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Press release

Focus on Women
February 2003

Lindsay Brie Mathers

Lighting the way out of disordered eating

by Cara Patik
photo by Colleen Boak, Roy’s Photography

In recognition of Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb 2 – 8), we spoke with Lindsay Brie Mathers, a 26-year-old who once considered suicide due to her own anorexia and now helps others in similar straits. Here she discusses her Bodymind Talk initiative, along with the importance of spirituality and self-love to the healing journey out of disordered eating.

The night that Lindsay Mathers and I meet for our interview, her boyfriend is moving back home to London, England the next day. When I ask her if she is upset that he is leaving, she looks thoughtful for a minute and then breaks into a luminous smile—no. She loves her life and feels so self-sufficient and healthy that nothing can get her down. “I am passionate but I’m finally at a place in my life where my first commitment is to this work that I’m doing. But I love loving. It’s probably my favourite hobby!” she laughs.

Expressive, warm, and articulate, 26-year-old Lindsay Brie Mathers exudes a happy wisdom far beyond her years. Through Bodymind Talk, an inspirational workshop on eating disorders, she has dedicated her young life to transforming the pain of her battle with anorexia and exercise bulimia, and the resulting years of chronic depression and physical ailments, into a vocation of bringing self-acceptance and wellness to others.

A certified wellness consultant, Mathers participated in the B.C. Eating Disorders Association’s Speakout in March of 2002 and she has authored and illustrated three books that have yet to be published: BABES, (Blossoming Authentic Bodies Every Step), BOOBS, (Baring Our Original Bodies) and Blossom Out Baby, her personal story.

“My role in the world is to ease suffering,” she says of her choice to start Bodymind Talk when she was 18 years old. Because of her own experience, she is especially inspired to help young women find a healthy, self-loving path through their teen years.

To date Mathers has spoken to 22,500 girls through Bodymind Talk in B.C., Ontario and Quebec. She has spoken to students in public schools all over Victoria and has approached some of the private schools on the Island since research has found that the incidence of disordered eating increases the higher the socio-economic bracket.

Eventually, she would like to travel the world and integrate men’s issues into the presentation on a regular basis as well. She’s on her way towards the latter—in December 2002, she piloted her first co-ed presentation at Victoria High School to an audience of 400. “Ten percent of reported cases of eating disorders are men, but with the whole social taboo around men expressing their emotions, I imagine that there are a lot more out there,” she says. According to Martha Henry, a counsellor at Vic High, the boys responded very well: “They asked very thoughtful questions and there was good participation.” Mathers also does presentations to university audiences and parent and community groups.

The link between spirituality and mental health has become an integral part of the vision Mathers hopes to share with others. She called the presentation Bodymind Talk to “reinforce the concept that we cannot separate the body from the mind.” A student of Zen Buddhism, Mathers’ dedication to wellness has been complimented through mindfulness practice and meditation and she follows the principles of non-violent communication. “This is stuff that really works, and the world needs to know about it as much as it needs to know about Prozac,” she says. “Ideally, healing from a mental illness becomes a process of awakening.”

The feedback from those who have seen Bodymind Talk has been enthusiastic and encouraging. “The response on the evaluation forms blows me away every time,” says Mathers; “I feel like crying every time after I present because over and over they’re saying, ‘Never stop doing these presentations, you changed my mind about my body.’”

Counsellor Martha Henry notes “For someone of her age, she’s a very dynamic speaker and has a real presence. The students have really responded to her. She’s got that compassion and warmth that youth connect with.”

During her multimedia presentation, Mathers deconstructs mass media images that contribute to disordered eating, examines contributing factors to perverted relationships with food, as well as the signs, symptoms and consequences of eating disorders. She also recommends resources, including her favourite books.

Mathers dynamism was apparent at a Bodymind presentation she gave at Mount Doug secondary school in late November. Thoroughly engaging the audience from the start, Mathers interacts with her audience on a fun level, weaving upbeat energy with the serious subject matter at hand. Volunteers from the audience who tried (unsuccessfully) to duplicate the contortions of modelling postures seen in the mass media were rewarded with whipped cream.

