Dedicated to the art of movement, this month is all about the journey to body awareness, and what it really means to devote energy to wellness, exercise, and self-love in 2019.
“If people were to say, ‘what is one thing you want us to know about eating disorders,’ I would tell them that ‘it doesn’t look like anything,’” says Ruthie Friedlander, co-founder of The Chain, a peer network for women in the fashion and entertainment industries struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder. Add to that the statistic that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and the invisible prevalence of this disease becomes significant.
It’s no secret that fashion, though not the sole cause of it, is certainly a contributing factor to the perpetuation of an unhealthy body image and weight standard. The industry fetishizes thinness—though is often in denial of it—and constantly bombards its audience with images that encourage an unrealistic standard of beauty. As a force that can potentially stimulate an eating disorder, imagine how hard it can be recovering from one.
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Quickly interrupting the theme of this account (le gasp!!!) to bring you this image of @ruthiefrieds and @thepouf (hi guys it’s us your fearless leaders!) for the @negativeunderwear x @janisstudios #NewYearSameYou campaign benefiting The Chain 🤩 It’s a tough time of year for us folk who struggle with EDs or food/weight/body in general, so we just want to say we’re here for you and to work hard in putting your recovery and health before anything else (that’s a resolution worth having and keeping!) ❤️ photo by @chelsymitchell
Friedlander, a fashion journalist and brand strategist, and Christina Grasso, a social media editor, bonded over this struggle while both in recovery and working in the industry. Their friendship illuminated a need for a style-specific space, one that provides a community for others in recovery but also propels the conversation around eating disorders. In December 2017, the pair launched The Chain as a New-York based network for women that has since evolved into a non-profit changing fashion from the inside-out.
It’s especially pertinent that this month of movement not be a blind devotion to wellness. The concept itself, rooted in health and wellbeing, is moreover good. But the concept in 2019, at its highest of obsession-level interest, has us asking whether wellness is just an umbrella-term fad to excuse behaviors that control how women view and therefore treat their bodies. Within this world of workout-wielding, detox-doing devotees, we’ve lost sight that wellness is just the newest iteration of conditioning—and excusing—an essentially unhealthy relationship with our bodies.
I sat down with Grasso and Friedlander to discuss pain points in the industry and how we can reframe the idea of wellness and movement in a positive way.
Tell me about The Chain.
Christina: Ruthie and I met a little over two years ago now. I had been doing some consulting work on the Netflix movie To The Bone with Lily Collins, which is about eating disorders, and because there was so much controversy about its release, I had a Google alert set. One day, this InStyle story popped up by Ruthie. I sent her a DM and was like, ‘I love your story, that was super brave of you. I’m always here.’ We just started talking about our shared experiences of recovery and decided there was such an unaddressed issue in our industry that was not being dealt with. We wanted to start some sort of resource for women in fashion, entertainment, and beyond who struggle, but also don’t have a support system because they are too afraid to open up. That’s kind of how we decided what to do, and then we named it The Chain. It was kind of a selfish move on my part, but I love Stevie Nicks, so I thought it was fitting.
Ruthie: Initially, we started it for the reason most people start anything: We saw a problem we wanted to come up with a solution for. We were at very different points in our recovery; I had just finished treatment. I had had this very intense experience that all of a sudden was gone and I was supposed to be ‘all better,’ but I found myself thrown into situations I was unprepared for. I really needed help dealing with specific things, like not fitting into a sample-size dress or a jacket I bought that I didn’t want to sell on The RealReal or get rid of it. Those were real problems that I couldn’t talk to my treatment team about—or I could, but they didn’t get it. So being able to be around a group of women who I could vent to more than anything became increasingly important as I continued my recovery journey.
C: I think that was another part of it, too. [Treatment] is kind of like being in a vacuum. You’re in this safe place, but at the same time, the things that Ruthie and I were dealing with were kind of unique to this industry. One time, I tried to bring up something about Fashion Week in my treatment group and someone said, ‘that’s too triggering.’ They’re conversations about our work that we couldn’t really discuss openly, so we needed to create a space where that was acceptable and helpful for everyone involved.
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This is one of my favorite quotes posted on @thechain. Words of wisdom curated by my partner in crime @thepouf. This time of year can suck balls but leaning on those you know get “it” has become exceedingly essential in my continued recovery. Even just looking at @thechain instagram can make me feel better. We are here for you ❤️ #eatingdisorderrecovery
For someone who hasn’t experienced an eating disorder and doesn’t have much knowledge of it, it still feels like a no-brainer; fashion and the creative industries almost foster this environment for eating disorders to thrive in. At the moment, what are the most pertinent issues surrounding this?
C: Right now, the topic of wellness has come up a lot in our work, kind of reframing that and educating people on the problem with—
R: Like the issue with words like ‘clean eating’ and ‘detoxing’ and ‘sweating it out.’ Things that if you’re an editor, you’re pitched it a lot. For someone who doesn’t have an eating disorder, that language may be totally appropriate, but for someone who does have an eating disorder, the implication is that ‘what I’m eating is making me dirty.’ And that is the most triggering thing you can say to someone who is struggling.
