What It's Like to Work in Fashion When You've Had an Eating Disorder

Updated 05/01/19
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The fashion industry has received lots of flak for its promotion of extreme thinness and the unhealthy habits that often create it, and that flak is not unwarranted. But as someone who’s struggled with an eating disorder, I know that self-starvation and its counterparts have a lot more to blame than runway models and magazine ads.

For starters, the behaviours involved—that many assume are based entirely on personal choice—are actually the result of altered brain chemistry. Technically, these are mental illnesses, brought on by a combination of genetics and environmental factors (think family dynamics rather than fashion-world fads).

But just because fashion isn’t the ultimate culprit here doesn’t mean that its standards are making life (and recovery) any easier for eating disorder sufferers. And if you work in the industry, like I do, the triggers are that much more severe and the challenges that much harder to overcome. 

To give you an idea of just how hard it can be—despite my love for fashion, my job, and many aspects of this industry—I thought I’d give you an honest look at what a week in my life really entails.

Scroll down to hear more about my experience.

Fashion week starts at the end of the week, and I’m having a lot of anxiety about it. Most people in the industry are probably feeling anxious right now, but mine stems from a slightly different place. I’m going to be busier than normal, which means that my regular workout routine will go out the door, and I’ll likely be consuming more alcohol and eating out more frequently. The weight-gain panic is real, and it won’t help to be surrounded by über-thin industry figures and models while it’s happening.

 How do they do it? I will surely wonder. What am I doing wrong? This should be a time that excites me, and instead I’m facing it with a lot of dread.

One of my co-editors sends us an email asking us to document our fashion week outfits with pictures. Oh god, do we have to? I think to myself, not wanting any extra body-related pressure. I feel sad and lame and scared.

This evening I have drinks with a PR contact. PR contacts often ask editors out for drinks—it’s a way to build a real working relationship that’s not over email and to forge closer ties between a publication and a brand. And drinks? Who doesn’t enjoy them? I certainly do, but I’m also fretting about my body and feel like calories from alcohol are the last thing it needs. It’s not difficult to just order something else, of course, but it does make me seem like a bit of a bore. I receive two more drink-date requests for the week but schedule them for later in the month—I like to space out my anxiety (I wish I was kidding).

I’m working on a story about whether or not getting custom-made jeans is worth it. I pitched this story—am I a masochist? The thought of strangers fitting and sizing me up for a pair of jeans right now sounds like a nightmare. I really need to start hitting the gym more, I think.

I head down to 3x1 after lunch for my first fitting, which will be photographed. I had a giant salad for lunch—it’s what I eat every single day—and I feel bloated and gross. Think positive thoughts, I repeat to myself, like the Zen guru I am not. Your job is so cool, so just enjoy it, I tell myself as I slip into the dressing room to start trying on pants. I know that the next hour has the potential to boost my confidence or tear it down and that regardless of which way it goes, it will be built on flimsy ED-related standards.

A small size fits? That’s cause for corrupt celebration. A small size doesn’t fit? You’ve dropped the ball, the old ED voice will tell me.

I’m smiling and chatting away, though. No one will know this is hard for me.

Let the fashion week games begin. I have a 10 a.m. show uptown that I rush to get to. Once there, I do my best to ignore all the super-skinny bodies in my orbit. In fact, while I’m waiting for the show to start, I seek out healthier bodies to remind myself that they do exist in the industry. And honestly, I feel no envy toward the runway models when they come out. It saddens me that many of them look so shockingly ill and that we collectively allow for that. Having these thoughts is proof of my progress over the years, but I wish I could watch a runway show without thinking of the models’ bodies before anything else.

Tonight I’m going to the Marc Jacobs party with my co-worker. We’re thinking about getting dinner beforehand, and I really hope we go somewhere with “healthy” options. We have a team dinner tomorrow night, and despite what you might think, our team really likes to eat. The double-whammy dinners set in a lot of panic. I eat at every meal, to be clear, but it’s the rich food that freaks me out.

We end up nixing our dinner plans because we’re so busy, so I eat something light before heading out. By the time we’re at the party, I’m hungry again but ignore all the hors d’oeuvres being passed out. My co-worker tells me they’re delicious; I just nod, smile, and pretend not to feel weird.

While at the shows this morning, I run into an old editor friend who jokes about her fashion week diet: never having time to eat, essentially. She is pseudo-whining, but there also seems to be a bit of pride wrapped into it. I feel a little guilty thinking of my hearty breakfast, and the hordes flowing in with green juices at the ready don’t help.

Later, when I’m back on the office, I receive a box of clothes to try out for a story. Most of what was sent is sample size, which means very tiny, although some of the pieces look even tinier. I decide to save the trying-on terror for Monday and hide the box under my desk.

Our team dinner is at 9 p.m. at a fried chicken place that’s gotten rave reviews. We order a million different things, and it’s delicious, but I’m not enjoying it on nearly the same level as everyone else. I’m still hardwired to think that 99% of what’s on the table is off-limits for me, and breaking that in one evening is tough. I nibble on everything but feel most comfortable eating the protein. Each bite is being overanalyzed in my head, even if it appears like I’m just chatting away without a care in the world.

When dessert arrives, I can’t bring myself to try it, but I go ahead and Instagram a picture anyway. The “look, guys, I’m totally better” moment is too hard to resist, and yes, I hate myself a little for it. I leave the dinner feeling happy, though, to be surrounded by a team that truly eats (which is to say, often with abandon, without disordered restrictions, etc). It’s not always easy for me, but it’s a challenge I need.

What do you think about current beauty standards in the fashion industry? Sound off in the comments, and if you or anyone you know is enduring a similar struggle, be sure to check out the top eating disorder recovery books, below!

Jenni Schaefer Life Without Ed $14

Jenni Schaefer Life Without Ed ($14)

Carrie Arnold Decoding Anorexia $32

Carrie Arnold Decoding Anorexia ($32)

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