Physical fitness: Airman's restoration of self-image
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- (This article is part of a series featuring 35th Fighter Wing Airmen who exemplify the four pillars of Comprehensive Airmen Fitness--mental, physical, social and spiritual. During Resilient Airman Day Oct. 2, these Airmen shared their story in front of more than 250 people at Misawa Air Base, Japan.)
Standing in the crisp autumn air, embraced by her puffy purple jacket, a young girl surveys the playground ahead and considers what game she will play first.
Without warning or hesitation, the girl is thrown to the pavement by a little boy. He uttered only one word: "fatso," prompting her surrounding schoolmates to erupt in laughter.
This moment is one that Airman 1st Class Camille Van Atta remembers with precision. It was the moment her self-image was shattered.
"That's the first time I hated my body and became extremely critical of it," said Van Atta, 35th Fighter Wing community support coordinator administration assistant.
The event was devastating to her as a child, causing her to quit ballet, believing she looked too big in her leotard. She began acutely listening to conversations concentrated on body image between the people around her.
"I listened to women saying 'I'm so fat' and 'I hate my thighs,'" she said. "My dad joked about divorce weight, a reason to leave your wife because she gains more than 140 pounds."
Her insecurities were perpetuated by observing adult interactions and their ideas of a "perfect" body type, which she carried with her into high school.
"I saw how sitcoms represented all different types of male body types and the females are always thin," she said. "Our society doesn't talk about the unnerving pressure put on people to look, eat or be a certain way."
She began restricting her food intake and forcing physical activity as a sophomore, which only got worse as she got older. In 2013, she said her marriage violently collapsed, along with struggling financially and being geographically and emotionally alienated from her family.
"The only thing I could control was my body," Van Atta said. "The only way I thought I could have strength was controlling my willpower."
So she reduced her food intake to about 500 calories each day.
"On top of eating just a cup of Greek yogurt and drinking a cup of coffee, I started smoking cigarettes to suppress my appetite," she said. "I took diet pills without being cognizant of what was in them or how they made me feel."
She began losing weight, but noticed a barrage of side effects taking a deep physical toll on her body. She was constantly cold and always had a headache, but would brush it off because people told her how pretty she was.
"I would drink a glass of water to fend off the hunger pangs because they were incessant," she said. "If I wasn't hungry, I didn't feel normal."
Van Atta's roommate noticed signs of an eating disorder and came to her with concern.
"I kept telling her I was just dieting, that I wasn't sick," she said. "I knew I was far from healthy, but I wasn't a girl with an eating disorder lying in a hospital bed withering away."
The conversation with her roommate stayed present in her mind until she decided to look up the symptoms of an eating disorder online.
"I wanted to prove I didn't have one, but as I was reading the list at work I could check the symptoms off like boxes," she said. "One of the symptoms is having immense cavities because my body just didn't have the nutrients to maintain my teeth."
Van Atta described that moment as frozen in time as it helped her to see people were noticing her actions.
"When I tried to seek help, I told one of my sergeants who told me she thought I had an eating disorder months ago," she said. "When she shared it with supervision, they told her as long as it wasn't affecting my job, they didn't care."
Confronting people about food can be a strange, out-of-bounds topic, but she wished someone would have said something sooner.
"I look back now and realize all the cries for help I had like talking about how hungry I was," Van Atta said. "My roommate confronting me brought everything to light."
She finally found the courage to seek help from mental health and expected to be admitted to an inpatient treatment facility.
"The therapist told me my body mass index was in a healthy range and I didn't qualify for treatment," she said. "She essentially told me I wasn't sick enough."
Assuming she didn't have a problem, Van Atta kept her depriving habits as she moved to Misawa AB in October 2013.
"I fell into a deep depression when I first got here," she said. "I was sad, anxious and couldn't get out of bed, let alone feed myself."
It was at this point she realized she didn't want to live life that way anymore.
"I made an appointment with a wonderful therapist at mental health," she said. "She talked to me about my eating disorder and had me write down my fears about eating to get to the root of the problem."
While Van Atta worked though the mental side of her eating disorder with her therapist, she began lifting weights with her best friend Senior Airman Luz M. Sanchez, 35th Fighter Wing command post emergency action controller.
"We were both looking for a physical activity as a hobby and decided to lift weights," said Sanchez. "We quickly fell in love with it and stopped looking at our arms or legs as too big, and began focusing on how strong they were."
For Van Atta, exercise started as a way to earn her food, but her viewpoint eventually shifted.
"I stopped seeing myself as an ornament or object and started seeing my body as an instrument," she said. "That change was pivotal for me. If I hadn't reached out for help and started working out, I wouldn't be here today."
Coming to Misawa AB caused a chain of events leading to Van Atta's recovery.
"I've come out of my shell through networking," she said. "The quality of people and friends here surpass anything I've had my entire life."
Having a strong support group helped bring Van Atta out of the shadows of her disorder.
"Being around people who are aware of and say something to people who are struggling has helped me work through it," she said.
Since she began her recovery, Van Atta is more conscious of what triggered her past eating disorder.
"I can't be around people who talk about counting calories or who constantly criticize their bodies or other people's bodies," she said.
Instead of dieting, she practices mindful eating.
"I eat when I'm hungry and I don't eat when I'm not," she said. "I eat food that's good for me but also food that makes me happy - like ice cream. I don't have negative emotions about food anymore."
Along with sharing her story, Van Atta intends to use her experience to help people with eating disorders in inpatient treatment facilities and talk to school-aged children about body image, she said.
"Overcoming this not only made her stronger, but it inspired her to help others find the strength to conquer struggles in their life," said Sanchez.
After combating a negative body image for most of her life, Van Atta is telling her story to voice to others they are not alone.
"Everyone deserves help no matter what," she said.
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