Jenni Schaefer was 4 years old when she first heard a voice in her head that said, “You are fat.” It took her about 18 years to stop listening.
Though 4 seems like a shocking age, studies show that by age 6, girls express concern about their weight and bodies. Schaefer, now fully recovered from the eating disorders that plagued her during her adolescence, is the national recovery advocate of Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute. Schaefer, a writer, motivational speaker and singer, wrote her first book, “Life Without Ed,” to share what she learned with others battling eating disorders.
For social work sophomore Jenna Austell, recovery is an ongoing process. Schaefer’s work continues to help Austell dedicate herself to that process.
“My favorite book of all time is ‘Life Without Ed’,” Austell said. “I’ve read that book forwards and backwards so many times. Three years later, I went through a stage where I would binge, so I read the book again and I could relate to all the other things I couldn’t relate to before.”
Austell struggled with anorexia nervosa her sophomore and junior years of high school. During that period, she had dropped from 120 pounds to 83 pounds. Austell stayed in the hospital for three straight months.
“I was recovered physically but not mentally,” Austell said. “There are days when I still struggle really bad, but I’ve finally found a healthy relationship with food.”
Austell asked her parents and boyfriend to read “Life Without Ed” to help them understand what having an eating disorder feels like. In the book, Schaefer likens her eating disorder, Ed, to an abusive partner to help readers overcome and better understand their eating disorders by sharing her journey, and also includes tips and exercises from Schaefer and her therapist.
“This method of personifying Ed helped me view my eating disorder as separate from myself,” Schaefer said in an email. “I could finally talk back to Ed and make room for my own thoughts and opinions.”
Austell similarly said her biggest challenge is being influenced by her eating disorder thoughts, especially on days when her body image is particularly low.
“It’s very hard to see because you don’t realize you have one until you’re in the midst of it,” Austell said. “There’s all these different voices in your head and you think you’re talking to yourself but you’re really not. They’re very twisted thoughts.”
For this reason, both Austell and Schaefer said a support team is essential during recovery. Austell said she continues to rely on support from her family, boyfriend and friends she made while in treatment. Their support keeps Austell from seeking comfort in old habits, unlike her friends from the hospital.
“Jenna’s the strongest person I know,” undeclared sophomore Cooper Travis, Austell’s boyfriend, said. “The most I’ve ever done to help is telling her not to worry about the moment, take a step back and instead of noticing things she hates, say a couple of things she loves or even just likes about herself.”
Schaefer said she wished she’d sought help in college, recommending the counseling center at UT for struggling students. She wants people to know that it is possible to fully recover and that people don’t choose to have eating disorders but can make the decision to get better.
“Even though I’m not 100 percent mentally recovered, I see people that are,” Austell said. “That gives me hope.”
Editor’s note: If you or a friend are struggling with eating, exercise or body image problems, seek help at the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center through counselors or The Mindful Eating Program. Schaefer also recommended the Eating Recovery Center in Austin as a resource for those struggling with