Recognize that eating disorders are not about one’s body: Eating disorders are a way of coping with internal pain and although folks with eating disorders can often seem hyper-focused on their bodies and food, there is usually an underlying internal issue that the person has to discover and heal from.
As part of my interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Schuyler Bailar. Schuyler is the first transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA D1 men’s team, and the only to have competed for all four years. He is an internationally celebrated inspirational speaker and a respected advocate for inclusion, body positivity, and mental health awareness.
Schuyler graduated from Harvard College in May 2019 with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology. His studies focused on social-emotional learning, emotional intelligence, and education. He is a tireless advocate for inclusion through speaking engagements and social media. Schuyler also holds ongoing advisory roles with Monte Nido & Affiliates (the leading eating disorder treatment provider), Plume Healthcare (the first trans-specific healthcare provider), and American Eagle Outfitters (the AExME advisory council) and is a research assistant at Harvard University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
My name is Schuyler Bailar and I use he/him pronouns. I am a gender inclusivity advocate, author, life coach, speaker, and DEI consultant. In 2019, I graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology. When I started at Harvard in 2015, I became the first transgender athlete to compete on a D1 men’s team in the NCAA in any sport. Since then, I have been passionate about transgender inclusion, body positivity, and mental health awareness.
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?
During the summer before 11th grade, I broke my back. This took me out of swimming, which was my main passion and pastime. Instead of training for 20+ hours a week, I was doing nothing. In that emptiness, my mental health deteriorated. I had already been developing an awareness of and harsh criticism for my body and myself, but in the depression that followed my injury I began struggling with self-harm and an eating disorder. I had very little understanding of what was going on internally and spent the last two years of high school going in and out of the hospital for treatment and therapy. Unfortunately, outpatient therapy wasn’t enough and I eventually was recommended to take a gap year to attend residential treatment. I had never prioritized my mental health before this, nor been taught how to talk about it with others, especially not my coaches and teammates. But as nervous as I was, I took the risk for happiness and my survival and decided to go to treatment.
The day after high school graduation, I went to Oliver-Pyatt Centers, a Monte Nido & Affiliates facility in Miami, Florida where I stayed for 5 months — 131 days exactly. OPC and my therapist at OPC saved my life. OPC was the first place I realized I am transgender, and was finally able to speak that truth aloud. Discovering that I was transgender was imperative to my healing.
What was the final straw that made you decide that you were going to do all you can to get better?
I realized that if I didn’t prioritize my mental health, I was running the risk that I’d be miserable forever. I could spend forever chasing what I called “paper successes”: things you can write on a piece of paper and say you achieved — things like gold medals, good grades, awards and the like. But I’d already garnered a lot of these, and was still miserable. Clearly, prioritizing these paper successes wasn’t truly winning. That is, choosing not to invest all my energy in my healing meant risking being miserable forever. And that wasn’t my plan. So I chose to dive head first into my treatment — a risk to be happy.
And how are things going for you today?
Perhaps the best way to describe my healing from my eating disorder is that I often forget about it. At first, I paid attention to every little milestone, every little moment of success in recovery. But over time, life got busy and I began to forget. Nowadays, I might randomly remember, recognizing that somehow it’s 2021 and I haven’t engaged in the behaviors for over six years. And in these moments, I also realize I have actually forgotten how bad it used to be and how removed from it I now am. To me, this forgetting has been the most powerful form of recognition of healing and of recovery. I don’t think about recovery often, or even remember it on a daily basis. I don’t remember to even notice the milestones anymore, which might seem like a loss, but is the ultimate win because it means I’m not stuck in that world anymore.
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?
● Let people know their own truths: Trust people to know their own stories and be the arbiters of such. Don’t ever tell anybody their eating disorder is not real or make them feel they must prove to you its validity. That is not for you to decide. Accept their experience as their truth. Understand and appreciate that this person has chosen to confide in you.
● Encourage therapy: Many folks try to fix the people around them. For example, someone can say, “I’m going to help you eat more” or “I’m going to help you eat less,” which won’t ultimately help them in the long run. It only serves as a temporary fix. You are not your child’s therapist. You are not your parent’s therapist. You are not your partner’s therapist. The more you can encourage help and support from professionals, the better. It’s important to know that you do not have all the answers or the right answers to support your loved one. Great eating disorder treatment providers like Monte Nido & Affiliates are rapidly expanding patient access nationwide, so those in need can receive top quality care coast to coast.
● Recognize that eating disorders are not about one’s body: Eating disorders are a way of coping with internal pain and although folks with eating disorders can often seem hyper focused on their bodies and food, there is usually an underlying internal issue that the person has to discover and heal from.
● Do not make it about you: A lot of people have the tendency to make other people’s pain about them. When I was struggling and was vulnerable enough to share about my eating disorder, I had people reply with, “how could you do this to me??” This makes the issue about them, when it has nothing to do with them. My eating disorder was not about or for or against the people around me, and insinuating that it was was not only counterproductive but also selfish and unkind.
● Remove the shame and judgement: You don’t have to understand what someone is going through to support them. Do not shame or judge them for their experience. They aren’t doing this for attention or because they feel like it. If they could just stop, they would. Recognize that they are struggling, and support them through it.
