Having Struggled with an Eating Disorder, Kamila Tan Now Helps Others Erase the Stigma of an Unhealthy Body Image

Body talk.

“As my heart started to beat slower and slower, I felt it skipping beats and my body slipping into severe panic attacks,” shares Kamila Tan, a Hermosa Beach professional beach volleyball player. “In the middle of the night I would wake up drenched in sweat, feeling my heart beating far too slowly—and that’s when I felt I was close to death.”

Kamila suffers from anorexia nervosa. As a defense mechanism, when the body is not adequately nourished, the heart rate slows down.

“I felt the need to conform to societal and athletic beauty standards. I needed to be ripped, lean and fit into a mold to be loved, accepted and successful,” says Kamila. With more than two years of treatment and counseling, she now knows that her relationship with her body is life-or-death.

“Everyone should prioritize their internal physical health instead of their external physical appearance. We are human. We are meant to live fully. We are not meant to be caged in obsession over food, exercise or unrealistic body standards.”

Weight is a societal obsession prevalent in all facets of our lives. Daily messages are riddled with covert and overt, implicit and explicit biases that result in compensatory behaviors to control our body image. Living in an athletic, health-conscious beach community can intensify body image disorders for some.

Over time, compensatory behaviors such as not eating, binging, purging, restrictive eating, omitting foods, only eating clean foods and/or over-exercising can become associated with serious medical complications and psychosocial impairments. Haily Humphrey, Kamila’s post-treatment counselor at UC San Diego’s Eating Disorders Center, explains that overly restricting foods and over-exercise have become increasingly common as well as socially accepted. Often these types of behaviors are seen as a status symbol.

Kamila transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, to play beach volleyball. As she slipped into restrictive eating, she received more and more compliments on her body weight. Tori Adams, her UCLA roommate and best friend, explains that Kamila was “outwardly confident and bubbly.”

It is not uncommon for friends and families to be unaware that someone is suffering from an eating disorder. Their tortured relationship with food and body image is mixed with shame and guilt, adding to more conflicting behaviors.

As a child, Kamila suffered social anxiety and difficulty communicating with her peers. She turned to binging near the end of high school and increased the behavior in her early college years. Gradually she moved toward more restrictive eating and excessive exercise later in college.

Kamila has always felt that her body didn’t look like all the other girls. Beauty standards portrayed in the media showcase a thin body, and she took the message that a slimmer body is a healthier body. As an athlete, however, a healthy body is a healthy body—not just a thin body. Consequently, looking in the mirror became increasingly impossible for Kamila.

“When I was playing volleyball, it felt like a lot of effort for my heart to beat faster,” she remembers. “At work, I would get dizzy at random moments.”

Ready to seek treatment, she first reached out to her mom. “I knew I couldn’t do it by myself. In the next week, I was hospitalized and my heart was monitored 24-7.” Initially hospitalized with anorexia nervosa, she soon identified as bulimia nervosa after a critical look at her compensatory behaviors over time.

Now with a master’s degree in public health from UCLA, Kamila is dedicated to helping others find ways to accept their bodies. Recovery taught her important coping skills she hopes will serve others. As a public speaker, she advocates for mental health and wellness.

“Everyone should prioritize their internal physical health instead of their external physical appearance,” she says. “We are human. We are meant to live fully. We are not meant to be caged in obsession over food, exercise or unrealistic body standards. Life is too short.”

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