Lily Collins on Anxiety, Self-Care, and the Workout Plan That Helped Her Heal
Vanity Fair for Sundance
"There's no such thing as perfection. The sooner we realize that, the less pressure we put on ourselves, and the more freely we can live our lives."
This is Lily Collins's parting sentiment, a heartfelt conclusion to the whirlwind heart-to-heart we've just had on the phone for the last 45 minutes. Collins says this statement with such pleading sincerity that it forms a knot in my throat. On the surface, the actress and model seems to be the spitting image of perfection: She was born the daughter of legendary musician Phil Collins and went on to launch a successful performing career of her own, starring in movies like The Blind Side and Rules Don't Apply, which earned her a 2017 Golden Globe nomination. She has modeled for iconic brands like Teen Vogue and Glamour and secured a giant contract with Lancôme; not to mention, she is the brow icon of the century and overall one of Hollywood's most achingly beautiful young stars.
But the 27-year-old's self-image hasn't always reflected these accomplishments. In a candid new essay collection, "Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me" (available today), Collins details her struggles with anorexia and bulimia, which developed during her tween years and continued to dominate her life until recently.
"I never had a problem eating whatever I wanted growing up in England or when I first moved to L.A.," she writes in the book. "No one made me feel self-conscious or made me doubt how good I looked. This is why it's hard for me to understand how I fell into such a deep trap years later—a trap I have slowly but surely been digging my way out of ever since."
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia and bulimia are "complex conditions that can arise from a variety of potential causes." In other words, there is no clear, singular trigger. Collins traces her body image issues back to the stress from her parents' divorce, the social anxieties of middle school, and the professional pressures of her budding career. It's clear from the book, and from our conversation, that Collins has put a great deal of work into understanding her mental and physical health and doing her best to improve it.
Over the past few years, Collins has been able to fight her way out of the depths of her eating disorder. Admittedly, she still doesn't have the world's highest self-esteem—as she writes, "I still find myself looking through magazines and comparing myself to the photos, despite knowing the amount of Photoshop and tweaking they've been through. I'm still influenced and impacted by these images and by the things I read, including those same interviews about actresses hating the gym and eating whatever they eat. Even though I know full well their purpose is to create a certain image."
Collins tells me over the phone that her journey to self-acceptance hasn't been easy or linear, but it has saved her life. She seems devoutly appreciative of the many different people and efforts that have led to the happy, healthy, vibrant version of herself that I get to meet over the phone. In fact, Collins says that much of why she wrote this book was to let other people dealing with the same issues know that they're not alone. "[Recovery] is all about open conversation and communication, and the written word is the most amazing way to be able to do that," she says.
According to a 2014 study of body image conducted by psychologist Heather R. Gallivan, PsyD, at Park Nicollet Melrose Center, approximately 80% of American women are unhappy with their bodies. According to Collins, there are six keys to turning a person who hates their image into a person who loves themselves more and more every day. In her own words, here are Collins's secrets to self-love.
1. Surround yourself with people who lift you up.
"I have always loved and relied heavily upon my friends and my mom to stabilize and ground me, whether it's insecurity with work or how I feel about myself, emotionally or physically. If I feel insecure in any way, shape, or form, I reach out to the people who matter most to me, whether that's FaceTime, a phone call, or hopefully being able to go out and have coffee or dinner with them. I don't even need to bring up what I'm feeling, I just need to be around them to make me smile and make me forget about whatever I'm thinking about.
"I'm super, super close with my mom. She's first and foremost the closest person to me that inspires me. And my girlfriends who I've known since high school and college, who've known me since the beginning— they're really inspiring, powerful women that I'm friends with for a reason. They uplift me, they make me feel great, they call me out on my shit when I need to be called out on it—in the most loving way possible—and they hold me accountable, which, to me, is what you need from a friend.
They uplift me, they make me feel great … and they hold me accountable, which, to me, is what you need from a friend.
"Professionally, my hair and makeup team are some of the most empowering people I've ever met. Ironically, they're the people who make me feel beautiful, but not in a physical way. Yes, I feel beautiful because they're geniuses at what they do, but also because they really empower me every time that we're together. Rob [Zangardi] and Mariel [Haenn], my stylist team, really work to instill this inner confidence that is so inspiring to me."
2. Write your feelings down.
"While writing this book, I was able to have a third-party perspective of my thoughts. [When I'm writing], I'm able to reflect on them and see them for what they are. I see them for the fact that they're negative thoughts, and I think about where they're coming from. And usually, it has nothing to do with what I'm unhappy with; it's actually a deeper problem. If I can pinpoint what that is, then I can try to figure out how I can make that better. And I know it sounds like a long process, but the more you get used to it—finding out what the triggers are—all of a sudden you stop thinking about the minor insecurities.
"Writing my book was therapy because writing [my experience] down made it so much more real to me. Sometimes if I write down what I'm feeling, step away from it for a little bit, and read it back, it's easier to work through. There were lots of chapters that I wrote, then stepped away from and re-read, and I thought 'Oh, okay, I guess I'm really going there,' or, 'I didn't think I was going to talk about that,' or 'Wow, that really happened.' It's because once it's written down you can step away from it and come back as a viewer or a reader, and you're not defined by what you've written. It's a part of you, but it's just words that are stemming from experiences but they're not defining who you are."