Is there a message you would like to tell someone who may be reading this, who is currently struggling with an eating disorder?
Recovery often seems impossible. I used to think I wasn’t going to be able to recover unless I believed recovery was possible. But I’ve realized this isn’t true. You don’t have to believe recovery is possible in order to recover. I didn’t recover because I believed in recovery. I just believed that maybe there was something more than the misery I was experiencing. A little voice in the back of my head said, “Maybe, there might be more.” And I chose to listen to that voice. I chose to walk forward even though I didn’t see or believe in the destination. And so I encourage you to do that too. You don’t have to believe in the destination. You just have to take the next step. There is more, I promise. If you can’t hear your own voice in the back of your head, then hear mine: There is more.
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?
● More accessibility to resources and therapy: Years ago we were still trying to understand eating disorders, which caused many people to go undiagnosed. Now people have more access to care, which makes the numbers more measurable. However, immense barriers that impede access and comprehensive research persist and that is the main focus of the DEI consulting work I do. The more diverse, inclusive, and accessible treatment is, the better. Eating disorders do not discriminate; treatment should not either. I would love to have the personalized treatment and care that I received from Oliver-Pyatt Centers be more accessible. Removing stigma and socioeconomic barriers to treatment and offering better insurance policies can be a great start towards people getting the care that they need.
● Media & Harmful Beauty Standards: Perhaps this is the most insidious and prevalent variable of them all. Research has really only scraped the surface of the impact that massive media consumption has on our society. Still, it is clear that the ubiquitous misrepresentation of bodies and beauty — especially of young girls and women — creates harmful, unrealistic expectations and standards of what bodies look like, contributing to eating disorders and other body image issues. Increased globalization (specifically through social media and the internet) has allowed for systems of power such as white supremacy and the patriarchy to infect the way we see, approve, or disapprove of others’ bodies. Harmful power-based beauty standards are not only unrealistic but also disadvantage and target specific marginalized groups — such as trans and gender-nonconforming folks, Black and Indigenous folks, other POC, disabled folks, and more.
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?
○ DO NOT photoshop.
○ DO include diverse representation in your company. Whether it be different bodies, cultures, ancestries, genders — it is important that folks from all backgrounds feel seen and represented.
○ DO NOT tokenize marginalized folks and our bodies. If you’re including marginalized folks, compensate us appropriately. Do the work behind the scenes to support our communities in actions and not just in marketing.
○ DO talk about mental health. We all need to work on normalizing discussion of mental health — at home, at school, with friends, in the workplace, and so on. We should be able to take mental health days the same way we are able to take sick days.
○ DO NOT shame folks who struggle with eating disorders or other mental health issues.
○ DO use gender-inclusive and gender-affirming language to speak about care.
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?
A lot of folks who might say something like this just don’t understand. And they believe that if they don’t understand it, it’s not real. But they fail to recognize that their understanding or not understanding has no effect on the validity or existence of the eating disorder. It’s important to recognize that you don’t have to understand someone or their experience to support them.
Beyond this, we need to keep talking about eating disorders. That may sound cliché, but the more people talk about eating disorders and experiences, the more people will understand and the more people will talk about it. It’s a positive feedback loop.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have helped you with your struggle? Can you explain why you like them?
● Though this isn’t an ED-specific resource, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown is one of my favorites. To be honest, I didn’t engage with many ED-specific books, podcasts or other resources other than treatment itself, but I know that Monte Nido & Affiliates’ resources and blog, as well as books written by the organization’s founder Carolyn Costin, are helpful to a lot of folks, so I’d recommend checking those out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
For the longest time, one of my favorite quotes was from American poet Emily Dickenson: “Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.” This quote really resonated with me because I lost a lot of my presence through my eating disorder and mental health struggles. This quote reminded me that I needed to center myself and be present in my life. It reminded me that there was much more to life than my current pain. I have an Audrey Hepburn quote tattooed on my wrist that reads, “I believe in pink.” To me, that means believing in the wonder of childhood. I think we often grow jaded towards life as we age, and I don’t want to do that. I want to carry with me a childlike joy.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My first book, OBIE IS MAN ENOUGH, is going to be published September of 2021 and is available for pre-order now! Growing up, I didn’t see anyone like me in media or in sports and I wanted to share a story about a kid who is transgender and also just a kid. Obie, the main character of the book, is a 13-year-old swimmer who is navigating typical middle school struggles alongside his trans identity. I hope this can provide visibility for trans kids like myself, as well as a window of education and humanity for readers who are not trans. I have also started support groups for transgender and LGBTQ+ folks (register at pinkmantaray.com/support) to help us create community. I hope to start another that is specifically for trans folks struggling with eating disorders. I will also continue working with the Monte Nido & Affiliates team to advance gender-affirming care and improve access to treatment for all folks with eating disorders.
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. 🙂
Effective communication is the center of it all. People need to be able to communicate across their differences and through their emotions and the more we can educate ourselves and our young people on doing so, the better a place the world will be. This is at the core of all the work I do as an educator, advocate, life coach, and consultant.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
● Twitter: @sb_pinkmantaray
● Instagram: @pinkmantaray
● Facebook: @pinkmantaray
● TikTok: @pinkmantaray