Doing Whatever It Takes: A Dangerous Habit
By Michelle Smith
In response to an article I posted on my Facebook wall:
Disclaimer: What you are about to read my anger you, upset you or affect you in some way, shape or form. Please be advised.
Hi, my name is Michelle and I work in film…
I also think I might have disordered eating.
When I saw the headline of this article show up in my news feed I clicked on it unconsciously. The subject caught my attention immediately because it speaks of the alarming hazards of female athletes trying to remain thin by under-eating, causing havoc to their metabolisms and psyches. The author spoke of the dangerous side effects of a calorie deficient diet that cause Anemorrhea, metabolic disorders and all the disordered eating habits involved. This really hit home with me because recently, I have been struggling with some very real consequences of some actions I took in order to be, as we like to say in the film industry, “doing whatever it takes.”
My weight has always been a source of concern to me. I have long wished for a ripping 6-pack and felt for many years that my fitness level and strength does not match my physique. In short, for most of my adult life, I have believed myself to be fat! In the last 10 years, after much research and experience I have cleaned up my diet from what I deem “junk food junky” to “extremely health conscious.” Almost by accident I became gluten and dairy free by just focusing on what foods fuelled my precious body most efficiently. Harmless as that may seem, especially for a professional athlete, I continued to be dissatisfied with my weight. Most people would lose 5-10lbs upon adopting a gluten-free or dairy free diet, I however, did not. I found this extremely frustrating.
It is no secret that with this world, we are constantly being bombarded by unrealistic expectations of what women should look like. In my line of work which is basically the industry that supplies those images, it is a very common place conversation to talk about a performer’s weight and size. It is a visual industry after all. The stunt industry it is especially prevalent because finding the best match for actor can be very challenging at times. It is not uncommon, for stunt performers, especially women, to be expected to drastically drop or gain weight in a very short amount of time in order to fit the bill of doubling an actor.
Let me tell you a story:
Towards the middle of summer in 2012, I had begun to reach a burn out point in my career. I had invested every ounce of my energy, blood, sweat, tears, heart and soul into playing the game of Stunts. I trained extremely hard to learn how to fight, fall, wield weapons, take a hit and everything in between. I networked, showed up at the right places, said the right things, all of it. I was tried, both physically and emotionally. I was upset that I was not working as much as some of the other girls and very desperately wanted to be accepted by my peers. I felt that I had basically given everything I had to this stunt career and received nothing in return.
The one thing I hadn’t done though, that I had seen many other performers do, was drop an exorbitant amount of weight for a role. In July of 2012, I watched my friend, Lori (who also wrote a post about this: http://pacificwavejiujitsu.com/blog/the-skinny-on-stunt-work-the-conundrum-of-the-female-performer), prepare herself to double an actress for a movie. Lori was extremely fit already and a skilled martial artist, I didn’t think she had any weight to lose. But, as the industry standard goes, her actress was stick thin and it was Lori’s job as the stunt double to match her size. I remember a conversation we had where Lori described how trying it was to do such a thing. I remarked at how I could never allow myself to go there. My body was just not made to be ‘actress skinny.’ I’m a strong German woman after all!
Funny how things change in only a matter of weeks.
About 2 weeks later, I was 30 seconds away from taking a bite from a freshly BBQ’d medium rare steak when I received a phone call. “There was is a new series in town, they had a character who happened to wield a staff, you’re the first and only one I thought of, send your weapons reel asap and lose some weight FAST! “ (Key word: FAST)
How fast? “2 weeks, 3 weeks tops.”
I can remember exactly what went on in my head that night, there was a strange mix of elation to dread to fear to anxiety. I was excited for the opportunity for sure! Finally, something had come along with my specialty and strength. They hadn’t officially cast the actress I would potentially be doubling yet but the producers were hovering around a girl who was 138 lbs. It looked like it was my gig to get!
Problem was, having tried almost everything to cut weight, my body seemed adamant at remaining at 150lbs, actually closer to 155lbs at the time. If I have already cut gluten, dairy, tried paleo, tried juicing, tried cutting carbs, how in the world was I supposed to drop 15 pounds in 2 weeks.
Is that even healthy? I wondered.
The rational in my head was as followed:
If it’s only 2 weeks, then when it’s over I can just go back to eating normally.
Success is my only mother fuckin’ option, failure’s not! (Thanks again Marshall Mathers)
I guess my next step to cut my animal protein.
And if that doesn’t work than it may have to be a calorie and portion chopping deal.
I have never done this for my career before, and this may be the last effort I have been missing.
