Why I Walk? Speak Up and Speak Out: Finding My Voice in Recovery

More than 1,200 people -- registrants hailing from Boston to D.C. -- will be walking in the National Eating Disorder Association's fifth annual NEDA Walk, Save a Life fundraiser in New York City this coming weekend (Oct. 6).

I walk because I suffered from -- and survived the horror, depression and isolation of -- anorexia.

I walk because the average age a girl begins to diet today 8-years-old and 42 percent of first through third grade girls want to be thinner.

I walk because 30 million people in the United States, men and women, will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime.

I walk because recovery and freedom from an eating disorder is possible.

I am living proof.

Eating disorders aren't a phase or a lifestyle choice. They aren't a disease where the sufferer vainly tries to achieve thinness, nor do only thin people have eating disorders. The disease is serious and complex, with biological, sociocultural and environmental causes. Anyone who turns on the television, reads a blog, or surfs the web quickly will discover Americans' unhealthy obsession with and increasingly disordered and distorted relationship with food, weight, exercise and body image.

I began struggling with an eating disorder at age 12. I didn't set out to be anorexic and I didn't know how serious what I thought was a "harmless diet" could be. I grew up as a ballet dancer and, from a young age, experienced high expectations of a lean body type, performance, perfectionism and emotional suppression. At the time, my mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer. On the outside, everything looked just "fine," but for my family and for me, things were wildly swirling out of control.

Restriction, rigidity and perfectionism consumed my life in an effort to maintain order in a world of chaos. This manifested itself in my relationship with my body and food. I struggled for three years before my family intervened to get me help ... at a point where the eating disorder had insidiously infiltrated every part of my life and I had become a shell of my former self. I had transformed from a happy, bright and energetic, young girl, full of hope and dreams, into a monster. I knew that the eating disorder wasn't giving me what it promised -- a lean body, satisfaction, control, admiration, love. Instead, it got me on a treadmill I couldn't get off. I was a slave, with no way out, little hope of freedom and, ironically, no control.

After two years of hard work with therapists, nutritional counseling, food plans, hours at the doctor's office, the threat of not being able to go away to college and an overhaul and re-evaluation of my entire life, values and priorities, I recovered. I regained a large amount of my bone density (much of which I'd lost from malnutrition). I started to break the bonds of perfectionism and my performance mentality. I discovered my skills and talents outside of the ballet world. I mended relationships with my family. I learned to cook and to enjoy food in moderation and learned to exercise with the right motivation. I discovered my intrinsic value and worth through my faith in God and found rest in the fact I could never please people and was the recipient of a grace so profound I could never earn it, nor had to. I found rest for my soul in recovery from my eating disorder -- a transformational life process that never would have occurred without the support of my treatment team, my family and friends.

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

I walk, because too many young men and women are struggling in silence, as I was -- terrified of help, devoid of hope that anyone will understand and doubtful that they won't be judged if they speak up. My parents stepped in and forced me to get help before I found the strength to raise my own voice. I was too afraid, but my parents weren't. Their courage helped me to find hope and find life again ... and eventually find my own voice.

I walk, so that those struggling and their families can find their voice. I found mine through the platform of Miss America -- which, I entered on a whim in pursuit of a college scholarship and never actually expected to win. Thankfully, I did, and received more than $65,000 in scholarship funds, which I used to graduate from Emory University in May 2013.

And I was able to use my platform to help others. I traveled 20,000 miles a month, talking to young girls about good nutrition, loving and respecting their bodies, assuring them they don't have to be perfect, to "have it all figured out," to be the smartest, the best, the prettiest, the most talented. They just have to be them and that is enough. I found my voice in recovery and on the road as Miss America. I continue that advocacy work today, and have found my greatest joy -- helping other young women and men who are struggling to find their voices.

So ... Why should you walk? Usually I find -- whether speaking, traveling, lobbying, or just talking with family and friends -- everybody knows someone who has struggled with an eating disorder. Maybe you have been silent about your own journey. Maybe you haven't yet reached out to that person whom you suspect may be in grips of an unhealthy obsession with weight, calories, food and their own sense of self-worth.

What will it take to encourage you to speak up? Speak out? Far too many struggle in silence, secretly hoping that someone will come alongside them, and help them find their voice. I walk to help the next generation of young people find their voice.

Walk with us in New York City on Oct. 6 or in NEDA Walks scheduled across the country. Now is the time. Find your own reason. Find your own voice.

For information on identifying eating disorders and getting help, vist:
Or Contact NEDA's Live Helpline: 800-931-2237

Monday - Thursday, 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. (EST)
Friday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. (EST)

For more information on the NYC walk & a list of NEDA Walks across the country, visit: