Focus on beauty in different ways. As a culture, we’re obsessed with perfection. It’s up to all of us to change the perception of beauty, which can start by celebrating inner traits. Rather than focusing on the physical, share words of affirmation that come from BEING-ness. Think about things like, “I love how creative you are,” “I love how kind you are,” or “Thank you for being.”
As a part of my interview series with public figures who struggled with and coped with an eating disorder, I had the pleasure to interview Judy Tsuei. She is the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a strategic marketing company that builds authentic personal brands for professionals looking to publish a book or grow a platform. She’s been featured in Fast Company, BBC Travel, MindBodyGreen, and more.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
I’m an Asian-American woman who founded a strategic marketing consultancy who works with entrepreneurs — thought leaders who have a message the world is meant to hear — to share their story in a bigger way, by establishing a powerfully authentic personal brand and building an engaged platform filled with their ideal audience.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve lived and adventured around the world, and even been featured in Fast Company, BBC Travel, and Medium about it. My daughter and I have gone to Kauai, Hawaii; Austin, Texas; Taipei, Taiwan; Hoi An, Vietnam; El Nido, Philippines; San Diego, California; and even lived in an old school camper van throughout the U.S. for the better part of a year!
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I personally understand how hard this is. Are you able to tell our readers the story of how you struggled with an eating disorder?
When I was in high school, I didn’t realize that I was slowly beginning to starve myself. My life at home was increasingly chaotic, so I began to seek ways to maintain a sense of control — at the time, I wasn’t aware that’s what I was doing. It got to a point where I was eating a slice of bread and an apple all day while simultaneously packing lunches for my three younger siblings that flowed over the brim of their brown paper bags, so that they couldn’t even close.
By the end of my senior year when prom rolled around, I went to try on dresses with friends. I pulled a size 0 dress off the rack. After putting it on, I discovered it was actually too big for my 5’6” frame. I still didn’t register I had a problem until the actual night of prom, when after the dance, I went over to a friend’s house. Her parents had laid out tables full of snacks.
I ate and ate and ate until I literally passed out from exhaustion.
After that, I realized I couldn’t starve myself anymore, but I became increasingly concerned about the weight I was gaining and how uncomfortable it felt to be full. I didn’t know what to do.
Then, one afternoon, I turned on the TV and came across an afterschool special about two girls battling anorexia and bulimia. Even though the show intended the episode to be a cautionary tale given that one of the girls ended up dying from heart failure, I thought to myself, “Wait, you can eat and throw up and not get fat?”
Up until that point, I didn’t know what bulimia was, but once I learned about it, I decided to try it, too.
That’s when my 15-year battle with variations of bulimia, compulsive overeating and exercising, and deprivation began to derail my life.
What was the final straw that made you decide that you were going to do all you can to get better?
After a few stints of trying to get help through scattered therapy sessions that I wasn’t committed to, I began to run away from myself.
I first did it by fleeing California to a job in South Carolina. When that didn’t work and my eating disorder progressed, I fled to another job in Shanghai, China — I had run all the way to the other side of the world to try to get as far away from myself, yet there I was.
My eating disorder was then at its lowest point. I began to feel my heart palpitating irregularly. I stopped getting my period. The need to binge and purge was so loud that I could no longer be fully present in my life; instead, the thought of what I’d eat next, how I could get that “fix” became louder than any conversations or connections I could have with friends.
Even though on the surface, I was living a remarkable life as an editor of an English-language magazine, invited to the latest art gallery openings and up-and-coming restaurants, I couldn’t stop myself from purging anymore.
There were times I threw food away in the trash can, or left it on the street for someone less fortunate than me, but then I’d find myself scurrying to pull whatever I had tossed less than an hour later, or running back out of my apartment to find the food I’d left for someone else who needed it more than I did.
It was then that I knew I had two choices: 1) I was either going to stay in Shanghai and likely die, or 2) I could go back to the States to get help.
The problem was, I didn’t feel worthy enough at the time to think that my life was truly worth saving. Going back to get help? I genuinely had to internally debate about it.