It’s to have a safe space for both ends—for people who work in the community to sit and voice things that are upsetting them, but also for people in the beauty and wellness industries, who can come to our events and learn about what they’re doing and why it’s triggering. Because there is wellness that is inherently a good thing, and then there’s wellness in 2019, which is really just another word for dieting.
I’m trying to confront this issue right now. The fad and the facade that is wellness. No one wants to admit an ideal body type is at the root of this movement.
R: This is a lot of what we talk about. The other side of this story is that working out is good for you. I wasn’t able to work out when I was in treatment and just now started feeling comfortable doing it. There are really great effects that working out has on emotions, but it is such a slippery slope. And in our industry, I find that it’s treated as a really obsessive, cult-ish type thing people joke about. You have your workout girl gang who all wear the same thing from Bandier, and it’s a very disordered mentality.
Has either of you had positive experiences with wellness and movement?
R: Both Christina and I have had really amazing experiences with acupuncture. When I started treatment, I started seeing an amazing acupuncturist named Juhi [Singh]. I was very upfront with her about where I was at medically, and I found acupuncture was really great because it helped me feel my body if that makes sense. Anyone with an eating disorder, their main goal is to not feel their body. That can manifest in so many ways; it can manifest in you wanting to physically disappear, or you being so hungry or so stuffed that you actually can’t think. For me, the idea of having to be alone in a room for 30 minutes is the most terrifying thing in the world, because you are just alone with your body. Something about Juhi’s acupuncture really helped me connect with my body in a way that was really healthy and helpful.
And I work out with a trainer because I don’t feel safe enough to work out without one. My trainer knows I’m in recovery and it’s important for me that she knows it. It’s nearly impossible not to walk into a gym—even the best gym in the world—and not be like, ‘wow, I really miss being sick. I wish I could stay here all day.’ That still happens. It’s more your ability, how quickly you’re able to reframe that, and how quickly are you able to distract yourself from that. At least, that’s what the change is for me.
When you started The Chain, were there a lot of people that came out of the woodwork?
R: Yeah. It was pretty unbelievable. What surprised us the most wasn’t necessarily the number of people that came out, but who came out. The fact that this resonated with so many people, across so many age groups, across so many levels of seniority, across so many parts of the industry—we had a bunch of graphic designers who came and were like, ‘we edit e-commerce photos all the time and we have to stare at people’s bodies,’ something that even I, someone in fashion with an eating disorder, didn’t think about. It was really eye-opening.
On the other side of that, the reality is, we had a lot of people on the brand side reach out to us and say ‘we’re so thrilled about what you’re doing.’ But once we were able to start fundraising, it was crickets. It’s interesting that there are two parts to it. When it comes to brands publicly embracing this part of The Chain, it’s really hit or miss. We’re not necessarily surprised by that—
R: But it’s definitely disappointing to see.
C: There are some people who really want nothing to do with this conversation.
But why? Is it because [eating disorders] are still taboo?
C: I personally think people have a fear of having a conversation that is so uncomfortable, whether having dealt with it personally or because [a brand] doesn’t have extended sizing.
R: A lot of times what we hear is ‘we’d really love to work with you, but we only go up to a size 14.’ That’s okay. We just want to talk to you about how you can be more inclusive. We more than anyone understand that there are business reasons brands can’t necessarily expand through a size 24—it’s a real investment. We just want to be part of the conversation.
Another piece of feedback we’ve gotten is that it’s negative from a marketing perspective. But our whole thing is that we are not negative. One of my favorite parts of us doing this is that Christina and I are both uniquely upbeat, weird people who, dare I say, have gotten really far in our careers. For us to be able to stand in front of anyone and be able to say [that] we both took time and went to treatment, and we both are successful and still funny and happy and also struggle with mental illness—all of that!—is a really powerful message. It’s not a bunch of sad girls sitting around in a room talking about how they wish they could eat cake. This is the real world.
C: Feedback I’ve gotten, which is actually kind of weird, is somebody on my Instagram was like, ‘it’s kind of annoying that two skinny white girls think that they could be the face of this issue.’ I think we both recognize that we don’t add to the body positivity aspect of [this conversation], but we’re also very upfront about the fact that body positivity is something very different from an eating disorder recovery.
R: They’re two very, very different things.
C: It’s so much more than just acceptance. While we love body positivity, it’s certainly not something that either of us feels like we’re in a place to promote, because I don’t feel positive about my body. But when we partner with a brand and their stuff doesn’t fit curvier girls, that’s a different issue.
When you’re working with brands and looking at certain pain points within the industry, what do you call out?
C: We never really call people out.
R: We address.
C: We send emails.
R: If we see something, we find the most senior person at that place.
C: We emailed the CEO at Postmates.
