself taking time away from school and finally able to confront what she had been doing to herself. She was able to tearfully lay in the arms of her parents and invite them in to her lonely world. Their encouraging words, compassionate hands and steadfast love provided the safe ground she could finally sleep on. She got help. Further counseling and therapy provided a way for her to walk, not run, into the everyday circumstances of life, learning to function as a whole person - body and mind.
You are probably scrolling back up to her photograph in the header and silently saying, what was she thinking? Did she think she was fat? Girl, I would love to be as fat as she is! I would kill to have her body! The truth is, she WAS killing herself to have the body you wish you could have. Eating disorders are not actually about your body at all. It’s about your mind. Your mindset. Your attitude. Your lack of confidence in yourself. A couple years ago I finally sat down to watch the show This Is Us. I had heard so much about this show and how emotional it was and how you just had to watch it. I gave in and binged the first season in two days. The show features a female character named Kate who struggles with her weight and body image. In one episode Kate went to a support group where other people just like her could safely talk about their body issues when in walks this “skinny blonde” who begins to share her body image struggle. Through the eyes of Kate, who in fact was heavy, this girl did not belong in this group. She’s perfect, she’s skinny, she’s thin, she’s neat. She’s the object of everyone’s desire. She’s ridiculous, get her out of here. While watching the show those were my sentiments as well. I thought, did this girl just need something to do? Did she just need friends? Throughout the season you can see Kate’s animosity towards this girl until the “skinny blonde” erupts in an emotional outburst explaining how she really saw her body. The world saw this perfectly fit body, but her mirror refused to show her the way she really looked. Her eyes did not see a thin girl, she saw a thin girl who wasn’t thin enough. She was emotionally tormented because she could find no way to be “enough”.
Years ago when I first started my photography business, I was on a football field taking senior pictures of this very handsome, fit boy. He wanted to be shirtless in photos with just his pads. We took a variety of shots around the field and I wanted to try a set on the bleachers. As soon as he sat down I could tell he was very uncomfortable—shifting around and around. The pictures were turning out great. He stood up and said he felt fat, like he was hanging out over his pants. He asked me to delete all of the seated photos and that we finish everything standing. This kid was shredded within an inch of his life. 8 pack. Tanned and toned. The ideal. I was thinking, if I sat down with my shirt off I would definitely not want a camera present. But this guy? What was wrong with him? He wasn’t being silly. He was not begging for compliments. He sincerely thought his body wasn’t good enough. If I had his body I would never wear a shirt—I’d be shirtless pushing a buggy grocery shopping, I’d be shirtless going to the post office—well you get the picture. He was the ideal, he is where I would like to be. But to him, he wasn’t there yet. There was more, more, more. There was better, better, better. The more I worked with people the more I could see into everyones insecurities. Please don’t post that! Can you edit that out? Here are a few examples of actual things I’ve been asked to do: will you reduce my breast size? Will you fill in my bald spot? Will you add hair to the front? I hate my arms, will you slim them down? Will you make my forehead not look as wide? Please take out my double chin, I’ll pay you extra. Will you slim down my silhouette? I want you to take pictures of me walking away, but you’re going to have to reduce the size of my butt or you cant post them. Guy with muscles: will you make my muscles bigger? Sometimes I go home and sit in front of the computer and am not sure what version of this person will make them happy. I don’t know where to start. Could any of us ever be happy with our own, realistic image?
Recently I had breakfast with some old friends from high school and we talked about how we would do if we had social media way back when. Even though the digital age is a newer concept, comparing and competition would not have been. We didn’t have a platform to display our image and likeness in the early 90’s, we had to do all of that in person. I don’t remember being envious of the jock’s body in high school. I remember I wanted to be taller but that was about it. But I imagine if I could pull out a technological device anytime I wanted and could see a slideshow of images of said jock, and comment after comment giving accolades to his glorious body, maybe that could have messed me up. For Adriana, the presence of social media was one of the many contributors to her eating disorder. There is no clear answer to the question - what started it all? Why did she go down this path? Harsh comments, joking around and an onslaught of weight loss ads were all factors, but think for a moment this live, ticking, beating life form that never leaves our hands. We don’t have to leave our home, our car or Dr’s waiting room to see what everyone is doing or what everyone looks like. They don’t have to walk by us for us to say - I’d love to look like her. We can wake up at 3 in the morning, grab our phone and say, oh Id like to look like her. We can be stuck in traffic, look down at our hands and say, man, I’d love to look like her. I’ve seen comments on pics I have photographed —“ooh girl why are you so perfect? There it is. In a nutshell. There it is. If this picture is perfect, the next picture has to be more perfect. And the picture after that has to be even more perfecter. Perfect does not even exist and we are no longer in competition with each other, we are running against ourself.
