By Gianluca D’Elia
Running late from her weekly dance class, Nicole D’Achille rushed up the bright purple steps of the Delta Phi Epsilon (DPE) house to deliver a speech about eating disorders awareness. It was 20 degrees that night, but she wore a sleeveless, knee-length black dress.
The junior dance major wasn’t always able to perform like she does today. She battled anorexia throughout her high school years, putting her performing arts ambitions aside in an effort to restore her health. She hates looking back on her personal story, “but if I can prevent just one person from going through what I went through, then I think it’s worth it,” she said as she addressed a crowd of nearly 70 students at her sorority’s annual Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) awareness vigil on Feb. 8.
“Eating disorders affect 7 million to 10 million women, and 1 million men in the U.S. alone, but the good news is that by raising awareness, more individuals are identified and given an opportunity to seek help,” said DPE President Allison Phillips, citing a statistic from Eating Disorder Hope. “It’s not simply body weight or a desire to be skinny. It’s an improper relationship with food.”
For D’Achille, one of the biggest contributors to her eating disorder was social media. Following celebrities and models with edited images led to a slippery slope, and she fell into a trap of comparing herself to the skinny bodies she often saw online.
“Social media was originally invented to keep people connected,” she said. “And it works. I still talk to people I met on a cruise six years ago. But unfortunately, with social media, new standards came along. Being a normal teen girl, I followed all the pretty celebrities and models. But as a dancer, standing in front of a mirror with a leotard and tights on every day did not help my self-esteem.”
What started out as an effort to lose weight turned into a nightmare as D’Achille kept cutting different foods out of her diet.
“I started to skip a meal but I would see no difference,” she recalled. “I restricted myself to first not eating breakfast — that was easy, I just had an early lunch. But still, no difference. Then I cut carbs out of my diet. Nope, still nothing. I became so frustrated with myself, I cut my meals down to only fruits and vegetables. I basically began to starve myself, in hopes that my body would change to be what I thought was more pretty at the time.”
One summer in high school, when D’Achille was relieved to be off her busy schedule of school and dance classes, her doctor told her she was severely underweight and sent her to a nutritionist, who “helped me become me again.”
The nutritionist, who diagnosed D’Achille with anorexia, told her that if she continued to deprive herself, her body would shut down, her nails would turn yellow, her hair would fall out and her reflexes would be delayed. But the worst symptom of all, D’Achille said, was that her brain wouldn’t function properly. She tried to carry on, denying that the gruesome list of symptoms would ever affect her.
But later that summer, the symptoms appeared while D’Achille was at a weeklong dance workshop.
“During the warmup alone, I felt very weak. I ran out of breath easily. I had no balance, no stamina, no flexibility. I thought to myself, ‘I’m just a little rusty, I’ll be fine.’ After learning the combination, I felt out of breath. I didn’t feel any pain, just needed a drink of water.”
When she got home, she found bruises all over her legs. She took an Epsom salt bath to relieve the bruising, and when she stood up in the shower to wash her hair, she found that clumps of it fell out.
D’Achille finally had a breakthrough when her instructor told her it’s not uncommon for dancers to develop eating disorders.
“I tried to dance but even the teacher noticed how much pain I was in,” she recalled. “My legs, arms and back were covered in bruises. My body bruised so easily because I had so little nutrients in me. I was in so much pain and felt pretty much lifeless. I finally told my teacher what I had been through. I told her I was at an unhealthy weight. Surprisingly, she said she was once in my shoes, and more dancers go through this than you think.”
The teacher urged her to seek help, explaining that even though it would be physically and mentally challenging, she would come out a better person.
“Yes, I gave up what I loved,” D’Achille admitted. “I stopped dancing — the one thing that got me through any funk I went through in life. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t be myself anymore because of what I did to my body. I thought I was helping myself by looking better, when in reality, I was breaking myself down.”
During her break from dancing, D’Achille made a diet plan with her nutritionist.
“This was when I was really starting to see differently,” she said. “I would look at granola bars and just see calories. I remember thinking, ‘Why do I need protein? Why do I need carbs? It’s only going to make me fatter.’ I saw life not with the third eye, but I’d say with a fourth or fifth eye. I could never be at peace. I always had anxiety.”
Looking back at her struggle now, D’Achille said she has a hard time believing how differently she was thinking then. “It’s scary,” she said. “Nutrients don’t just keep you at a healthy weight; they keep your brain functioning properly.”
As D’Achille finally began to gain weight once again, she said it was difficult to do so when everyone around her seemed to be doing the opposite.
“It was hard being in a setting where everyone wants to lose weight,” she said. “It got really hard, but I reminded myself that every time I had a negative thought or started to go backward, it was Ed talking, not Nicole — Ed, as in eating disorder. It was hard seeing numbers going up on a scale when my goal for so long was to bring them down. It was hard eating things I once forbid to enter my body. It was hard having all my new clothes get tighter and tighter. Most of it was just mind games — ‘That’s Ed talking, Nicole, just eat the sandwich.’”
As she reached the end of high school, D’Achille got back to a healthy weight. Her hair and nails got stronger, she could finally dance again, and she pursued it as her major in college.
“Dancing makes me feel beautiful — no, not just pretty or skinny, but raw and pure,” she said. “I can express my emotions and movement in a fulfilling way. While doing this, you truly are creating a beautiful piece of art. I finally fell in love with my passion again.”
After years of defining herself by numbers, D’Achille preached the importance of living life to its fullest without stressing about her weight on a scale or a certain amount of Instagram likes.
“The biggest thing I learned from this journey is that before you love something, someone or anything, first and foremost, you must love yourself,” she said. “Love yourself not for what you look like, what size you are or how many likes you can get, but truly who you are as a person.”
Students seeking help or information can contact Rider’s Counseling Center at 609-896-5157. More information on eating disorders can be found at nationaleatingdisorders.org