Making a smash – Two local women battle body image issues head on

Eight out of 10 women dislike their appearance.

More than 50% of teen girls use unhealthy methods to control their weight.

Six out of 10 women are disordered eaters.

One in five women has an eating disorder.

In a world where image can seem like everything and unrealistic ideals for weight and clothing size are the norm in advertisements, television and movies, McCall Manning Dempsey is helping to tear down those false ideals that hold far too many women hostage. Through her non-profit organization Southern Smash, Dempsey is sharing her own story and helping to raise awareness of eating disorders and methods of overcoming them.

In a larger sense, she wants to change the cultural conversation of body bashing to one of love and acceptance.

“I had it all together on the outside so I never thought I had it that bad,” Dempsey says of her own eating disorder, which started with restriction before snowballing into anorexia, bulimia, laxatives, diet pills and extreme over-exercising. “I just kept telling myself, I’m not that bad’I don’t look like Karen Carpenter and stick-thin people who are the face for eating disorders in the media.”

Dempsey had a successful career, but her eating disorder took up 90% of her time. It consumed her.

“I did whatever I needed to do to cover it up,” says Dempsey. She had diet pills shipped to a P.O. box so her husband wouldn’t know.

In the fall of 2009, her diet pill addiction was starting to cause serious side effects, such as heart palpitations and blacking out. After years of suffering with her eating disorder, Dempsey finally found the courage to talk to a new friend who seemed safe and non-judgmental, one who realized the problem was more serious than Dempsey led on and encouraged her to talk to a professional about her illness. Dempsey agreed.

Things steadily improved until Dempsey left her job to work at home in 2010. She deteriorated quickly, and at the suggestion of her therapist, she admitted herself to the care of the Carolina House, a well-regarded clinic for eating disorders in Durham, N.C.

There, for the first time, she felt protected and supported in her fight.

“I thought that this was my faultthat I chose this,” says Dempsey. “I finally started to realize that it was an illness and I could choose my recovery.”

Dempsey remained there for three months. She had no job prospects, but she felt a newfound urge to help others who were suffering just as she had.

“I had no job, no clue what to do. Recovery was my job,” she recalls.

She started a blog to document her experience, and one particular post that a friend shared on Facebook drew a huge response.

Soon an LSU group called SoleSisters invited Dempsey to share her journey on campus. Dempsey turned what could have been an ordinary speech into the first Smash event. Participants took sledgehammers, their hands and their feet to scales, destroying the objects that had been destroying them.

With help from the Rocketkidz Foundation, Southern Smash was born: its mission, to educate the public about the dangers of eating disorders and empower women to celebrate and embrace true beauty and self-esteem.

As Southern Smash has grown, Dempsey has added Smash Talks, panel discussions with local experts that cover topics such as eating disorders, body image, negative self-talk, authenticity and the dangers of media.

Through these high-profile events and more personal, one-on-one help, Dempsey’s influence is expanding.

Sarah Murphy heard Dempsey speak at an event at St. Joseph’s Academy and was immediately touched by her story.

“She has inspired me to challenge the media’s view of women and perfection,” Murphy says. “She has empowered me to not be limited by the number on the scale or the size of my new pants. She has also helped me talk to the friends and family I have that suffer from eating disorders, which is obviously a very sensitive situation. She is definitely one of the strongest women that I know.”

Dempsey has hosted Smash events at several Baton Rouge high schools and colleges in the region and has plans for more events on college campuses around the country later this year. She is also developing SmashKITS so people can put on their own Smash events, all with the same goal of starting conversations and working towards prevention and education.

“Because of my involvement in Southern Smash, I have become more aware of negative self-talk, body-bashing and the dieting culture,” says Carley Wahlborg, founder of SoleSisters. “Southern Smash is not just an event, but a commitment I have made to myself in order to be a role model for peers and young girls in the community.”

Dempsey and Southern Smash are challenging women to redefine their self-worth and beauty by letting go of unrealistic ideals.

After experiencing a Smash event, Taylor Cole made the decision to recover from body image issues and an eating disorder that she’d been battling most of her life. “From smashing my own scale that I had decorated, to the Let It Geaux’ balloons and the Dare to Love Yourself’ cards, it all made me believe I could actually do this a little more.”

Cole adds, though, that what really made her decide to recover was Dempsey herself. “When she got up to talk, something clicked inside of me, and I realized I didn’t have to live like that anymore,” Cole says.

While Dempsey works to increase her formerly grassroots efforts, one medical professional at Pennington Biomedical Research Center is confronting the same body-image trends in her own way.

Tiffany M. Stewart, Ph.D., of Body Evolution Technologies operates the website Emergea platform for games, apps and other programs that help users improve their own health behaviors. Stewart’s team has identified and designed a complete suite of programs to improve body image measurably and to reduce risk factors for eating disorders and obesity. They will be launching a body image activist campaign soon, and they have a very active Facebook page, where they curate content and conversation about body image.

“We need to shift our view from appearance to health and remove associations with thin and health going together,” Stewart says. “We need to connect the dots in our lives on health and happiness, and leave appearance out of the equation.”

While Dempsey is the masterful motivator, inspiring women to overcome their disorders and getting them started in their recoveries, Stewart is providing the science-based resources for those same women to succeed. But both have the same mission: to get women of all ages to focus less on the size and shape of their bodies and more on leading truly healthy liveswith big adventures. southernsmashings.com

Statistics provided by the National Eating Disorders Association and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.