Perfect Illusions, an open-mic style event hosted by the UVA Coalition on Eating Disorders and Exercise Concerns, aims to break the silence surrounding body image and eating disorders. The students, counselors, medical and athletics professionals who make up the coalition provide this event each year to support students in recovery and to raise awareness of the prevalence of eating and exercise concerns on Grounds. On November 11, 2015, over 60 members of the UVA community came together to create a safe and supportive space to share personal stories, experiences, and revelations about body image and disordered eating. Whereas we may often feel uncomfortable in silence, the quiet and stillness of the room between each person’s story at Perfect Illusions was filled with the courage of those who chose to stand before everyone and speak their truth.
Erin Tracy, from Counseling and Psychological Services, opened the forum by discussing the complexities surrounding eating disorders, explaining the vulnerability that comes with the difficult transition to college, as well as the significant influence that culture, interpersonal relationships, and traumatic events can have on people’s relationships with their bodies. She explained the difficulty of letting go of an eating disorder and concluded her opening remarks by saying, “This night is a tribute to those who have or are choosing to stand up to their eating disorder.”
With the stage set, slowly but surely members of the audience approached the microphone to share their stories. Some had come prepared with what they wanted to say, whether a poem, letter, or journal entry. Others opted to speak off the cuff. But for most, the decision to speak at all was decided only in that moment. Many of the participants approached the mic and began their story with the words, “I wasn’t planning on speaking tonight.”
The speakers gave attendees raw and genuine views into the ways that they themselves have learned to confront their eating disorders and accept the trials of recovery. Many noted the importance of the support system around them, whether it be family, friends, or even counselors, who helped them confront the issues they faced. One participant discussed the nature of perfection and the strength we can all find in both weakness and vulnerability. She commented that, “perfection is not something we live up to, but is rather a process of growth that requires our own individual nurturing.” Another participant applauded the event as a counter-culture to the images we are bombarded with every single day. Each person who approached the microphone had something unique to share and a word of wisdom to offer.
The UVA Coalition on Eating Disorders and Exercise Concerns was able to provide a safe space for stories to be shared and heard. The emotion and tone of the night can be well encapsulated by one participant’s revelation: “I deserve recovery.”