Thankfully, I had friends from California coming out to visit me, so I coincided my return trip home with them. I had already researched in an intensive outpatient program near my parents’ home in Los Angeles. I eventually boarded a plane to the U.S. and moved back in with my parents to the place where my problems all began — then, I got serious about my recovery.
And how are things going for you today?
When I entered my intensive outpatient program, if you would’ve told me then that my life would look the way it does less than 15 years later, I wouldn’t have believed you — and I might’ve tossed out an expletive to underscore it.
I completed my intensive outpatient program after a year, kept up with individual therapy sessions, and started to find my own path towards wellness beliefs and spirituality. I eventually became a yoga teacher and a Reiki practitioner, teaching classes in California and around the world, and even becoming a yoga brand ambassador with a few YouTube videos that have quite a lot of views.
I’ve also been able to make my professional dreams come true. I’ve become a travel writer invited to luxurious experiences around the world, a published writer featured in the biggest magazines, like Fast Company and BBC Travel, a marketing consultant, a business coach, a speaker, an author, and the list is still growing. I also have total location-independence and time-freedom to be the fullest expression of my authentic self, which is not only unbelievably meaningful, but it’s enabled me to live on Kauai, Taiwan, and even a camper van.
Best of all, I’m now a mother to an incredibly inspiring little girl named, Wilder. This little girl has amplified my life in every way. In fact, I had no idea that one of the most profound paths towards complete healing would be in my journey towards motherhood.
Because I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum throughout my entire pregnancy, where I was devastatingly nauseated and throwing up all day every day, the ‘choice’ of purging was taken away from me. Curled up on the bathroom floor for days on end and even being awoken from sleep by the need to vomit made me wonder WHY I had ever voluntarily done this to myself for so many years. My relationship with food dynamically shifted in the early months of pregnancy. Suddenly all I wanted to do was to be able to eat something — anything — to ensure that my baby was growing healthily.
Then, after I had my daughter, my body naturally returned to pre-pregnancy shape within a week without doing anything other than being present, and there I was, holding this beautiful LIFE my body had amazingly created in my arms.
It was as though my body was gently telling me, “Look. Look what we can do together. Look how you could’ve trusted me all along.”
From that point forward — and also because I have a conscious girl to raise — I never want my daughter to spend a day of her life wasted worrying about the size of her dress or the number on a scale. I want her to feel empowered in all of her beauty and being.
15 years ago, I was coming home to my studio apartment in Santa Monica after my intensive outpatient program to find myself lying on the couch and kicking the arm of it in hopes of trying to stop myself from racing to the bathroom to purge.
Today, I have the most wondrous existence I could dream of — and it just keeps getting better from here.
Based on your own experience are you able to share 5 things with our readers about how to support a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder? If you can, can you share an example from your own experience?
1. It’s never about the food or the body. With eating disorders, it does indeed seem like it’s about the body and the food. Please don’t ever tell someone with an eating disorder to simply “eat less,” or “why can’t you just get over it?” Every individual is complex. Every healing story is unique. The best you can do is to listen and hold space for someone experiencing a challenging opportunity to grow in myriad ways.
2. Focus on beauty in different ways. As a culture, we’re obsessed with perfection. It’s up to all of us to change the perception of beauty, which can start by celebrating inner traits. Rather than focusing on the physical, share words of affirmation that come from BEING-ness. Think about things like, “I love how creative you are,” “I love how kind you are,” or “Thank you for being.”
3. Be as compassionate as possible, because eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness around. What many people don’t understand is that having an eating disorder is like battling an addiction. It is a TOUGH spiritual journey to go through and unlike other addictive substances, every single person NEEDS FOOD to survive. That means that you can’t just avoid the thing that can be most triggering in your life, because you need to eat to live. Take a moment to imagine that. To be compassionate in the hardness of it all and to avoid as much judgment as possible.