Years and years ago we were terrified of “Big Brother” because they would be watching us. The danger turned out to be that we watch them. We can see them all. We can see anyone or anything we want. OUR EYES ARE ON EVERYONE, and it’s killing us. It’s not Jessica’s fault that she’s in a 2 piece and posted a picture of it. It’s not Bryce’s fault thats he’s making gains at the gym and posts a pic everyday to show us. It’s also not Liam and Tammy’s fault that they never seem to work and are they are in yet a different country this week—and posting happy pics about it. We can’t blame them any more. We can’t blame Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat either. The fault does NOT lie on another individual, a corporation, or even the wicked culture that we have created. The fault lies within us. We are the bully. It’s easier for us to say if so and so just stopped posting their picture I would feel better about myself. It’s easy for us to say if I just stopped following so and so’s account I would feel better about myself. Out of sight, out of mind. None of that is going to work. The truth is we have to work on ourself. We have to disconnect from a certain way of thinking. Pull that cord and start learning that you are good enough, exactly where you are. The girl on This Is Us started making sense to me, as did the football pad boy who didn’t want his “fat” to show. It’s hard for all of us sometimes for people to understand how we see ourselves. There is our version of ourself, someones else version, and the real version. But what is real? Who gets to decide who the real us really is? What version of us is the real thing? The version of you who is happy the way you —thats the real you. No matter what you look like, no matter what size. Whatever you see or imagine. If you can see contentment no matter the reflection, that’s the real YOU. You’ve disconnected from thinking you are sharing yourself to compare to someone else. You’re adding your photo to the lot to show your uniqueness. You’ve pulled yourself out of the race. You are not competing. The likes don’t measure your worth, the followers don’t measure your worth, the scales do not measure your worth. How do you find that contentment? It’s a process. It’s ok that they look like they do. Appreciate it. It’s ok that you look like you. Appreciate it. It’s also ok that you want to change some things— eat healthier, exercise, girl get that botox if you want to. Finding your real reflection in the mirror is about finding the balance, not going to the extremes. Be healthy. The only real villain in your story is you. Your opinion of yourself matters more than anyone else’s. Sadly, the only thing we can hear sometimes is the opinion of others.
Adriana liked it when people said she was thin. It was a compliment. Ahh, I’m the thinnest girl in the room and they said so, that feels good. The script soon changes and it’s “oh, you’re looking too skinny!” But just yesterday you said I was skinny, it was nice, now I’m too skinny? Now position your thoughts in the mind of a girl who already thinks she isn’t good enough and imagine the tailspin that put her through. The superstar Adele who is beyond mega talented and also relatable has always struggled with her weight. She was known as the big girl who could sing. Even though she is wildly successful, comments about her weight have always been prevalent—written about just as much as her voice. Maybe thats what made her relatable to most people. You can google her name and sadly see negative jabs here and there. She’s been laying low the past few years after her latest album but posted a picture of herself from a New Years Eve party. Gasp! She was thin! What? How dare she? What is she thinking? What did she do? She’s not supposed to be thin. Ugh, I’m over her… and on and on and on. This very same group of people were most likely the same ones throwing jabs at her heavier figure. They don’t want her to be large, they don’t want her to be skinny. So what should Adele do? She should do whatever the heck it is that makes her happy. She has to disconnect, pull that cord of public opinion and be happy with herself. Thats the true version of her, the happy one. Stop competing with other people, and stop competing with yourself. You don’t have to run anymore, you don’t have to measure up, because the truth is, you never, ever will. It is an endless cycle that can only be broken in your mind. You are enough just as you are.
Adriana’s recovery is a slow and ongoing process. It just doesn’t get fixed. It is not suddenly healed. It isn’t like taking your car to get a break line fixed and there you are, you’re good to go. You got diagnosed, your new parts came in and now you can function. It doesn’t work that way. There are weak moments, there are second thoughts, there are many, many relapses. There are moments in restaurants where she still wants to pass on the meal she really wants because of the calorie count listed on the menu. Without thinking, she finds herself doing body checks, sizing herself up. The road to recovery began the moment she could not do it alone any more. One of the first steps to recovery is not having secrets to hide any more. Secrets are harmful and isolating. Invite the right people in on your secrets—family, friends, counselors, who love you unconditionally and will provide you the safe space in which you can heal. The same enemy who makes you cringe in the mirror is the same one who makes you keep your secrets. Telling you no one can know because they won’t understand. You’ll be judged, you’ll be shamed. How will this look? What will people think of you? Secrets are destructive. But so can the truth in the wrong hands. Take a step back and look who you have in your life. Recognize the people that are for you, the ones that want you to win. The ones who love you no matter what you’ve done and no matter what you look like. Confide in them, and invite them along on your journey. Thankfully Adriana has a family just like that.
