Photo: Mark Andrew
Chelsea Vienna, 24, is a professional makeup artist. She talks about her struggles with bulimia and anorexia with intense feeling and conviction.
My parents divorced when I was 2. We saw my father every week. He would say to me at dinner, if I wanted a second helping, "Chelsea, you really shouldn't be eating that because it's going to catch up to you; you're bigger than your sister." He never said, "You're fat and ugly," but with my other girlfriends around he'd say, "They're so pretty," or "They're so talented."
My father was very picky about women. It was very much about looks and it still is, for him, to this day. All these women he was dating were thin and beautiful with big breasts. The comments were all about appearance, "Did you see how beautifully her hair was done?" or how she dressed, "That's high-end style," never about the personality, never that she's a genuine person, always about the way she looks. I thought: "If I look like that, will my dad accept me more? My father is never going to love me, because of the way I look."
My father actually referred to my mother as frumpy after the divorce, saying she used to be hot, she used to be beautiful. My mother is the best person in the world. I became very enmeshed with my mother. I wanted to take care of her.
I was 9 years old when I started menstruating. I matured very fast. You start to resent your body. My mind had not caught up with what my body was doing. It was so confusing. I felt almost like a freak. It caused me to encounter things I wasn't ready for. Guys three or four years older than me would start to give me attention, not even knowing how old I was. Mentally you're not ready for it. You start to blame your body, because it feels like you're being punished for the way you look.
At 14 I was dating a guy who was 17, 18. It was a very destructive relationship. I fell into a deep state of depression. I was very aware that my body was getting me in trouble. I was being very promiscuous. I was self-mutilating, in a way, with sex. I was punishing myself. It was a destructive act that I could do and that made me feel bad.
I was 16 when I developed anorexia. I was a big girl, voluptuous, curvy, five feet, one inch and 135, 140 pounds. I was sick of the attention I was getting for my body. [I felt that] if I could not be seen in a sexual way—seen for my body—I would not get hurt. When I was hospitalized at the Renfrew Center, in my senior year of high school, I weighed 72 pounds. I lost half my body weight in less than a year. I lived on Halls cough drops and water for days at a time. I barely could walk. If I thought there was anything in my stomach, I felt dirty, guilty, and bad—about sexuality, about not being good enough, the relationships I'd been in, being a failure—I held all my problems in my body.
The Renfrew Center cost more than $1,000 a night. We used all my college money. My family got together the money to put me in the hospital. It was the best place ever; they put me on a nutrition plan. I reconnected with my body and had a better understanding of myself. This is not about food, this is about something else, let's get to the bottom of it. Abandonment by my father. My father was still in our lives, he supported us, we saw him every week. But it's still, to you, child abandonment. How do I feed that little girl who is inside me?
As far as body image, I'm still not 100 percent. I stay away from negative influences, from people who put you down. One thing I realized is that it doesn't matter what you look like. It's how you are inside. If I run into someone I haven't seen in a long time, I never say, "Oh, you look great." Because how they look isn't what matters.
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