4. Think of an eating disorder like being afraid of every kind of water in the world. It was often hard for people in my life to understand what I was struggling with, because some of the people I loved most simply couldn’t wrap their heads around what I was going through and how pervasive my eating disorder had become in my life. So, I would tell them: Imagine you’re terrified of water. Every single time you get near it, your heart starts to beat faster, your brain floods with thoughts, you can’t hear what anyone else is saying. But, you need to drink water to survive. You need to use it for showers. You need to wash your hands. Everyone else around you doesn’t have a problem with it — they don’t even think about it twice, because to them, it’s just water. But to you, every single time you encounter it, you have anxiety and stress and aren’t sure what to do. That’s what it’s like to have an eating disorder.
5. Remind your loved one they don’t have to be perfect. For most people with eating disorders, they’re smart, super sensitive, high overachievers. It’s not for lack of intelligence that they’re battling this disease and in fact, being so intelligent can make recovery exceptionally difficult, because they’re wondering, “Why can’t I just get over this already?” The more that you can allow your loved one to breathe and be in all of their humanness without feeling a need to be perfect or to hold up the world for anyone else anymore, the more you give them room to heal themselves to become the most wondrous expression of who they could be.
Is there a message you would like to tell someone who may be reading this, who is currently struggling with an eating disorder?
1. Even if you can’t believe it right now, it CAN and WILL get better. When I first moved back from Shanghai and was in my eating disorder program, I remember driving to Malibu. I sat on a cliff overlooking the ocean. And, I debated jumping. I couldn’t believe this was where my life had gotten. I turned around, looked back at the slate grey Volkswagen Jetta I owned, and that was the only thing that saved me. I felt like I couldn’t rely upon anyone in my life — least of all me — but I loved this car, and I sat there wondering, ‘Who would take my car after I die?’ It might seem silly that it was a physical object that pulled me back from the edge, but I needed something, anything, to save me. I kept at it and, even through all the darkness, I made it to the other side, so that I began to lead eating disorder programs and recovery groups of my own.
2. There will be ups, downs, and all arounds. That’s natural. If you’re devoted to your healing, you have to know that it’s absolutely normal to feel that sometimes, you’re leaping forward and other times, you feel like you’re continually mis-stepping backwards.
3. Look for inspiration. During my healing process, I found it challenging that I never heard about many people moving from surviving to thriving. I realized it was likely because healing from an eating disorder is such a deeply wounding and challenging journey that once you come through, it makes sense that you’d want to leave this part of your life behind. Look for the individuals who can be inspiring to you now. See what qualities you admire that go beyond the physical.
4. Your sensitivity is a wonderful gift. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s healed from an eating disorder has been a sensitive and beautiful soul who’s profoundly gifted and extremely intelligent. Your sensitivity isn’t something to be shunned or shut down or afraid of. It’s precisely this part of you that can deepen your intuition and allow you to experience the nuances of life that so many other people miss.
According to this study cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people in the U.S. of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Can you suggest 3–5 reasons why this has become such a critical issue recently?
I think that with the rise in social media and how quickly the world is changing, we’re all grasping for things to make us feel safe and in control. It’s so much easier than ever to compare our insides to someone else’s outsides, and to get lost in the illusion that what’s captured in the square of an Instagram or Facebook post is real and true, when in actuality, it’s the things that are happening outside those frames where real-life is.
When I used to teach yoga, I’d say, “The real yoga happens beyond the four corners of this mat,” similar to how a therapist told me early on, “The real therapy happens beyond the four walls of this office.”
Sometimes, life is messy. And, the more we’re unwilling to share our authentic vulnerable selves with others, the more we fall into guilt, shame, and spirals of madness. I learned in my own healing journey that when we meet someone for the first time, what we’re seeking within them is their vulnerability; ironically, it’s the last thing we ever want to show anyone else.
We’re this entire human species seeking connection in those genuine moments of vulnerability, yet many of us are too afraid to show up in that space.
I believe that life may not be pretty, but it is indeed beautiful — and I encourage every one of us to make our stories beautiful by living it to the truest of our abilities.
Based on your insight, what can concrete steps can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities and d) leaders do to address the core issues that are leading to this problem?
As individuals, I think the best thing we can do for ourselves is to give ourselves permission to be wildly who we are in every facet of our humanity and our greatness.
