Trigger warning: Descriptions of eating disordered behaviour and abuse.
In December last year we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with the lovely Nikki DuBose about her recent memoir Washed Away: From Darkness to Light, her experiences in the modelling industry, her current advocacy work and her inspiring path to recovery from an eating disorder.
Nikki, we loved your book! You so eloquently shared your experiences of navigating the dark side of the modelling industry whilst also battling abuse, addiction and various mental health issues including an eating disorder. Could you tell us a little bit more about the onset of your eating disorder?
I just want to preface this by saying that I am studying psychology now, so I understand eating disorders both from an advocacy standpoint, an educational standpoint and as someone who lived it. Eating disorders often don’t just occur in their own right – there is often a genetic predisposition and often times there is a physiological, biological and/or social aspect. My eating disorder began when I was 8 years old. My mother had an eating disorder but also had various other mental health issues including bipolar, dissociative identity disorder and she was an alcoholic. I also came from a divorced family when I was really young and there was a lot of turmoil as well as physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse. So, pretty much, not everything, but a lot of the things you can think of to set the table for an eating disorder, I had it. I think it was my way to cope with the trauma because when you are a child you don’t really know how to deal with everything going on. I started to binge eat when I was 8 years old and that lead to bulimia when I was 10 years old. That was my normal until I was about 24 years old and then I developed anorexia at the height of my modelling career.
How old were you when you started modelling?
I started modelling when I was 16 years old but I wasn’t discovered, I just pushed my way into the business. I had extremely low self-esteem, depression and undiagnosed psychosis (I was diagnosed last year). I was trying to deal with all these things and I thought the way forward was by gaining some sort of love and acceptance in my life. I picked the modelling industry (which wasn’t the right industry to go into) because it mirrored my upbringing, the way that they take advantage of and control models. I signed up for these runway classes and I had to pay $500. I went in there and the first thing, of course, they told me, was to lose weight. I walked down the runway in front of all the other girls (they were all with their mum’s and I was by myself), they lifted up my shirt and said “what kind of exercise do you do? You need to go home and exercise to have stomachs like theirs” and patted my stomach. The thing is, that’s really normal in the industry. In the modelling industry, once you enter, they think that you have no jurisdiction in their world, they are in their own bubble. It’s very dangerous and unhealthy. I don’t think it should be like that because you are dealing with human lives. So I quit, but I did eventually get back into it and I think psychologically, I was always going that way because I had such low self-esteem from the child abuse. I have spoken to a lot of models from a psychological standpoint and a lot of them come from vulnerable backgrounds. When you have a vulnerable background you often don’t feel good enough for who you are on the inside. So, they are putting themselves in an industry where the only thing you have to offer is your looks. You have to mould and shape your looks for what someone else wants you to look like. There are severe consequences for that and it is very easy to develop an eating disorder if you don’t already have one. I did television and it was the same thing. You always heard the same thing – “you are not good enough, you need to get a nose job, lose weight, and get breast implants if you want to continue to work”. Nobody was educated in the modelling business and there weren’t proper supports set up. You are just pretty much on your own in the industry. It’s just a free for all.
You explained in your memoir that you don’t blame the modelling industry for your eating disorder but that it exacerbated it. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
My eating disorder was a result of my background and the environment. The modelling industry was triggering but I also wasn’t dealing with the root of my past, and when you don’t deal with your past it just keeps building and getting worse. I was also the one who kept going towards that myself but it is important for people to understand the psychological effects of trauma during childhood. I work with the Peaceful Heart Foundation which was started Matthew Sandusky, who was abused by Jerry Sandusky and we work so hard to teach people about eating disorders and sexual abuse, like any abuse or trauma. When you are traumatised it changes your brain chemistry and the trauma directly correlates with eating disorders. They are all coping mechanisms when you don’t know how to handle life anymore. It’s not the person’s fault, they just need to learn how to handle life in a healthy way which is really hard and takes a specific type of therapist – someone trained in trauma and an eating disorder trained therapist.
What was the catalyst for you that drove you to seek help and move towards recovery?