Admitting to herself that she was tearing her body apart and getting the help that she needed was a huge win, although this meant coming face to face with the things that she lost. The starving, the purging, the excessive exercise, lack of sleep used to “just” cause irregular heartbeats, fatigue, nausea and dizziness. Those actions on repeat now altered her life permanently Her voice has changed—the sound of it—she can no longer yell anything out. Her teeth are damaged, massive amounts of enamel stripped away and her back teeth are unsightly. Certain foods she could now treat herself with will never agree with her. She has zero bone density. She became so small her body fat percentage was nonexistent, and so were her periods. She cried non stop the day she found out she could never naturally conceive children. She grieved for the babies she could not deliver. Now this amazing young lady at 22 who is getting her life back on track realizes every time she sees a baby that she cannot carry one herself. All because she thought she wasn’t good enough. Those are just a few things we sometimes shamingly call consequences. She wants you to know these things. The ugly parts. The sad parts. Just in case you are where she used to be. Whether its an eating disorder or something else that is causing you to have an unhealthy mindset or harming your own body. Somewhere near the end there is a cost. There is a price to pay and it may hurt. She would love to tell you to stop. Stop torturing yourself. Stop hating your body. Stop believing the lies your mirror is telling you. Stop comparing yourself to anyone but the best version of yourself. Don’t do anything that will cost you so much in the long run.
Adriana shared a powerful moment with me she had with her little niece that changed the way she uses her words. The little girl bounced into the room to greet her aunt in this pretty new dress. Instinctually you would use words like —oh don’t you look beautiful, and you look so pretty today. There isn’t anything wrong with affirming someones looks, but maybe a healthier verbiage would also be affirming someones personality. If we unbalance our compliments strictly to someones physical appearance, anyone, especially children, will grow up to think thats the only thing that matters about them. Adriana tells me she consciously tells her niece she is a list of other things—amazing, kind, smart and special and hopes that it will bring a balance of positive words over her life, not just the superficial ones. Words are important. Especially to someone is going through things we have no idea about. Sometime we just throw them around. In 2020 we get blamed for being too “PC” and overly “sensitive”. Why, lets bring back the days when we could call out people for what they are. No, it’s 2020, it’s time to learn our lesson. Our words can be kinder, our words can be understanding, our words can be compassionate, our words can speak life, not death. Our words can be positive. If they are not positive, we shouldn’t say any words at all.When we great people, greet them openly and be welcoming. You may just be that brief safe space that someone needs from their personal hell. It is important that you go through all of your emotions—if it’s you who is going through difficult things, it is not just going to go away on its on. You have to walk around it, deal with, talk about and tackle it. If you are the one who is watching someone go through difficult circumstances, try your best not to invalidate their feelings. Sometimes all a person wants is to be heard. To be understood. You don’t necessarily have to agree with everything that is spoken, but in a healthy, balanced way, we can listen to each other. Just listen.
Adriana stated that in her journey she learned that understanding is not agreeing. You don’t have to agree with someone to understand. It’s deep, but you’ll get there if you think about it. Everyone has a different picture of us. Understanding is compassionate. It’s saying I love you more than I love being right. Understanding is patient, it’s kind, it’s saying I will meet you where you are because I want you to be healthy and whole and present in my life. If you truly love someone, you will try to understand them. You will work for it. In a world that is already unkind to you, be kind to yourself. It’s not easy to love yourself, but that’s where it all begins. When you love yourself your confidence will change. Believe it or not, sometimes it’s the confidence we are envious of in people, not their actual looks. When someone can walk around with their head high, not in arrogance, just owning who they are and what they look like. Confidence is attractive. Be that, and you will attract the right people. Remember this—there is this thing out there, that comes in many forms to tell you that you aren’t good enough. You’ll try and try and try to measure up. You never will. Ideal does not exist. Perfection does not exist. It’s like running a race where theres no tape at the end to bust through. You’re just running. You’re just competing. For nothing. No one out there alive can put you on a scale and value your worth. It isn’t possible. You are everything. You is kind, you is smart, you is important. Ok, thats ripped from a movie but it’s true. Cheesy but true. If thats what it takes, do it. Speak kind things over yourself. Don’t tear yourself apart. You are all the things. Right where you are reading this—you are enough. You don't have to be pretty enough. Smart enough. Thin enough. You are jut enough. Did you hear that? You are enough. You don’t have to work for it. Earn it. Pay for it. Kill yourself for it.You are enough.
I am so thankful for the human that I know named Adriana. A girl who freely tells her story and struggles and desires to share it in hopes that it can rescue someone right where they are. A human who is overcoming. A human who graduated with honors at Marshall University. A human who was accepted into a competitive masters program in Clinical Psychology. A human who is concentrating on rehabilitating people with eating disorders. A human who is broken but resilient. A human who isn’t done. Someone who is still seeking help. Someone who is beginning to like who she sees in the mirror. A girl who decided she had to make a change to survive. A girl who is kinder to her body. She's strong. She's tough. She isn’t there yet, but she’s healing. And that’s all that matters.
Final words… Your body is NOT your gift to this world. You are.