As corporations, I believe that it’s time to start living from a place of abundance and if we are going to do marketing when building a platform, to do it from a way that’s rooted in empowerment. We don’t need to keep sending the message that anyone is lacking anything, and that in order to be fixed or whole, they need to buy the next thing being offered. What if companies and brands started showing up as mentors or guides along this journey, and from a place of social good, said, “You have your own unique gift. We’re not here to take or give you anything. But, we are here to help guide you along with the resources that we have to support your own hero’s or heroine’s journey.”
As communities, I think the more inclusive we can be, the more individuals will feel like they have a sense of belonging and connectedness, which at the end of the day, is what we’re all seeking. We want to know that we’re okay. That we’re loved. That we matter.
As leaders, I think it’s vital to showcase the value of BEING in the world. How small acts of kindness and acceptance can lead to profound change. Not everyone on this planet is going to be the next big thought leader or action-taker, but so many of us are going to become parents and older siblings or partners. In these roles, we can make a PROFOUND difference on someone else’s life, and it starts with acknowledging and supporting every individual’s efforts to become more conscious about ourselves and the impact we have one someone else’s life.
As you know, one of the challenges of an eating disorder is the harmful,and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just control yourself”. What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that an eating disorder is an illness just like heart disease or schizophrenia?
One of the challenges that I saw in recovery from an eating disorder is that there’s so much trauma associated with the healing journey, many people want to leave that part of their lives behind them when they’ve finally made it through the other side. And, because of that, there’s so much that’s not talked about, celebrated, or examined.
Any journey towards healing is often deep and punctuated by peaks and valleys. It’s been shown how when you share your story with someone, it’s exceptionally difficult not to have compassion, understanding, or a deeper sense of connection with that person — even if you had an initially antagonistic or even judgmental view of them.
The more we can share these stories, especially backed by science and anecdotal experiences, the more we can see how eating disorders are truly pervasive and need to be regarded as significantly as other forms of mental illness or addiction.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have helped you with your struggle? Can you explain why you like them?
I love storytelling and hearing other people’s humanity, as well as their personal journeys towards triumph, acceptance, and renewal.
My favorite podcasts to see the breadth of humanity and triumph, where your stories reveal themselves by having the dots connect upon reflection are:
· The New York Times’ Modern Love
· Oprah’s Masterclass, and the series she’s done with Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now
My favorite apps are ones rooted in mindfulness:
· Stop, Breathe, and Think (both for adults and for kids — my daughter loves the kids version)
· Insight Timer, especially Sarah Blondin’s poetic messages
Books I’ve really enjoyed:
· Light is the New Black and Rise Sister Rise by Rebecca Campbell
· Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
· Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood by Karen Maezen Miller
· The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fu*K by Mark Manson
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” ~ Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
When I was at my lowest point in my eating disorder — and there’ve been subsequent challenges with my pregnancy, postpartum depression, and divorce — I’ve realized that I am stronger than I know. I love the magic that I’ve seen unfold when I’ve committed and shown up in my fullest expression of self-worth — and I know that sometimes, we don’t have the answer until we have enough space between the person we are now and the person we are meant to become.
I continually come through a changed woman, greater than I could have imagined before. This is how you become a spiritual gangster.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I love bringing people’s stories to life through branding and empowerment marketing, so I’m excited to continue to work with inspiring female entrepreneurs — especially women of color — to share their unique voice, stories, and purpose with the world.
I’m also excited to dive more into my Asian-American background — I’m currently working on a passion project, called The Conscious Asian (www.theconsciousasian.com), where I’m redefining what it means to be an Asian-American woman, mother, and conscious human with a new kind of tiger spirit.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the largest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have a hashtag I use on my social media: #BeWildlyYou
From the beginning of time ever after, there will only be ONE of you. The world needs you to #BeWildlyYou in all aspects of yourself and to share your unique gift and in so doing, through your giving/being/connecting, you can help all of our humanity rise up.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on IG: @wildheartedwords, share more personal stories in my private Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/wildheartedwords/, and send out a regular newsletter that you can sign up to receive at www.wildheartedwords.com (most people who sign up say it’s one of the few regular emails they read in in their inbox!).
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!