By Colleen Zewe
Despite the brisk October weather, Sami Mikret and her family spent Sunday morning marching along Diversey Harbor to celebrate her completion of eating disorder treatment and show others that recovery is possible.
They weren’t alone. More than 1,000 people participated in Chicago’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Walk, making it the largest NEDA walk Chicago has ever hosted.
Since 2009, NEDA walks have aimed to fund eating disorder research, education, prevention and advocacy initiatives. Chicago’s 2018 walk raised more than $47,000, and NEDA plans walks in 90 total cities each year.
According to NEDA, 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, which is an obsession with healthy eating, and other specified feeding or eating disorders, a diagnosis given to those who do not fit other diagnoses but still struggle with eating.
The participants at the event came from all walks of life, reflecting the diversity of the condition. People of all ages, races, genders and body types can develop eating disorders, despite stigma that they mainly impact teenage girls.
Click on any image for a slideshow of the march.
“A lot of people don’t understand eating disorders,” said Cami Blechschmidt, an after-school teacher in Chicago. Now 22, she said eating disorders have affected her education, career and relationships since she was 14. “There’ a lot of stigma around eating disorders and mental health in general. The walk provides a community for people who are struggling with an eating disorder.” (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) “We are declaring eating disorders a public health crisis,” said walk coordinator Jessica Hickman, pictured left. Though many require more than one month of treatment, many insurance companies do not cover long-term residential care. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) Sami Mikret, a 19-year-old college student from Schererville, Indiana, was diagnosed with an eating disorder six months ago, and this was her first-ever NEDA walk. “I just got out of treatment,” Mikret said. “It’s a celebration” to participate in the march.(Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) Her family and friends came to support her as “Team Sunshine.” They wore matching yellow shirts printed with the phrase “you are my sunshine,” a phrase that helped Mikret remain positive during the hard days of her treatment. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) The walk featured a “smash the scale” pinata event, where participants could destroy a symbolic pinata scale. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) “The pinata scale smash is meant to break down the feelings behind a scale and how it might affect those who have eating disorders and how it makes you feel inside,” said Natasia Sales, a NEDA volunteer and DePaul student. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) Mikret was one of two participants selected to smash the scales. Though the pinatas contained no candy, the symbolic crushing of the scales proved empowering for attendees. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) Treatment centers set up booths throughout the walk with both information and activities. The Renfrew Center in Northbrook asked survivors to add their purple thumbprint “leaves” on a tree. Purple is considered the official ribbon color for eating disorder awareness.
(Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) Katherine Huber, a professional relations regional manager at Renfrew, said that they go to NEDA walks throughout the nation each year to help connect women with treatment options at all stages of recovery.
“Eating disorders do not discriminate,” she said. “We work with women of all ages and diagnoses at different walks in their journey. We are a resource for whoever needs us .It’s important for us to reconnect with our alumni and raise awareness for eating disorders. A lot of people come to these walks who are perhaps at an earlier part of their recovery journey, and it’s nice for them to see that there are resources and a supportive community.” (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) “I came to support my girlfriend and her family,” said Flashpoint College student Marco Richard, 20. “She’s actually in the [Renfrew] program right now.” Richard wore a “Frew Crew” shirt to show his support for the organization.
(Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) Keynote Speaker Iskra Lawrence warned participants about the danger of social media.
“We’re consumed by social media messages and images that tell us we need to have the perfect life,” she said. “And it’s an illusion that everything’s amazing. It’s the highlight reel. Everyone seems comfortable with their body and how they feel, and that’s not real. I know that for a fact because I go through it myself.” (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) Lawrence, an Aerie REAL model, openly shared her personal eating disorder journey. “It took me years in recovery to even communicate how I was feeling to myself and let myself be vulnerable,” she said. “I suffered in silence for a very long time. The fact that you’re here shows you’ve taken the first step to know that you don’t have to suffer in silence. There’s a community and you’re not alone and to know that recovery is possible. There is hope.”
(Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) “I was debating coming today because I don’t have family or friends here,” said Lauren Pagone, who recently moved to the South Loop neighborhood for a human resources job. “I was going to go solo, and that scared me. But I decided to come because I set goals for myself each week. It made me uncomfortable, but a good kind of comfortable. It’s to help myself with my own recovery.” Pagone, 23, said that, even though she came alone, she could feel the strong community at the walk and wanted to support anyone who might be struggling.
(Colleen Zewe/MEDILL) NEDA members hope that the community and support continues after the walk. “We can’t just come to this walk and then the conversation is finished,” Lawrence said. “I want you to remember to speak up as much as you can and as much as you are able to while still protecting yourself. This isn’t just a conversation to be had today. Eating disorders don’t discriminate. They can happen to anyone at any age. We have to talk about it to remove the stigma to enable people to feel like they can seek help and that there is hope.”
Photo at top: Participants pose for a picture at the NEDA walk. (Colleen Zewe/MEDILL)