During the media analysis component of the program, Mathers illustrated how the “cool” size to be according to today’s Hollywood is size 0, whereas Marilyn Monroe was a “sexy” size 14. She showed how digital alterations to photos are replacing the idea of any one model at all: “This stuff is so advanced now that they can take Claudia Schiffer’s face, put it together with Linda Evangelista’s waist line, Britney Spears’ breasts, and make one model! So what we’re looking at is not just one image of an airbrushed and mutilated woman, but five or six that are cut and pasted together.” She believes the media is selling female inadequacy and an image that is impossible to attain—she demonstrated one ad that was selling anti-aging, anti-cellulite cream to 50-year-old women using a 12-year-old model’s legs and buttocks.

“The mind is a very powerful tool and we can come up with a whole bunch of thoughts and stories about how we’re not good enough, how we don’t deserve to be here, how we could be better,” says Mathers later in her presentation. “But our thoughts are lying to us and the scary thing is we start to believe them. And not only are we starting to believe them, but we’re actually starting to act them out. We’re not even feeding our bodies properly anymore!” She urged those present to remember that we each have one life and one body and that we have to choose how to use them. She also said, “We need to stop competing with one another on the basis of our looks. When we compete with each other this way, we are promoting and perpetuating the kinds of imagery and messaging [that lead to a perception] of female inadequacy that on some level is really pervasive right now.” At the end she pleaded for women to love each other more, to celebrate each other’s strengths and beauty. She said, “We can recognize that women’s bodies are curvy like the earth and each as unique as a sunset—no two are exactly alike. We can choose role models that are reflecting the kinds of values that we want to have in our lives. We need to return to the body. The body never lies. It is our home, it’s where we’re going to live for the rest of our lives.” At the end of the presentation, all the young women present were wholeheartedly cheering.

Because so many young women are currently struggling with disordered eating—at one presentation in Ontario, 21 percent of the girls present admitted to having an eating disorder—Mathers will not talk in terms of pounds or waist size at her presentations. It has been shown, she says, that doing so can in fact help trigger or encourage the disease. “I’ve been really careful with this program to make sure that the focus is on how to be well, why we’re worth it to make different decisions and how to go about that, with enough personal story to draw out the girls in the audience who are currently in crisis.”

Mathers’ theory about the negative effects of talking about weight and waist size is lent credence by the existence of “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” sites on the internet that publicize the height and weight of eating disorder sufferers for comparative and competitive purposes. Pro-ana and pro-mia are “affectionate” shorthand for pro anorexia and pro bulimia. Young girls form the vast majority of those who create and participate in these websites where they openly discuss their disordered eating, share “thinspiration” and refuse, for the moment at least, to enter into recovery. One girl on a site called Starving for Perfection says, “This isn’t a place for the weak. This site isn’t looking to rescue you. This is a place for those who don’t conform to the gluttonous world we live in. It’s not our fault others have no control over their own bodies and live a fast-food, fat-soaked existence. This is a place for the elite, who, through personal determination in their ongoing quest for perfection, demonstrate daily that the Ana way is the only way to live.”

Internet service providers have been encouraged to remove such sites from their servers, but through minimal effort they can still be accessed. Mathers is deeply concerned about them. “For the anorexics who are addicted [to their disease], it’s like offering someone who’s contemplating suicide a gun.”

Over the years Mathers has helped numerous young women struggling with disordered eating to enter recovery. She has personally spoken with hundreds of girls who have come forward after the presentations, either in person, over the phone, or by email. “Some of the stuff I get [on email] is really desperate. They don’t seem to have someone to talk to, and I think the anonymity of the net really works for them.”

Annie Banks, a grade 12 student at Victoria High School, first saw Mathers present Bodymind Talk in April 2002. “After I saw her speak, it really hit home. I had been in denial for about a year about what was happening to my body as a result of anorexia,” says Banks. After the presentation, she went up to Mathers, who held her hand and invited her for coffee. Over time, Mathers managed to convince Banks to get medical attention and Banks was hospitalized. She has recently finished a local government-funded eating disorders recovery program. “Her presentation was just so personal and positive,” says Banks of Bodymind Talk. “The other ones that I had seen had been negative and emphasized guilt, which is something that someone who has an eating disorder is already going through and doesn’t need to hear. Lindsay made me want to love my body and restored some of the respect I have lost for the wonders of the fertile, beautiful female form. Her exuberance and vitality made me long for a day when I can be so positive, so whole. ”

Mathers grew up in Muskoka, two and a half hours north of Toronto, just outside Port Carling, a small village of 500. “I spent my childhood breathing fresh air and walking in the woods with my dog,” she reminisces happily. She and her two sisters were not allowed to watch television, cultivating creativity and a love of the outdoors instead. Her father, a school principal and her mother, a teacher, were proud of their extraordinary daughter. She got top marks in school, and was a championship runner who at age 15 years ranked third in Canada in the under-19, 800-metre race. But the very qualities that were allowing Mathers to win races, such as discipline and commitment, were the very things she began to use against herself.