Oh god, I am going to have to do so much cardio!
In that bittersweet moment, I put down my uneaten steak and as a symbol of what I was about to do to myself, I walked away from the food.
**I think back to this moment now and I am sick to my stomach. It makes me so upset that I did this. I am not proud of what happened next.**
Immediately in the days that followed, I reached out to some peers and coaches I respected greatly for some advice on how to go about this challenge I was about to face. Of course, my intention was to do this as healthily as possible making sure I was getting enough food to sustain me but also restricting as much as possible for the best possible outcome. It surprised me how conflicting and different everyone’s advice was.
Since I had the opportunity of a lifetime riding on my back, I was not about to let myself fail. I had to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to drop weight, however after about a week and a half, I had barely noticed any sort of results. I had replaced all my animal protein with tofu or lentils, I replaced my carbs with brown rice only and restricted even that. I never ate after 8pm. I cut all sugar except fresh fruit, which I only ate on an empty stomach. I rode my bike everywhere, I was at Circus 2.5 hours a day and did yoga almost every day.
WHATEVER IT TAKES.
Around the 2 week mark, I was beginning to feel the pressure of the task I had been assigned. My potential employers were checking in on my progress, assuring me it would only be a few more weeks. I began fretting over whether I was doing enough. Could I be doing more?
WHATEVER IT TAKES.
Most of you who know me know that I am a work horse to the core. I work hard and will always give 110%, every single time. I take my job seriously, so when I am being asked to do whatever it takes, I will follow through. However, what was developing in me in the weeks that followed was a strong, anxious feeling that I may be harming my body in a way that I am essentially not comfortable with. I knew that I was not giving my body adequate amount of calories for the amount of training I was doing. It was evident by the headaches, sluggishness, irritability and sheer hunger but I was on a mission that I could not/would not fail.
I grew desperate. I cut fruit right out. I left the brown rice behind, opting for yams and veggies instead. I developed an OCD like tendency over my portion sizes and meal timing. I began hiding away from the world. After about 3 weeks, I started noticing weight coming off, after 4, I still hadn’t been brought in for the job. I was beginning to hover around my phone, waiting for that inevitable phone call. Instead, all I got were vague “soon, keep going.” instructions.
How much longer was I expected to maintain this?
By the beginning of September, I had fallen into a groove. I ate the same things, at the same time, rode my bike to training, worked hard at circus, went to yoga, rode home, went for a run, did arts and crafts, watched Netflix, read books. Whatever I could do to distract myself from not eating, I did. I didn’t go out to hang with friends because socializing entailed food and that wouldn’t work. I also didn’t have friends over because well, who would really want to do cross-stitching with me and not eat?! I couldn’t ask that of anybody. I was also ashamed of how I looked.
In my seclusion, I waged a bloody war within myself. I knew that what I was doing was unhealthy and wrong for me, but the lure of finally achieving my career goals kept drawing me deeper and deeper into a hole. I believed that by getting this job, all of my past efforts, including this one, would be justified and finally, I might feel successful and worthy of being a stunt woman.
Two months passed, any news or notifications of what was going on had completely stopped. I was in limbo, unsure of what to do next. That phone call to come in could happen at any moment. I had to be prepared so I kept going.
By the beginning of October, I had reached the 140 lbs mark. I was often startled when I looked in the mirror, not recognizing the person I was seeing. I saw someone who by movie standards looked beautiful but by my standards, I saw an ugly, old, gaunt woman. I looked grey. My clothes hung off me, my arms and legs boney and thin. Ironically, I had a ripping 6 pack, complete with prominent transverse muscles. Isn’t that what I have always wanted?
My peers remarked at how good I looked and how I looked like a leading actress, I smiled and thanked them, assuring everyone who might be concerned that I was indeed eating and healthy.
Many coordinators congratulated me on finally taking my career seriously. I felt guilty and undeserving of their praise.
What I didn’t tell people was how meticulous I was about keeping my meals below 200 calories for fear that I might gain a pound. In truth, I was barely eating 1200 calories a day.
I didn’t tell anyone that I didn’t get my period last month.
I didn’t tell anyone because in my mind, I was doing WHATEVER IT TOOK.
I never could comprehend the danger and severity of developing an eating disorder until I realized one day that I had become a walking example of one. I was shocked and angry at myself having defied my better judgment and intuition. Never, ever, in my life, did I think it would be possible for me, lover of food, to get to this point. I was just so incredibly paranoid about failing and gaining weight by this point that I couldn’t imagine going back to what I was before. (As if that were a bad thing.)