My mum passed away from her addiction in 2012 and I made the decision to get help, which was really difficult because I had to leave my modelling career. I was really sick from anorexia and realised that my career was a really big trigger. I had to leave all of that which was my identity but at the same time I realised when I went through recovery it didn’t matter because it wasn’t a real identity in the first place. I had to discover who I really was because I never knew who I really was, even as a kid, because I had so much taken away from me. Going through recovery with a psychiatrist, a mentor, going to therapy when I could, getting on stable medication and spirituality which was really important to me, that has been my guidance. Coming from a situation where I had no guidance, that has been a really critical element of my recovery.
One of the main reasons for leaving the modelling industry was coming to the realisation was that you couldn’t recover whilst you were still there despite it being such a big part of your identify. Could you expand upon how you managed to discover your identify outside of the modelling industry and your eating disorder?
I think a lot of people struggle with that even if it’s not an eating disorder, I think it is a societal problem. As a society we have an identity crisis. I came to the realisation because I felt so lost inside, I couldn’t sit with myself and just be. When you get to that point you feel like “What am I doing with my life?”, “Does my life have any meaning anymore?”, “Why am I even here?”. Unfortunately it took hitting that rock bottom and then reaching out to a therapist. I also had a mentor who worked with me for 3 years. It was someone I reached out to in a support group for overeaters and she worked with me through a life recovery bible and I realised I am out of balance with everything. I left my job and I was forced to face myself. I was at home, there was nobody around me, and there was nobody there to build up my ego. That’s when it came to light that this was reality. I think when you have to deal with the reality and you don’t have work as your identity and all those masks you build up as your identity, that’s when everything gets really hard. I would make a list of all of the masks that I would wear, and all the things in my life that were hindering me from being my real authentic self. What are the things that had become idols in my life – money, work, fame. If I cleared all of that away what was going to make me happy? That is how I started to uncover over time some of my true passions. It takes a while because you are dealing at the same time with trying to stop the eating disorder behaviours as you are trying to discover who you are. With mental illness it strips everything away from you and you are not able to think of anything else but that. From a spiritual perspective, one thing that helped was learning that I was God’s child. It gave me comfort knowing that I have that place – that I am someone’s. When you are an abused child or when you are a product of trauma you feel like you have nobody so knowing that you have that spiritual father really gave me comfort, security and purpose to move forward in life.
You are a supporter of Assembly Member Mark Levine’s Bill AB2539. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and why this is something you are so passionate about?
The bill was AB2539 and we worked on that early in 2016 with Assembly member Mark Levine. He had two young children and he was passionate about introducing the bill because he was aware of how magazine pictures could affect people, especially young children. Approximately 40-50% of young people, especially girls, want to be on a diet as a direct result from a magazine picture that they saw. I have been working with the National Eating Disorder Association for 2 years now and I am well aware of how prevalent eating disorders are in America. Over 30 million people suffer, reportedly, and there can be a lot more who are affected by an eating disorder. From the modelling perspective, the latest research also reports that at least 40% of models have an eating disorder. It is an important bill for many reasons for the workers’ rights to protect against wage theft and that sort of thing and for health standards.
From your personal experience what are the similarities and differences in the modelling industry in other countries?
I have worked in many countries and I can tell you from a legislative standpoint and from my own personal experiences that it is all the same thing. The reason for that is because it is not regulated. It is not as if you go to work, you are an employee and you have standards and protections and you can report something to someone and that really makes a difference. So many guys and girls are flying in and out all the time and there are no regulations. They say they are independent contractors. In every country I think that it is all the same and I don’t think it will ever change unless there is worldwide regulation, but also enforcement. There have been laws passed but even with regulations they aren’t enforcing them. It is used as a way to appease but things don’t really happen. I don’t know what we have to do but we are just trying to do the best that we can.
What advice would you give to our clients who are currently struggling with an eating disorder?
Never give up on yourself because you, above all, are worth all the love in the world. No matter how dark it may seem, you will recover from it. Full recovery is possible. I would know because I have been to the darkest point and now I am in the light, so never give up.
If you would like to start recovering from the eating issues you’re experiencing with the help of a trained therapist, please contact us as we have clinicians who can help.