“I thought that the way I could win my parents’ attention was by performing, because I seemed to get more attention the more I won,” she recalls. “As a middle child, I had spent a lot of my growing up years being a mediator, a moderator and a mitigator—diffusing conflicts, being the sunshine child of the family. Once I hit adolescence, I just started to spin out.” She went on her first diet when she was 14 years old and yoyo dieted for the next few years. She recalls her anxieties worsening when her track coach made a reference to the weight she’d gained after puberty. Unhealthy eating habits progressed when she and her family moved to France for a few months when she was 16. “I would feed myself when I wasn’t really hungry. I was stuffing myself emotionally, basically. And then I would go out on a run to punish myself.” The final straw, recollects Mathers, was seeing an older cousin who she had always idolized lose a lot of weight. She wanted to be as thin as her cousin, so she went on starvation binges.

The effects were almost immediate. Mathers felt dizzy all the time and her marks began to drop. She developed exercise-induced asthma. “I stopped being able to breathe during running workouts. I’d have asthma attacks because the two organs that are fed first are the brain and the heart, so my body was taking oxygen from my lungs and trying to send it to my heart or brain. I didn’t have enough oxygen in my body.” She describes herself walking down school hallways like a “baby calf, my knees all wobbly,” and her heart rate went down to 36 beats per minute (the average is 72 beats per minute). Lindsay remembers that at the time she felt proud that she had enough “self-discipline” to starve herself. There were a lot of battles over food at the dinner table, she says. “There was an anger in me that was getting turned inwards. But deeper down was a need that wasn’t getting met, a need to know that I was loveable and worthwhile just for waking up in the morning and breathing, not just because I was performing.”

The only two times she ever saw her father cry were in response to the pain she was experiencing with her eating disorder and she remembers her mother sitting at the end of her bed “in her billowing white nightie, listening to me and having me cry in her arms.” Mathers says that she does not doubt that there can be a lot of love in families where children have eating disorders. But even in a loving atmosphere, because hormones get skewed when you stop eating, she explains, your emotions and perceptions are out of whack, making it difficult to accept the love and act rationally.

Depressed, angry and starving, Mathers decided she didn’t want to live any longer. These suicidal feelings, however, were to be the catalyst to start her on the path to healing. “I was lucky that I was one of the anorexics who still had enough physiological energy to be able to make constructive choices. If my life looked like this, I didn’t want to be here anymore. But because I loved my family so much I didn’t feel like I could end it. I decided that if I was going to live, I was going to learn how to be happy and healthy.”

Mathers has been well “according to clinical definitions” since she was 17. During a year of counselling, she gained her weight back quickly. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. At times her emotions boiled over and as her diary indicates, she still, at times, viewed food as the enemy— “and I am in love with the enemy.” Now she says, “Who can say when I was fully through it? I look at healing as a continuum.” And while she’s healthier than ever, she admits “I still have moments when I look in the mirror and have dissatisfied thoughts or feel an impulse to diet. But I am consistently committed to making life-affirming choices now.”

There were also severe repercussions to the years of disordered eating. Mathers is no longer able to run. “I get angry and agitated and I feel ‘fat.’ It might be the corporeal memory because so much of my running, at the end of my running career, was about self-effacement and self-abnegation.” She also suffered from chronic depression and was diagnosed with candida, a condition resulting from the overgrowth of naturally occurring yeast in the gastrointestinal tract. Mathers thinks that candida may have predated and perhaps been a cause of her eating disorder. It resulted in a year-long yeast infection and caused her to lose one third of her hair. It has not yet fully grown back.

Mathers entered university with the “conscious choice to graduate happy and healthy.” She spent one year on scholarship at the University of Ottawa and then transferred to McGill when she was 19, graduating with distinction in Women’s Studies and Humanistic Studies. Two years ago, she started studying Zen and mindfulness practice under the instruction of her mentor and teacher, Shikai Zuiko osho, a dharma teacher at the White Wind Zen Community in Ottawa just before moving to Victoria. “She is my role model extraordinaire, this woman. To me, she has done the most radical thing anyone, feminist or otherwise, can do. She has awakened. That’s radical. Talk about really changing the world and helping the world!”