Outwardly, I was bright and confident, ready to take on the world with my new 6-pack but inwardly, I was so ashamed of myself. I turned my beautiful, muscular body into this wiry, emaciated creature that went against everything I used to stand for. I sold out to the film industry devil, and went from being a strong role model for my students to another statistic and example of what the media portrays as beautiful to young girls. I was disgusted with myself.
At my lowest weight, around 12% body fat, I weighed 137 lbs. By the time November and December rolled around, I was in maintenance mode. I knew that I needed to stop losing after I had woken up and realized I had become anorexic. I hovered around 137-142 lbs for the next 6 months. Waiting…
And I never did get that phone call.
What did end up happening was I started booking work. A lot of work. Turns out, my weight was “holding me back” in my career. I dove into it head first, as graciously as possible. This is what I wanted after all, right? I really took a lot of strides in my career in 2013. It felt like I was unstoppable, a budding stunt actor career in the works. I was poised to take over the world, Catwoman, not far from my reach. I just couldn’t believe the stark contrast between my career pre weight loss to post weight loss.
I maintained as long as I could but I simply could not remain at 137 lbs. Slowly over the next few months my weight float up towards 142-144 lbs. Every pound striking a dagger of shame and fear into my soul. I was gaining weight, therefore I was failing. I was anxious that someone might call me out on my stumble up the scale.
However, I still had not gotten my period. I was still stressed and anxious about eating anything ‘bad’ as well. That shadow is self-loathing and disappointment hanging in the distant corner of my mind. My stress becoming so unbearable sometime that I would have moments of extreme binging. Throwing my hands up in the air, saying “I can’t take it anymore!” while I scarfed down the whole bulk section at Wholefoods. This was immediately followed by great remorse and a few extra hours training, which became my way of purging.
In approximately May, I simply could not handle anymore, the diet, the stress, the anxiety of trying to maintain a certain physique was starting to weight on me. I began questioning my reasons and motives for pursuing the work I was doing. I began to disconnect from everything I had known about myself until then. I questioned myself about my priorities. Yes I was working but did the work justify the sacrifice I was taking? Was all of this worth it? Do I love this career? Who the hell am I?
I couldn’t find an answer. I was having trouble getting past the fact that I had actually harmed my physical body in order to achieve my career goals, something I promised myself I would never do. It’s one thing to willing risk your bone, muscles and joints for the physicality of stunts but when we are asked to sacrifice the health of our internal body, I wonder if there might be something fundamentally wrong.
I can’t blame anybody but myself for the hell I endured the last year and a half. It was my choice to drop the weight, I could have declined. However, I got so trapped in trying to accommodate and bend myself to get the work that I lost track of what is really important. In hindsight, I could have sought professional advice to help me reach the goal I had in mind, but I didn’t. I was intimidated and afraid that I would run out of time and lose the gig. The irony was that I never got it in the first place!
I dropped close to 20 lbs for a show and never got hired.
Then I proceeded with my caloric deprivation for almost a full year, just in case because, I was doing whatever it took to have a successful film career.
“It’s just what you are supposed to do.” I would often hear.
It took me almost a full year to really understand the severity of the damage I had done to my body. When I started seeing a doctor in June, for my now diagnosed Anemorrhea, I was shocked at how concerned she was. Yes, I knew I was doing something very wrong but it wasn’t until the doctor looked at me in the eyes and said “I strongly suggest you gain weight and eat more.” This wasn’t a game anymore. This is my life and my well being. It was clear that if I kept doing this, I will have neither of those.
In a way, I felt like I was meant to go through this tragedy and heart break because, if it weren’t for not getting hired on that show, I would have never been spurred into questioning my life and therefore, never would have been propelled to the Camino de Santiago in August 2013. Almost a full year later to the date! Also, it made everything unbelievably real for me. It gave me space and perspective on this career I have been trying to build for so long.
And the conclusion I came to (while walking in Spain) was that: hard work, I can handle. Disappointment, I can deal with that. But when I am asked to sacrifice my health in such a way that my body stops functioning, I cannot accept that as an acceptable risk. This job, this industry, does NOT mean that much to me. It is NOT worth dying for. Harsh truth, from a harsh inward journey.
I realize for many of us in the industry, our opinions may differ and while this is perfectly ok, at the end of the day, I have to do what is best for me.
