Body Positive intern reflects on this year's Perfect Illusions event, shares inspiration

November 13, 2014

Story and photo by Tricia O'Donnell

Around 30 brave and inspiring women and men showed up at Newcomb’s Commonwealth Room for Perfect Illusions, an open-mic style forum for discussion about body image, eating, and exercise concerns at the University and within the community.

Community members and U.Va. students alike came together on Nov. 5 to break the silence surrounding these often “taboo” topics. The event focused on providing a place of support and comfort for those struggling with any body, food, or exercise-related concerns, and through the courage and vulnerability of the attendees, it turned out to be so much more.

As a Body-Positive intern at the Maxine Platzer Lynn’s Women’s Center and the Vice President of Hoos Open to Preventing Eating Disorders, I am accustomed to being exposed to stories of struggles with eating disorders, statistics regarding those suffering and the inspiration that comes from those in recovery.

(Left to Right) Body Positive interns Samantha Karp, Katelyn Hebel and Tricia O'Donnell pose at the photo booth for the third annual Mother-Daughter Tea at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women's Center. This event was the week prior to the Perfect Illusions event.

Having made a full recovery from an eating disorder myself, I am very familiar with the difficulties and realities, but also the beauty and hope, that comes with eating disorder recovery.

Despite this, Perfect Illusions still left an impact on me in a way that is difficult to put into words. This is my second year attending the event, and I didn’t think it could influence me even more than it did last year, but I was wrong (and I’m so glad I was).

The evening began slowly; there seemed to be reluctance among the audience members to be the first to approach the podium and tell their story.

Then, a young woman popped up from the front of the room and hurried to the podium to start. She had tears in her eyes and admitted to her nerves, but she spoke with such eloquence and honesty that it brought tears to my own eyes. I know her personally, as she is a part of HOPE, so seeing her approach the podium so bravely was very moving.

That one fearless young woman set the tone for the rest of the evening. Throughout the event, many other HOPE members in attendance spoke, even though they hadn’t intended to do so.

One of the young women from HOPE told a story about her time in a treatment center, and she reminded us all that there is undeniable beauty and power in the struggle. Her story peaked with the symbolic breaking of cigarettes, tossing them into a dumpster in the pouring rain, all while laughing hysterically with a good friend. The power she felt in that moment inspired her to keep fighting, and reminded her why she was fighting in the first place - to regain power over her life and to find herself again.

Her story, along with all the others, made my heart soar with pride and gratitude. I realized how lucky I am to be surrounded by such radiant individuals; the courage and honesty they showed was infectious.

Other community members spoke as well. One particularly striking moment occurred when a woman told her story about how she had suffered from an eating disorder for so long, and her biggest motivation for recovery was to have a family someday.

Then, with a smile and a light in her eyes that I will remember for the rest of my life, she announced that she now has a happy, healthy 11-week old son. I was immediately moved to tears. That testament to her strength and resilience in recovery was more touching than I have the words to articulate. Through sharing her story, she reminded all of us that recovery is possible, and most of all, that it is beautiful and worth the struggle.

Including the words of these women, Perfect Illusions was full of tidbits of encouragement and brilliance from each of the 16 speakers throughout the evening.

Some of my favorite comments were about allowing imperfection in your recovery; the eating disorder loves to hate on imperfection, so accepting the inevitable imperfection of recovery is one way of defeating the disorder. A lot of speakers touched on the enduring support they have received from loved ones, and they emphasized how crucial that was in reminding them of their worth and encouraging them to keep fighting.

I wish I could share the inspiration I experienced at Perfect Illusions in this one piece, but I know that is not possible. However, I see that as another testament to the powerful experiences these women have had; the things they have learned cannot be put into words, but must be experienced firsthand, such as by attending an event like this.

As a part of the audience, I even felt moved to go up to the podium and speak; after hearing so many beautiful, moving testaments to recovery and the struggle itself, I felt compelled to share the knowledge that it IS possible to fully recover, and I am living proof.

I felt inclined to let everyone know that it is possible to get to the point where you are overflowing with happiness and gratitude, and to find yourself full of life and zest once again, perhaps even more than before. It is possible, and it can be your reality someday, just as has become mine.

All in all, Perfect Illusions was a powerful, beautiful tribute to the courageous women and men who fight eating disorders every day and to those who support them. Thank you to all who attended, especially those brave women who shared their stories! All names have been withheld in the interest of anonymity and protecting the privacy of all participants.

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