The admiration is mutual; her teacher says: “Lindsay is an unusually determined person dedicated to easing the suffering of young people. This determination fuels her efforts to overcome the difficulties of practicing Zen long-distance.”

Coming from the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness practice is “tuning into what’s really going on and listening to the sensations of the body, feeling the breath and opening up,” explains Mathers. “This was really influential in my healing because I started to see thought as thought, and to stop identifying my notion of selfhood with the thoughts that were hurting me.” She began to see that her drive to succeed and perform was a function of the mind. “I think it’s very dangerous to people’s mental health for them to think they have to be anything, to feel that they have to perform in order to be worthwhile. And it’s a prevalent cultural value here in North America. The internalization of having to perform and having to accomplish and having to be a star, and also be responsible for making everyone else happy, is most certainly something that has cut right to the hearts of girls who suffer from eating disorders.”

Besides helping with her own healing, Mathers’ Zen practice has been especially helpful in her crisis intervention work. “It used to be difficult fielding the crisis-intervention aspect of my work because of my strong identification with the minds of the sufferers. I used to go home and call my mom bawling my eyes out because these girls were in so much pain. Once, eight different girls burst into tears one after the other. I was 19, sensitive, still close to the issue, and overwhelmed. Now that I have Zen practice, there is a strength that has replaced what for so long seemed fragile.”

Despite her belief in the effectiveness of spiritually-based recovery, Mathers does not underestimate the power of biochemistry. “The idea of only treating something spiritually doesn’t resonate for me because we can’t separate the mind from the body. You have to treat the body if you’re treating the mind.”

Thus another aspect of Mathers’ healing journey has been to learn about foods and how to cook and harmonize them. “I’m really inspired to learn how to really cook. It’s something that deserves our attention because we spend so much time in our lives eating,” she says. “Food is something in North America that has been reduced to the sum of its parts in the same way that the female body has been reduced to the sum of its parts. I think that this is as great a contributing factor to eating disorders as anything else.”

Mathers relies on a healthy diet consisting of low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-veggie, high-leafy-green foods. She’s also an advocate of pure water and uses a water filtration system. She believes that such measures have enabled her to avoid pharmaceuticals and recover from candida almost entirely.

It would be an understatement to say that programs like Bodymind Talk are urgently needed. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) states that 70 percent of women and 35 percent of men are dieting in Canada. Dieting is currently known as the number one cause of eating disorders because it encourages a compulsive-obsessive mindset around food. A study reported by the Canadian Press found that 44 percent of 11 year-old girls are on a diet and a further statistic from NEDIC states that 40 percent of nine-year-old girls have tried dieting.

Another study showed that children in grades 3 and 4 said they would “rather lose a parent, get cancer, or live through nuclear war than be fat.” ANAD, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders found that 200,000-300,000 Canadian women aged 13-40 have anorexia, and twice that number suffer from bulimia. Fatalities arise from these disorders in 10-15 percent of the cases.

Towards the end of my interview with Mathers, we discuss how eating disorders have become a kind of rite of passage for young women. As teenagers it seemed expected that we should complain about our bodies to our friends. It seemed more socially acceptable at the time to think of ourselves as ugly and fat. “The current generation is one of the first generations where most of their role models are pop idols, people who are not tangible and are not people that we can enter into dialogue with. This is dangerous,” Lindsay explains and continues, “I think that the mechanism of self-hatred has become intimately tied up with food because food has replaced sex as the new taboo. Pop stars are all about sex, whereas a recent front cover of Reader’s Digest said something like ‘Sinful foods you can eat.’ Food has become a moral issue, and lookism is a rampant, and normalized, form of prejudice.”

We should be focusing on what’s good about ourselves and on changing the system we’re buying into, says Mathers. Without a doubt, Mathers’ work is transforming lives. “I’m consciously using my attention, and all the perseverance that characterized my athletic career, to fulfill a dream of easing suffering,” she smiles. “We need to make our choice for health and happiness and go for it, take it on. Pursue it like it’s our dream job. We have to do it with that much vigor!”