Getty Images, Tory Rust
Ruthie Friedlander and Christina Grasso
Jan 30, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

The Chain is a New York-based, not-for-profit peer support and mentorship program for women in the fashion and entertainment industries who are struggling with, or recovering from, an eating disorder. Through this organization, we aim to create a safe space for this unique population to share their experiences and gain insight through conversation, support, and community building. Here's how it all began. 

MEET RUTHIE.

Working in fashion did not cause my eating disorder.

I distinctly remember, age 10, staring down at my thighs and mentally drawing a line where I thought my thigh should stop. I wanted to get rid of the extra. Not for any other reason than that I thought it wasn’t supposed to be there.

After struggling with an eating disorder for over 15 years, I know for sure that a condition like mine can’t be caused by one thing. So no, the fashion industry did not make me anorexic. But it certainly didn’t help.

RELATED: What I Wish My Family Knew About My Eating Disorder

What did help was treatment, specifically an intensive outpatient program at a center called Balance in New York City. Hearing other people’s stories made me realize that feelings I’d thought were unique to me are actually fairly common among people with eating disorders—that helped me. Exposure therapy—that helped me.

Being in intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment is a bizarre experience, especially if you go in as an adult. But even more bizarre is that at the end of it, you have to reenter the real world. You’re ripped from a very protected environment of people who know more about you than almost anyone and plopped back into a foreign world that can’t quite understand where you’ve been or what you’ve been through.

Maybe something like: For me, that was a world full of people who obsessed with “clean eating” and where I'm inundated with everything “sample sizes.” My day-to-day as InStyle's Special Projects Director is filled with creative ideas and innovative women. But even so, my work will at some point require me to think about a model's body or a Kardashian's diet. It's not something I can tune out. In every part of the fashion industry that I’ve worked in—from PR to marketing to editorial—not one day has passed without someone bringing up weight.

Even with an incredibly supportive family, that was tough. It was hard not knowing where to place the feelings and thoughts that I previously dumped out in treatment. It was difficult not to know what to say when people would talk about the new diet they were trying or how important intermittent fasting was. I found solace in writing about it, publicly coming out and saying that I have an eating disorder in a story for InStyle about the Lily Collins’ film To The Bone. I was immediately greeted with new friends, many of whom work in fashion, expressing their shared experience.

That’s how Christina and I met. It started as a DM on Instagram and turned into a super supportive friendship, which often times had absolutely nothing to do with our disorders. The first time we met IRL, we both knew we wanted to come together and start something.

MEET CHRISTINA.

Recovering from an eating disorder is an inexplicably difficult undertaking. I know this to be true because I’ve battled anorexia nervosa for over half of my life. I developed the illness at 12, but lived in denial for 7 years, mostly out of shame and fear. By that point, I had become so ill that my school and friends stepped in and forced me to seek help. Since then, I’ve cycled in and out of treatment centers and hospitals over 15 times, all the while trying to maintain and achieve success in a career in fashion and media, and look put together while doing it.

I’m 28 now, and have been working in the fashion industry, in some capacity, for the past decade. I held several internships throughout college, and went on to work in PR and editorial before I found my niche in the beauty space, where I focus on social media and content creation and do some writing on the side.

To the surprise of probably no one, disordered eating runs rampant in fashion and New York in general, which made me feel (and sometimes still does) as though my disordered behaviors were normal, and even revered. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, after having to take a medical leave from my job to be hospitalized, that I realized the irony of my situation: One of the things I, at some level, believed would put me ahead in my career—being thin—was actually holding me back, as that wasn’t the first (or last) time I’d had to miss work or school due to my illness. And although my eating disorder has encompassed a hell of a lot more than simply food and weight, I allowed my environment and its myriad triggers to reinforce it.

RELATED: Brooklyn Nine-Nine Actress Stephanie Beatriz on Battling Disordered Eating

As a result, I was for a time much thinner than is healthy for me, and the following things happened: I could fit into a sample size and various fashion folk told me I looked “great” (woo-frickin’-hoo!), but internally, my heart rate was in the 30s—putting me at high risk for cardiac arrest. I did feel a sense of security—albeit a false and fleeting one—by taking up less space, even if I could never actually see myself. But all along I knew in my heart of hearts that these things were meaningless, and didn’t align with my values at all.

It’s jarring to come out of the structured, insular environment of treatment only to be met with the harsh and constant reminder that most people in fashion have, at best, a complicated relationship with food. The restrictive “lifestyle” that is so commonplace in this industry isn’t a lifestyle for me—it’s a disease that nearly claimed my life. As a result, I don’t have the “luxury” of trying the cleanses and weird diets that have so frequently come across my desk because, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I can’t simply skip lunch when I get busy (which, ha, is always) because that very quickly sets the new standard, and I risk heading in a direction that, at my worst, landed me hospitalized with a feeding tube.

It’d certainly be reasonable to just find a new career path that isn’t so image-focused, but I never got on board with the idea that an illness I did not choose should ban me from doing what I’ve dreamt of doing my whole life. So I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that, in order to find true healing, I would need to be open about my struggles even when that’s difficult and painful, which it often is. And if that meant my fears of being unlovable or unhirable would materialize, then I would resolve to find a different job or new people. I had to hold onto the belief that, ultimately, I would be okay and end up in the right place.

RELATED: Lily Collins Battles Anorexia in the Chilling To the Bone Trailer

I am, and I have. It hasn’t been easy, but to be here—alive—and doing what I’m doing, both personally and professionally, it has been, dare I say, worth it. I haven’t done it alone, though. It’s only been through the support of incredibly loving family and friends (and, frankly, a whole lot of Stevie Nicks) that I’ve been able to recognize my own strength, and I want to pass that on. Community and sisterhood are such a critical part of recovery—it’s true what they say, we’re much stronger together.

It was last year while consulting on the Netflix film “To the Bone” with Project HEAL, another organization that supports people with eating disorders, when I started to think about how I might foster that much-needed community specifically in my industry. And that’s when Ruthie penned a powerful essay on the film and I reached out to her to commend her for her strength in telling her story, immediately, we formed a special bond.

The first thing that was apparent: we wanted to talk about it. We wanted to share our stories, get advice from each other, and learn from each other. And very quickly, we wanted to learn from more people. 

MEET THE CHAIN.

The Chain was an idea born out of a need. Both of us felt that, while there’s been conversation around healthy body image in advertising and on the runway, there hasn’t been enough action, and there certainly hasn't’ been enough conversation directed to the other people working in the industry: the editors, the bloggers, the photographers ... who are also around triggering material day in and day out.

Coming soon 🤝

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One of our goals for The Chain is to pass onto others a lesson that has been painstakingly difficult, but ultimately so rewarding, for us: owning and telling our stories. It's given us the real, human connection our eating disorders deprived us of for years, and has changed our lives in profound and surprising ways. But unfortunately, transparency around disordered eating is rare. So countless people struggle in silence as they deal with the heightened triggers of the workplace. The Chain is not necessarily an effort to change the impossible standards set forth by our industry but rather a resource for addressing them in a healthy, collaborative way as peers.

We hope that by starting these monthly meetings, we’ll learn a bit more about what our community is looking for. Already, we’ve had so many people reach out with ideas, wanting to get involved. We will continue to build The Chain based on what we hear and see is really helping people. We can’t wait to see where it goes. 

Find out more about The Chain, including how to get involved, at http://www.the-chain.us.

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