By Carré Otis
Growing up in an alcoholic household where life was chaotic and unstable had me searching for ways to cope and remedy the anxiety I experienced.
I had a tremendous fear of becoming a woman, and my relationship with my mother was fractured. I lacked the nurturing that makes the process of growing from girlhood to womanhood feel safe. As my body changed, I felt confusion and dread. I had no role models, no supportive female relationship to turn to.
Food seemed to be a way for me to control the mayhem, medicate my anxiety, and attempt to control my life and body.
Addicted to Denying Food
By the time I entered the modeling world, I had already become quite addicted to the patterns of using food -- and denying myself food -- as a means to provide relief. It was the beginning of a long road of self-abuse.
Because of my age and my low self-esteem, I was very susceptible to the judgments thrown at me in the modeling world, where I seemed to be viewed only by my body. All attention and conversation were focused on the physical: weight, shape, size, toned or flabby.
It was excruciating to be spoken of as if I were not in the room, or not even in the body that was being touched and poked and judged. The pressure to be thin and fit into the sample sizes that they shoot for the magazines was tremendous. Basically, if I did not fit the dress I would lose the job. I did not have friends or family to support me at that time, nor did I have an education to fall back on. I felt I had no choice but to make it work.
The sacrifices I made were life threatening. I had entered a world that seemed to support a "whatever it takes" mentality to maintain abnormal thinness. I would simply not eat and then get to the point of madness from starvation and end up bingeing.
It was a terrifying roller coaster and I had no way to understand that my methods were the cause of the roller coaster I was on. There were no "educators" for nutritional balance. No one was there to take me by the hand and explain what a healthy diet looked like. When I was told I was "fat" it felt like a death sentence, and those words would catapult me into an anorexic episode of total abstinence from food.
Later, as my disease progressed, it took many shapes and there was nothing I wouldn't try in an attempt to control my body. From starvation to bingeing to laxative abuse, cocaine, diet pills, thyroid medication, vomiting, and obsessive exercise patterns, it all became like a program I rotated through.
One day in Paris I had an amazing photo shoot for Vogue magazine. I had been up all night and was terrified that I would look fat and not fit into anything. The morning of the shoot I had a panic attack and in a state of hysteria and self-loathing I raked my face and body with my fingernails, opening the skin and drawing blood.
I was tremendously ashamed that I was so out of control. The saddest memory for me was that the shoot was already planned and money was at stake so I was covered up with makeup, no questions asked, and put in front of the camera. I had a job to do and that was that.
I later saw those photos and was astonished at the image I saw. I had thought I was too fat to shoot the pictures but in reality I was under 100 pounds.
By that point, I felt insane. My mind was unable to be still yet I had an absolute inability to focus on any subject for any period of time. I slept when I should have been awake and felt wired when it was time to rest. I was depressed and manic and exhausted in every way. I was prone to bouts of hysteria and crying that were impossible for me to control. My life and mind were out of hand. My body was spiraling into a danger zone.
Finally, Anorexia Takes Its Toll
Just as I was turning 30 I got an offer to shoot Sports Illustrated. I was touted as being the "oldest" girl to be in the pages of such an issue, and interviewed with major news and magazines on this premise. To get myself in shape I over-trained and under-ate.
My body could not take it any more. By Christmas I had a seizure, and was taken to the hospital where tests revealed that years of malnutrition had taken their toll on my heart. I needed heart surgery.
At that point, I had life decisions to make. I needed help. I needed to make a change, or clearly my body would not hold up. At that moment, I finally admitted how out of control I was, and knew that I was not ready to die. I was ready to embark on the road to recovery.
Several years later, the struggle is no longer the reigning factor in my life. My size and shape no longer determine how I feel on any given day.
I still have a nutritionist I call and check in with, as well as many friends who I call when I feel triggered and in need of support. But today I have the tools to deal with the emotional triggers that arise. My focus has shifted from an obsession with weight to a desire for optimum health. I try to approach food and eating from a nutritional standpoint, and make sure that what I put in my body is balanced and beneficial as well as responsible towards my needs both physically and mentally.
I recently moved away from Los Angeles in an attempt to broaden my view and get away from the unrealistic attitudes I see so predominant around the "industry." I even limit the magazines I read to those that are focused on wellness and intellect, as opposed to those savagely dissecting celebrity life or the fashion magazines that perpetuate an unhealthy female image.
I encourage young women to find their own voices and speak out. Being active in the community, and developing a self beyond the physical is crucial. We must feel connected to one another to learn and grow as individuals, and find ways to relate to one another beyond body image and society's mandate of thinness.
We are far more than this body. We come in every shape and size. Our differences are to be embraced and celebrated. By honoring the differences in ourselves we learn to honor and be compassionate towards others.
When I think of the women I admire it is for their strength, courage, resilience, and intellect. This is truly where beauty lies.
We shall all grow old one day, beyond our smooth skin and young bodies. I hope we are all able to look back with satisfaction, knowing we have lived a life full of purpose and compassion. We all deserve this happiness.
Published on Aug. 11, 2005.