Diet culture triggered freshman Alexis Briner’s eating disorder

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Kim Neff, KSNeff Photography

Celebrating her journey, freshman Alexis Briner beams brightly with her family. Briner appreciates her parents greatly for their support during her journey with anorexia. “I was still in the depths of [the eating disorder] around the holidays. So there were a lot of meals and I remember I kind of panicked at a few of those. And so I would have to take time out and sometimes we’d have to leave the parties early. And then my parents would be upset because it was very time consuming, [but] they were troopers,” Briner said.

Growing up under the influence of diet culture was a base for freshman Alexis Briner’s healthy lifestyle to become harmful. In the summer of 2019, innocent thoughts to have smaller portions of food ultimately led to anorexia which worsened their anxiety and depression. After persevering for over a year in recovery, Briner now continues to have the strength and confidence to spread body positivity. 

When I was younger, I would hear people talking about diets. I remember this vividly, I think it was an aunt that was talking about her new diet. And I don’t even think she was trying to lose weight,” Briner said. “But for some reason, I just liked the idea of restriction and I was like, ‘When I’m older, I’m going to do that.’ And then it was so sad looking back on it because who aspires to diet, like what? In sixth grade, it clicked and I was like, ‘You know what, I could change what I’m eating or I have control over that.’ But you know, it wasn’t a good thing.”

During the early stages, Briner struggled to reach out and speak about her eating disorder.

“It was so hard for me to talk about I was restricting and stuff because I know that other people would be like, ‘Well, you’re healthy and you’re this and you’re that and you should feel fine in your body and there’s nothing wrong with it.’ Because I live in a body that’s pretty close to the beauty standard. So I felt like I shouldn’t be dealing with it,” Briner said. “I’d like withhold information about how little or how much I was restricting and that kind of thing. So it wouldn’t be as convincing when I told people what I thought I was struggling with.”

Before being forced into recovery, Briner’s whole life revolved around her eating disorder. Her only thoughts were about food, exercise or her appearance.

“The idea of going back to what I was, was just so scary because I didn’t like my body in the first place. I felt like gaining weight and mostly just eating the foods that I hadn’t allowed myself for the past year was also really scary,” Briner said.

A part of Alexis’ recovery was personifying her eating disorder and writing down what her eating disorder mind said and then disagreeing. 

I thought that if I ate a bite of ice cream, I would gain 20 pounds, and then I’d become obese and die. Looking back at it, there’s so much to unpack because it’s just ridiculous. It’s just normal. It’s just food. It’s just fuel.”

— freshman Alexis Briner

It would be like, ‘You’re fat,’ and then I would be like, ‘you got to stop, that is problematic. You can’t say that.’ That shouldn’t be a bad thing. It shouldn’t mean anything about someone’s worth,” Briner said. “My eating disorder, [it] made me think these kinds of things [that’s] rooted in having to look a certain way and having to eat a certain way. [It] would marginalize people in like bigger bodies.”

Exposure therapy helped Briner in her recovery to conquer her fear foods, the foods she didn’t allow herself. However, it was difficult to let go of her “control”.

“It was not a fun year, but [retrying fear foods] was probably one of the worst points because it just feels like all that control that you gained [is] just flung out the window and you have to try these new things,” Briner said.  “I thought that if I ate a bite of ice cream, I would gain 20 pounds, and then I’d become obese and die. Looking back at it, there’s so much to unpack because it’s just ridiculous. It’s just normal. It’s just food. It’s just fuel.” 

There were a few instances Briner struggled with the mental distress that came with eating. 

“I kind of reached my limit with new foods and this was really sad. [Once] my mom had to feed me [one] last egg, and I spit it out. It was just not a great moment because there I was, 13 years old and spitting out my food. It was really gross, but I’ve had to accept those moments because if I think about it, I was really distressed. That’s why recovery is so important— so that you can actually live life and not worry about your food,” Briner said.

Briner appreciates her parent’s support throughout her recovery.

My parents helped me through a lot of tough meals when I was recovering. Trying new foods was probably the worst part of recovery because I had to try all these fear these foods that I built up in my brain to fear so much [from] diet commercials talking about ice cream and all these awful foods. I just internalized it so much, so trying to get over those was very hard. My parents helped me through a lot of it like they’d sit with me and if I just did not comply, they forced me to eat it, which doesn’t sound great, but [I] kind of needed it at that point,” Briner said.

A collage done by freshman Alexis Briner reflecting her journey with anorexia. (Alexis Briner)

Social media was a big help for Briner to embrace her own experiences because she was able to discover influencers sharing their stories who have recovered from similar situations like Brittani Lancaster and Victoria Garrick.

“[I admire] the fact that all the people I follow are super open when they do have bad body image days. They give you tips to overcome them, and they’re just such a nice source of positivity and realness that social media doesn’t always have,” Briner said. “But I think with social media, there’s a whole debate about whether it’s good or not, because it aided a lot in the beginning of my eating disorder and also in my recovery. It can be used to promote negative body focused diets and ideas and culture. I think if you’re mindful about how you use it, it can be a tool.”

Art also provided Briner a distraction from her eating disorder and it continues to do so today. 

“The one thing that I did do, and this was really helpful, but I did an art club in middle school. We painted a mural and for some reason that was always really calming. I would  listen to a podcast, and I just focused on painting and that was very, very nice and definitely necessary,” Briner said. “I’ve done a few sketches when I’ve had bad body image days and I think they usually help me and it kind of brought some solace.”

Briner enjoys running and exercise and feels that this helps her mental health.

[Exercise] brought me a little solace during those hard times and it continues to still do that. But I think for different reasons. During my eating disorder, and during my recovery, where my eating disorder was still very prominent it was like, ‘Oh, this is helping me because it’s gonna undo the food that I ate.’ But now, I think I’ve learned to harness it in a good way where it’s used for endorphins and it’s actually beneficial. I’ve made sure [that] even as I have gone from intense activity to the next, I keep fueling my body,” Briner said.

Reflecting back, Briner has learned a few surprising things about herself.

Smiling for a post race photo, freshman Alexis Briner ran at the 2021 10k Skippo trail race and placed second in her age group, but was the ninth woman overall. “Running helps my mental health because it gives me time to myself where I’m able to clear my hear, get outside, and listen to good music, “ Briner said. “Running has also helped me to make a lot of new friends through cross country.” (Courtesy of Alexis Briner)

“[I] just learned about the impact of how you see yourself and how it impacts other people. If you see yourself in a bad way, and you’re buying into diets and diet culture and different body enhancements, which not to say anything against anyone who diets or whatever, because, like I struggled with it, but if you think about it, you’re enforcing the idea that certain bodies look better and certain bodies deserve something better than others. And I just didn’t realize how much of an impact the way I saw myself could affect other people,” Briner said.

Briner advises to anyone experiencing something similar to persevere because it’s worth it all in the end. 

“Stay strong because there were a lot of times that I wanted to give up. If you are able to recover from your eating disorder, life is just so much better,” Briner said. “On some days when I have worse body image, I’ll be tempted to revert to my old ways, and restrict or diet or even just weigh myself. But then I remind myself where the eating disorder got me and how it made my anxiety and depression worse. I didn’t hang out with friends and I wasn’t really enjoying life. It takes time and a lot of acceptance to be able to sit through those feelings instead of actually act on them.”