3. Analyze your emotions, but don't judge them.
"I have always been very extroverted, but when there were things about myself that I hadn't yet understood or come to terms with yet, I was very internal with them. I didn't know how to express those specific things yet. Growing up and owning my experiences and figuring out their purpose in my life and in my journey, now I'm able to talk about them. But I think it's also kind of confusing to some people because I was always very outgoing and outspoken about some things, but not about others. So when I was going through tough things quietly, it would seem shocking later when it came out.
"From outside appearances, it looked like I had everything under control, and that's where a lot of it stemmed from: I wanted to be in control, even though there were so many things going on in my mind that I couldn't quite figure out yet. So, it seems kind of confusing, but that's just my personality. I'm very outgoing, but if I haven't figured something out yet, I don't talk about it.
"Because I'm so aware of these things now, I hold myself accountable. If I see myself veering or being triggered by something, I go, 'Yo, Lily! That's a trigger, you know. Don't put yourself in that situation.' Or 'Hey, the reason that triggered you to begin with doesn't apply here anymore, so don't let yourself use that as an excuse.'
"My fears when I was younger were being out of control and being imperfect. Now, my fears are not living in the moment and allowing those old triggers to dictate how I live my life. Knowing my priorities now, as an adult, really allows me to put a lot into perspective. I want to enjoy my time here! I want to go out with friends and socialize and not worry about the things I used to worry about. Most of what I do in my job is out of my control anyway. But now I'm like, 'Oh my god, I can't control that—that's great!' It's just about having greater awareness. And now, after writing a book about things like this, even more people can hold me accountable, which is a terrifying thought, but at the same time maybe that's what I need."
4. Appreciate your body as a functioning, living thing.
"I view the gym differently than I used to because it's not the time where I get to control things. Like what I did or didn't eat, the gym would make up for that. I enjoyed it, but at the same time, it also had shadows surrounding it. Whereas now, I actually feel good; I feel much stronger. When I do dance classes or cardio classes with other girls, I enjoy myself and have fun and sweat, but I'm sweating in a way that's healthier. I'm always surprised by what my body can do for me and what I can give it back. I have to refuel in order to be strong, and maybe do exercises that I never even knew I could do because I didn't know I had those muscles.
I'm always surprised by what my body can do for me and what I can give it back.
"It's about moderation. Moderation is something that I didn't know all that much about; it was kind of all or nothing when I was going through [my disorder]. Now it's more about, 'Hey, it's okay if I want to go out and have a cocktail here and there, and then we're going to have appetizers, and then we're going to go to dinner, and then it's going to take three hours to eat because we're actually enjoying each other's company.' I love doing that now, as opposed to thinking, 'Okay this is the set time that I'm going to eat, and it's only going to last this amount of time, and I know what I'm already going to order because I've already looked at the menu.' Now, I'm just living and breathing in the moment, and that's so much more freeing and enjoyable."
5. Find meditation in food.
"I love baking. That is a therapeutic experience for me, and it's really my time in the kitchen to explore and experiment and zone out. I love my chocolate chip quinoa cookies that I make. People go, 'Quinoa?' But it's just a gluten-free way of making them. They're so good. I love the process: You have to make the dough, the dough chills, then you have time in between finishing the dough and putting them in the oven to clean up and zone out. Then you put them in the oven and you wait for them to bake; you watch them rise, and it smells so good. It's a whole little ritual that I have.
"I also love zoning out to music. Sometimes, what I listen to when I'm baking, to be honest, is a movie score. I know that sounds weird, but during the holidays, I will literally put on the Love Actually movie score, because some of those Hans Zimmer orchestral pieces are so amazing, and I love that movie so much. With the orchestral stuff, it doesn't have any words, you're just focusing on how the music makes you feel. Even something like Pride & Prejudice—that's an amazing score. I will sometimes bake to that, or just piano or something. Because you're just going along with the experience, and there are no words to define how you're feeling. You're not being told how to feel, you're just living in the moment. I've found that to be extra therapeutic.
"And another thing: I have to have a cup of tea, and sometimes that cup of tea is the most comforting thing all day. Being British, I need my tea."
6. Share your story, and you'll realize you're not alone.
"As a young person going through something hard, we think that we're alone. We think that we're the only ones going through these things; but in fact, if we were just more vocal about how we were feeling and where our thoughts are coming from, we'd realize that these are things that a lot of people go through. As soon as you start vocalizing the things that you're going through, all of a sudden you relate to people who you would have never thought you would relate to. So, when it comes to food issues or insecurities in general, it's quite amazing the power of speaking up and using your voice. Because, suddenly you are able to dissect these things in a very open, honest way that almost frees you from this prison in your mind, where you think, 'No one else understands me. I'm never going to get through this.'
"Seeking out help is never a weakness. Whether that's just phoning a friend or finding a therapist or starting to read up on things on the internet or in books. Sometimes we think that means we can't help ourselves, that it's a bad thing, but it's not. It's just becoming more self-aware, and I think that that's a really amazing gift to give yourself."
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read more from Collins by picking up a copy of her new book below!