R: We’ll send an email being like, ‘hey. We’re Ruthie and Christina. We run this nonprofit. We saw this Instagram, we saw this sign on the subway, or we saw this advertisement. This is how it made us feel. You should know that there’s a community of women that also felt this way. We want to talk to you about coming up with different messaging and are totally of service to you for your next campaign.
We had an instance during Fashion Week where a major brand posted something on Instagram about how fashion editors survive solely on coffee and cigarettes. We emailed them and within two hours they had taken it down. All we want is for [brands] to say, ‘thanks for making us think about this.’ First of all, we’re not asking for money to consult. We’re not asking for you to re-do your Instagram structure or recast your models. This was a huge company that literally owns Fashion Week, and they were able to take it down in two hours. If they could do it at the height of New York Fashion Week, I feel like anyone can. That’s not to say they then went on to make huge waves in the eating disorder community, but we didn’t ask them to.
And have you seen any waves in the eating disorder community?
R: I’ve seen shifts in our own communities. Christina and I often send each other messages from our followers who will say things like, ‘I never thought I had an eating disorder,’ or, ‘I never thought I looked sick enough to have an eating disorder and you guys have really opened my mind.’ We’ve heard a lot about people going into treatment because of us. That’s huge.
In general, there are so many problems with the fashion industry, from diversity to sustainability, and I don’t think any one of them is more important than the other; I would never want our conversation to be pushed in front of somebody else’s. I hope it gets more attention. There are girls that are dying and people are celebrating it and using thinness as currency. So for me, the win is a girl saying she’s trying.
It’s also that this disease is one that’s not always physically recognizable. So many of these other issues that take priority, it’s because we can take them at face value, we can measure the severity of the issue with our eyes.
R: That is what [we] say is the most important takeaway every single second that we can, is that the sickest girl in the room looks the healthiest. And it’s so important. I know from my own experience, I never thought that I was anorexic because I didn’t look like I was dying. To wait until it gets to that point is like—
C: Like waiting to get a scan back that you have Stage 1 cancer and waiting until it’s Stage 4 to do anything about it. That’s the approach I took to my own eating disorder.
R: I think it’s the approach doctors take too. It’s an endemic problem. That’s why we like to talk about ‘how do I know if I have an eating disorder?’ because it’s not so simple.
C: In our industry, thinness is so normalized that you can always find someone who’s thinner than you and say, ‘well, she’s healthy so I’m fine.’ There’s a lot of comparison that goes on that obviously doesn’t help the situation.
How can we adjust our language or bet better about speaking about things?
R: A lot of the work I did in treatment was learning how to advocate for myself. For me, it’s really difficult when I’m eating, for people to talk about their food. I come from a family that when we’re eating lunch, we’re talking about what we’ll have for dinner. When I’m eating, I need to eat and complete the task at hand. So, hopefully, the person who has an eating disorder can let you know that it [makes them] uncomfortable when you do that or say that. You don’t know what you don’t know. And someone who doesn’t have an eating disorder cannot be responsible for triggering someone unknowingly. In general, things to stay away from are encouraging skipping meals. There’s this sentiment that being too busy to eat lunch makes you seem more important or more efficient and that is extremely damaging to people with and without eating disorders. You need to eat in order to be efficient. Don’t skip lunch, and don’t make it seem like you’re smarter and working harder because you are. That, to me, is a biggie.
Do you think the fashion industry is still perpetuating that?
R: Oh, of course. Like this idea during Fashion Week that if you need to stop and get something for lunch and miss a show it’s not okay. What’s not okay is passing out from skipping a meal. In no other industry would someone say, ‘don’t eat and feel sick because you have to be here.’ And in no other industry does everyone talk so much about what other people look like. We need to protect ourselves. People still talk about when I was in the best shape of my life. It’s like they’re lamenting the fact that I no longer look like that.
R: Like remember when? I’ve never been told I’ve looked better than when I had just gone into treatment. And that’s a real thing you have to deal with.
C: Yeah, yeah. I’m thinking back to all the times anyone ever told me, ‘oh you look great.’
R: There’s no good way to comment on someone’s weight. If you were to come up to me say, ‘Oh Ruthie, you look so healthy,’ I would fucking rip your teeth out. ‘Like, you just called me fat. I do not look healthy.’ It’s difficult. It’s really weird.
C: I think using thinness to compliment, across the board, is just wrong. I’m pretty liberal, I can kind of let things go, but every time someone’s like, ‘Omg you look so skinny…’
R: …and then someone says, ‘Thank you.’ It’s really powerful. No one says ‘thank you’ to ‘you look healthy.’
C: I remember a peer saying to me, ‘You look great. What are you doing?’ I didn’t have the balls at the time, but if I could go back, I’d say, ‘Thanks, I haven’t eaten in weeks and my heart is failing!’
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, you can contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237 on Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET, and on Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Crisis support is also available via text message by texting “NEDA” to 741741.