Currently, I am heavier than I have ever been, not by much but in all honesty, I am. I gained close to 25 lbs while in Spain eating whatever and whenever I felt like it. It was like escaping from the prison in my mind. I made a point of not caring while I was away, no matter what the consequences were when I returned. Reckless abandon. I assumed that when I returned to Vancouver, and got back to a much healthier diet than wine, bread and digestive cookies that I would return to my healthy weight of 150 lbs. Combine that with my training and exercise, it should be no problem, right?
I came home with the intention of eating like a normal person, focusing on well balanced, organic, whole foods with no stress and anxiety surrounding them. I allowed myself space to be heavier, but still carried around the expectation that I would drop back into my pervious healthy range. I was also dealing with adrenal fatigue after having trained so hard on so little food, so I made a point of reducing my training to allow my body time to heal.
All in all, I was eating much more mindfully, healthier than I ever had in my whole life. However, my body was refusing to change. My hormones still were unbalanced and that anxiety was beginning to creep back into my life. Even after all the soul searching and priority rearranging, I still found myself preoccupied with the question :”What if a coordinator called me, asked my availability for work and I have to tell them I got fat?”
That situation did indeed happen, a few times, and I was honest with my responses and size, assuring them in a few months I would be back to a more acceptable range.
Wait! What? Do you hear yourself, Michelle?! Didn’t you just walk 800 km across Spain, to remember that your health is number one priority?
I waged an inner battle between giving my body the space it needed to heal, accepting that this is where it was at and fretting over the fact that I still hadn’t lost any weight. By mid-January, it was clear that I had a long road to recovery ahead of me, but I was determined to get back on track.
I went back to my doctor and told her I was finally ready to do whatever it takes to get my healthy body back. She promptly ordered more blood tests, prescribed me progesterone and referred me to the endocrinologist at VGH. One step at a time I was on my way there. I found myself finally being able to let go of worrying about what my stunt peers and superiors would think of me. I had my priority.
I learned a lot about myself in Spain (for a complete run-down please refer to my Camino posts) and I’ve learned even more about myself while I applied all my lessons back in Vancouver. I finally feel like I am on my true path in life and it’s a lot different than what I expected. I am truly getting to know myself and learning to love who that woman is. So, the ironic twist of fate that came at the end of January really surprised me and through me for a loop.
That show that I never got to work on, that opportunity that this whole process started for, came straight back to me when I least expected it. I was gifted a second chance to do the work that alluded me at the beginning of this timultuous journey. However, this time I had the wisdom to see it differently. I chose to act mindfully. This time I was determined to do it right!
What I can say is that the entire situation was extremely enlightening and a huge tesitment to the journey that I have been on. I was lucky to recieve this gift and took it as an amazing opportunity to impart my new found knowledge. What I learned was, even though this job was cause for so much turmoil for me, I could come into work with the intention of offering love and compassion. No drama, no hurt, just acceptance and gratitude.
For me personally, I got my closure on a very painful chapter in my life. Since those last days on set, I truly felt at peace with the decisions I made and I fully own them as part of journey in my life. If I had not gone through this whole experience, I would not be in this truly wonderful place I am in today.
However, I feel compelled to share my story becasue I believe this attitude we have towards “doing whatever it takes,” is extremely dangerous.
I am all for maintaining a physique and fitness level that is within the strength requirements of each individual. We are athletes, after all, most of us since childhood. But I feel like we are treading into shark infested water by performing such drastic measures to get the work. It’s a personal choice.
Above all, I learned that for me, I cannot accept that “DOING WHATEVER IT TAKES” attitude is in fact what it takes. I will not accept this as a necessary sacrifice in my career and it took me a long, hard road to come to this decision. I have battled myself on both sides of the coin, I can only stand behind my choice and offer a story of my experience. This is what happened to me when I “did what it takes.”
It is encouraging that there have been many health and safety issues in the industry that have been brought up as of late. Everything from working hours, conditions, concussions and many more. I believe that these are important conversations and that they directly translate to the quality of work being produced. Our health and well-being is directly related to our success as performers in this industry, and if we don’t have that, than what do we have?
Currently, I am seeing an endocrinologist and a dietitian in an effort to rememdy the physiologic and pyscholic damage I have done to my body. I am on the mend and prepared to face myself, my habits and my disillusions. I intend to heal my broken relationship with my body and food, one day at a time with self love, patience and maturity.
I call it “doing whatever it takes” to be healthy.
Thank you for reading. I wish you health, happiness and love on your way.
My Camino Blog: https://lifeexperimentsbymichelle.wordpress.com/category/camino-de-santiago-2/
Lori’s Post: http://pacificwavejiujitsu.com/blog/the-skinny-on-stunt-work-the-conundrum-of-the-female-performer