This Eating Disorder Survivor Is Making A Difference
"There’s beauty in everything and everyone, and that shouldn’t be decided by the media or anyone,” Dayna Altman — a 24-year-old eating disorder survivor, graduate student, and mental health activist from the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) — told me in a recent interview.
Dayna, who agreed to share her story with the FBomb for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, is from Massachusetts, and grew up dancing. As early as elementary school, she told me, she started experiencing and depression, anxiety, OCD and eating disorder habits. She wasn’t diagnosed with anxiety and major depression until her first year at Providence College, however. At that point, she received several months of clinical treatment, which in turn informs her work as an activist today.
Looking back, Dayna believes her family life contributed to her depression, anxiety, and eating disorder, as it was a competitive and restrictive environment. “Restricting is something that happened in my family quite often … and growing up in an eating disorder environment led me into those patterns,” she told me. “I think a big part of it was a lack of education, but I didn’t really know what it [the eating disorder] was until my anxiety got out of control in college. I had a lot of panic attacks.”
Dayna eventually decided to transfer to Northeastern University, where she contacted a therapist and psychologist and sought clinical treatment. “My therapist definitely helped me in the treatment process,” Dayna said, noting her anxiety and depression began to improve while in treatment. She also learned that her assumption that recovery would just “come in one day,” she eventually realized that recovery “is a process that we all have to live through.”
While in treatment, Dayna explored how the pressures of dancing and performing on stage impacted her eating disorder and depression. “For me, it was about this idea that I had to put on a performance, and rehearsing always had to be perfect, whether in dance or shows,” she explained. “There’s a lot of pressure in the performing world to produce something that people want to see … and I think I applied those principles to everything else.”
Dayna is hardly alone in this experience. In the dance and performing arts industries, eating disorders — including bulimia, anorexia-nervosa, purging, and extreme dieting — affect about 46 percent of performers. In classical ballet, it’s one in five. Dancers are oftentimes pushed to meet high standards of beauty and make the cut for competitive performances, which can lead to plummeting self-esteem and vulnerability to an obsession with thinness. Similarly, competitive athletes are also expected to maintain “ideal” physical fitness by dieting, vomiting, or starving. In fact, over one-third of female athletes have reported anorexia-nervosa symptoms, according to a study by Division 1 NCAA. Although most athletes with eating disorders are female, men (especially in these spheres) are also at risk.
It’s also undeniable that American culture still sends young women contradictory messages about their bodies: they must be extremely thin but also healthy, weak and voiceless but powerfully sexy. Girls are placed in a double bind in their attempt to embody these dichotomies, which often results in low self-esteem, negative body image, and a loss of their “voice.” Messages in the media — especially Instagram, Facebook and other social platforms — reinforce this loss and create a crisis for adolescent girls.
But, as Dayna’s story proves, there’s hope for recovery. After receiving clinical treatment and having been in recovery for about four years, Dayna is now excelling at Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Public Health. She also founded two organizations, The BEA(YOU)TIFUL Project and Erasing Excuses, which focus on empowering women through conferences and girl’s retreats, as well as spreading sexual assault awareness. Recently, Dayna held an event called “An Evening of Empowerment” through The BEA(YOU)TIFUL Project. This event featured 10 female speakers who shared personal stories at local bars, restaurants, and schools around Massachusetts. In addition, Dayna created a video project, “Demand to Be Heard — Survivor Project,” which tells the story of a dancer’s eating disorder recovery.
So while eating disorders continue to affect over 30 million women around the world, the work organizations like NEDA and individuals like Dayna do are crucial to helping those individuals realize they can recover and make a difference in this community.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact NEDA’s live helpline at 1-800-931-2237 on getting help and into treatment anywhere in the country.
If you’d like to get involved with Dayna’s projects, contact her here to learn how you can create your own community events
More articles in WMC FBomb by Category: Body image and body standards, Feminism
More articles in WMC FBomb by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Gender bias, Equality