Taking back spaces: from eating disorder to empowering others

By Jazmine Bunch

Ariana Greenwood sat at the front of the Anne Queen Lounge in the Campus Y, with a little more than 70 white faces staring back at her.

“These struggles aren’t limited to thin, white women,” Justis Mitchell said, after sharing his journey with the dangers of diet culture and masculinity.

Ari scanned the crowd while listening to the other panelists.

She agreed to share her story at Embody Carolina’s diversity panel on eating disorders, especially because—after surveying the audience and seeing the few brown women scattered among mostly white, sorority women—she knew her story wasn’t one commonly told.

“Don’t think of eating disorders only in terms of the common image; a super skinny white woman,” Martina Ugarte said.

Panelist two of three. The narratives were so similar, yet, their experiences were still so different, Ari thought.

Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine being in this space. Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine waiting anxiously as she mentally crafted how she’d share her experience with binge eating disorder, because just a few years ago she couldn’t even imagine herself, her black body, experiencing it.

Her time to imagine ran out, because this was her reality and it was her turn. So, she began talking.


Haunted by size

Her disorder began with the desire to take up less space. One day, when she was in sixth grade, they weighed all the students in her gym class. She’d been weighed before, but hearing her smaller classmates share their sizes haunted her.

“Oh my gosh, something’s wrong,” she thought. “I just need to be smaller.”

From that day forward, she did so much to focus on her body and lost so much of her life in doing so.

Ari is Jamaican and Costa Rican, and she grew up with her Costa Rican family in Tampa, Florida. In a city full of beach days, it was easy for Ari to skate by her family with intense workouts and restrictive eating. She threw herself into the world of high school sports. Her family never suspected a thing, and she honestly didn’t even realize that what she was doing would be the beginning of a mental battle with her body.

Although her family didn’t know her intentions, she grew up surrounded by what she now recognizes as toxic diet culture. She’d spend hours in the gym attempting to burn off her body as easy as calories, and she’d come home to enabling.

You look great. You look so good. I’m so proud of you.

Those words were lighter fluid. She hid in plain sight and tried to lessen herself—lessen her body—while her family praised her for it.

“It starts off as a lack of control, which is why we try to control everything,” she said. “Controlling everything that I put in my body and trying to form myself into this idea I have. Like, going to the gym every day was something I could control, and if I missed it, my world would fall apart.”

It began with clothing; wearing things to accentuate the parts she liked and looser items to hide the parts she didn’t. Then came extensive cardio at the gym. Then it got to a point where she was restricting severely during the week, and when she was alone and no one was watching, she’d binge on the weekends.

She was trapped in a cycle of restricting and bingeing, saying no through the week and unable to say anything but yes on the weekends.

Her weight has fluctuated throughout the years, and she’s missed memorable moments because of the disorder. Senior prom is supposed to be one of the happiest teenage memories, but all she remembers is how her black prom dress didn’t fall in all the right places and screaming at her mom to stop snapping pictures.


Running, then recovery

She wanted to take some parts of her life back. Going into her first year at Carolina, she adjusted her mindset: Smaller, but healthier. The plan failed, and sophomore year she hit a low point. She studied abroad in Costa Rica to run away and get better.

Instead she ran head-on into her problems. She sat on the beautiful resorts of Costa Rica being totally consumed by everyone’s much smaller bodies. When she returned home, she knew that she needed help. Junior year, she began active recovery.

She walked up to the building marked “Still Frames Therapy and Wellness” as it seemingly towered over her. Here, she’d willingly visit a psychologist for the first time.

“It was tough, for sure super tough. Tougher than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I had just been in denial for so long.”

But the inside was more comfortable. There were nice couches, white noise and her therapist was a black woman.

The office wasn’t quite home but it reminded her of feeling safe. Like when she’s in her white bedroom underneath her purple comforter, sneaking a glance at the reflection in the gigantic mirror she used to dread looking at every morning. Or when she sees Brooke Wheeler, a gym buddy-turned-best friend who’s recovering from anorexia nervosa. They met sophomore year and their friendship has been a journey of facing fear food, tackling gym milestones, and overwhelming support and love.

“We wish we would’ve met each other sooner, but we’re glad that we didn’t,” Brooke said, “because if we would’ve met each other when we were sick, our dynamic would’ve been completely different.”


Positivity and empowerment

Ari’s surrounded herself with people who’ve been positive to her recovery. Although her senior year has consisted of finding the parts of herself that she lost in her binge eating disorder, according to close friend, Brijea Daniel, there are still some things that never change.

“She’s definitely the positive friend,” she said. “Ari’s outlook on life is very positive all the time. She’s always there for us. She’s the mom of the group, and always making sure everybody’s good.”

For Halloween, her friend group dressed as the four seasons. It was no question that Ari would be spring because her “springy personality” was reminiscent of growth and new beginnings, Brijea said. Draped in light greenery and pastel blossoms and butterflies, Ari brought springtime to October.

Ari leads a Women in Weights class every Tuesday and Thursday evening in partnership with Campus Recreation. Although her journey to teach other women to lift has been empowering, her most powerful moment was maxing her squat at 225, with no one other than Brooke by her side.

This scale can only give you a numerical reflection of your relationship with gravity, That’s it. It cannot measure beauty, talent, purpose, life force, possibility, strength or love.   

Five months before she was officially diagnosed, Ari glanced at the Pinterest quote before leaving the caption empty and pressing the share button on Instagram for 1,442 followers to see. But the true receiver of that message was herself.

“I’m reminded that my body is a vessel,” she said. “It’s what’s in it that’s the most important thing.”

Her story is no glorified Lifetime movie, with decaying food in the closet or hopeless moments of dry heaving in the bathroom. It’s just a black girl trying to learn to love what her body can do, not what it looks like.

Once she was done talking, now sitting a little taller in front of all those white women who may or may not ever resonate with her story, Ari felt empowered that she shared it for the scattered brown girls in the crowd who may have never heard it otherwise.


Edited by Meredith Radford