I'm going to start off with this statement: "My name is Zushka, and I am anorexic."
That does not mean that I am starving today, or manipulating food, or over-exercising, or stepping on a scale, or measuring my hips, or a multitude of other dysfunctional behaviors that stem from the disease. Simply stated, it reminds me that I am not cured.
I didn't plan on becoming a model, it just sort of happened. Nearly 6 years ago, a friend of mine who was also a photographer, invited me over to her house to test some new lighting equipment. I belly danced in her backyard while she shot away. That began an invisible healing process, which continues to this day.
The photos are stunning for sure, but there is a lot more going on behind the scenes, and I don't mean physically. Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Anorexia are diseases that remain inside a person's psychological makeup throughout their lifetime. I use the analogy of Alcoholism as an example: Even after an alcoholic becomes sober, they are still an alcoholic. The disease of alcoholism does not go away just because the alcohol has been removed from their life. The same is true for Anorexia and BDD. The absence of dysfunctional coping mechanisms and activities does not remove the disease(s).
The healthier I became, the more I believed that the disorders would leave, and go away once and for all. Years had passed, and when that didn't happen, anxiety started to set in.
Eleven years ago, I "sobered up" by learning how to eat, what portions to eat and when to eat. I learned which foods affected the body in which ways. I detoxed, with the help of a Naturopath. I took a lot of supplements, hired a personal trainer and started gaining muscle weight. It took a while before I noticed any difference in myself. I relied on what the professionals were noticing. BDD is tricky, and although I felt better inside, I couldn't see what was going on outwardly. In other words, when I looked in the mirror all I saw was a distorted view of my body.
Here's a little crash course on BDD and Anorexia:
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a mental disorder characterized by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one's own body part or appearance is severely flawed and warrants exceptional measures to hide or fix their dysmorphic part on their person. In BDD's delusional variant, the flaw is imagined.
Anorexia nervosa, often referred to simply as anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by low weight, fear of gaining weight, and a strong desire to be thin, resulting in food restriction. Many people with anorexia see themselves as overweight even though they are in fact underweight. If asked they usually deny they have a problem with low weight. Often they weigh themselves frequently, eat only small amounts, and only eat certain foods. Some will exercise excessively.
Studies have been done for decades, trying to figure out how and why certain people end up with BDD and/or Anorexia. The conclusion could be genetics, low self-esteem, childhood abuse, trauma and any number of variables. In my own personal experience, childhood abuse and trauma resulted in a nightmare of starving myself, without knowing I was.
Fast-forward to adulthood: The word "anorexia" didn't become a part of my vocabulary until I was 35 years old, in a therapist's office. Yet it still took 7 more years before I decided to do anything about it. And another 7 years after that before I even knew what BDD was. (Flashback: my flavor of anorexia began at age 7.)
What does modeling have to do with any of this?
When I belly danced in my friend's backyard, and she took lots of photos, I was able to see myself for the first time. I know how weird that sounds, but it's true. When she stopped and showed me an image on the back of her camera, I started to cry. I didn't believe it was me, even though I had watched her take the photo. I kept asking her "is that me? Is that really me??"
She had no idea I had a problem with my body or food, all she saw was a pretty normal-looking person. I told her about the disorders and she also began to cry. I kept moving and she kept shooting, and by the end of the 5 hour shoot, it felt like a huge burden had been released from me. I wrote about the experience as soon as I got home that evening.
Since that time, I have modeled for 23 photographers. Each shoot is different, artistically as well as mentally, for me. I journal about each experience, but what makes this one different than all the rest is this: I just turned 53, and I never thought I'd live this long. There is permanent physical damage as a result of the disease, and, well, frankly, 53 is a long life for an anorexic.
I showed up for the shoot on the morning two days before my birthday. My boyfriend drove while I tried to sleep during the car-ride. It was a long drive. I was dressed appropriately, wearing huge pajama pants with a leopard print, and an over-sized soft sweater; thick socks and slipper-boots.
Dave's cabin out in the woods of Payson, AZ, was a peaceful place - part photo-studio, part home. The clawfoot tub out back in the woods caught my attention right away. I, of course, brought way too much stuff with me. I knew we wouldn't be using it all, but I like having a variety of things to choose from. Photo shoots are spontaneous, although they are somewhat planned.
I don't get nervous on the day of a photo shoot, which is amazing. I mean, I would imagine most people would be a little nervous baring all for a stranger. Nude modeling comes naturally for me. But this shoot was unlike any I've ever done before. I would be wearing a garter-belt, stockings and sexy heels.
Rosemary, a brilliant local musician and salon owner, created a look for me that was perfect - my hair was transformed into burgundy and deep brown with pinkish-purple at the ends. It was time for a serious hair change, and she did not disappoint.
I applied makeup, which I only use for photo-shoots. Any average day you'll find me wearing no makeup whatsoever. I prepped for weeks, but that's a story for another blog.
I introduced my boyfriend (who, by the way, is also a photographer) to Dave and his lovely wife, Linda. And then we got to work, while my boyfriend took a walk with his camera.
First pose was in the clawfoot tub. I took my sweater off and sat in the tub, while Dave took some test shots. Connecting with the photographer is important, in my opinion. If I don't feel a personal connection, the shoot is a bust. We talked, while he was shooting, about photography, modeling, life. I liked him right away.
One of the rooms in Dave & Linda's home is for boudoir shoots. We went there next. A couple of hours posing nude, semi-nude, clothed in barely anything - this is where the magic happens. What's going on behind the scenes inside of me is what it's all about. The finished images are just the icing on the cake.
The fact that I was turning 53 in just a couple of days was running through my mind, while posing nude for a photographer with an incredible reputation for his artistry. I felt empowered. I've probably used that word in other blogs about modeling, but this time it was overwhelmingly powerful. When I told Dave my story, and how modeling has nothing to do with vanity for me, he set his camera down for a moment and listened.
"These photos represent that I'm still alive, when really the odds are stacked against me. And that I'm more than just alive, I'm healthy. I have earned all of this, my weight, my curves. My body has been scary-thin, very fit, and now, this. I accept it for what it is today. I'm turning 53, and I feel more vibrant than ever. I'm grateful for all of this."
I call it invisible healing because no one can see what's going on inside of me while I'm modeling. No one knows how the shoot is affecting me psychologically. I show up and I'm totally myself, I don't know how to be anyone else. And what comes across through the lens is truly magical, because the photographer is capturing the essence of me, not just a flat image of what I look like on the outside. Whatever shines through in that moment when the shutter clicks, is a glimpse into who I am.
How I felt when I saw the first image that Dave sent to me: Wow! Just, WOW!! "Halloween & the Full Moon" is what I captioned it. The second one, "Birthday Suit", was the perfect birthday gift to myself. Thank you, Dave Kelley.
Why do I write about BDD and Anorexia?
It's really simple. I believe that when you expose something dark to the light, it loses its power over you. When you speak your truth, it becomes less frightening. And before you know it, other people reach out to you who understand your path, because they have experienced it too. It was not easy for me to admit that I was anorexic. The word was terrifying to me, so much so that I could only whisper it when I was in therapy at age 35. Thanks to a 12-Step Program, I was able to see it for what it truly was, instead of a glooming overpowering grasp on my life.
I love what I do, and I'll keep doing it for as long as I am able. I'm grateful for the community of young models who inspire me, and I am glad that I inspire some of them. We are all on this planet for a short period of time, so do whatever your heart calls you to do. Create art, build a house, climb a mountain, bake cookies for your kids, design an empire, whatever it is just do it. That's my little bit of advice for those who want to hear it.
Thanks for reading.