By Molly Brice
Adjusting her headset, Joanna Kuang assesses the crowd in the studio, recognizing her regular attendees and noticing new faces.
Kuang, a junior majoring in psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill and an aspiring psychiatrist, teaches weekly Pilates classes at Rams Head Recreation Center. On Sundays, she teaches her Pop Pilates class, a more cardio-intensive and lively version of traditional Pilates.
Kuang’s thick black hair is tied neatly in a ponytail. The studio’s hardwood floor is covered by yoga mats with only small spaces peeking out between each participant. Even from the back of the studio, participants notice her contoured arms and toned legs.
“The first few times was absolute terror,” Kuang said. “I felt like I was drowning.” That old but familiar trace of fear sits heavily in her stomach when she teaches a new section of choreography.
Throughout the class, attendees watch Kuang closely to mimic her actions. Their inescapable glances follow Kuang with every subtle movement — any way she turns, she sees the reflection of their eyes in the studio’s mirrors.
Seven years earlier, Kuang would have shuddered at the idea of putting herself on display.
The slippery slope
Like most high school freshmen, Kuang took biology. The teacher assigned a calorie counting lab that required students to track their food intake over a week.
“No one came out of that lab understanding anything new about nutrition,” Kuang said. “All they knew was that they were eating too many calories.”
“At first, I wanted to see how low I could get it and then it just sort of spiraled from there,” Kuang said. Like many people that suffer from anorexia, Kuang’s experience began with a quiet voice encouraging her to lose a couple of pounds, run a little more and eat a bit less.
“I’ve always been very hard on myself,” Kuang said. “When I want something, I go for it.” Kuang’s internal drive has consistently motivated her to go the extra mile or two or three.
“Look at her Google calendar,” said Reeves Moseley, a junior who has been elected UNC-CH’s next student body president. “She is the epitome of a workhorse.”
In addition to managing Moseley’s campaign, Kuang has several other commitments: a part-time internship at the AHB Center for Behavioral Health and Wellness, a position on UNC Student Government’s mental health committee and a role as a research assistant with the department of psychology and neuroscience.
“She works her butt off and never does anything halfway,” Sally Hammer, Kuang’s coworker at UNC-CH’s Student Recreation Center, said.
Unfortunately, the same drive that has allowed Kuang to succeed in so many ways also detrimentally led to her eating disorder.
“It’s a very slippery slope and all of a sudden you can’t stop,” Kuang said.
Eating disorders develop gradually: skipping meals with friends, hiding food in napkins, lying about how much or how little one is eating, even diluting liquids to reduce calories.
Kuang learned to mix her milk with water, a tactic that allowed her to follow her mom’s rule of one glass of milk per day without the added calories. After experimenting, she found the appropriate ratio of water that kept the milk’s distinctive white color.
Kuang worked through lunches in the library to avoid the questioning look of friends. She was happier alone where she could control what she was eating.
“Of course, this was reinforced because I would get compliments,” Kuang said, explaining how concerned friends also commended her slender figure and six-pack.
Journey toward recovery
This self-esteem high came to a crashing halt when Kuang’s body began to show physical signs of its malnourishment.
“My body just started to shut down,” Kuang said.
Her hair, brittle from protein depletion, fell out. Her skin, callous from deficient vitamin intake, dried. Usually an exuberant person, Kuang felt her energy drain and her mood sadden. Sprains wouldn’t heal. No matter the temperature, Kuang felt a lingering cold in her bones that she couldn’t shake.
At the end of her freshman year, Kuang was diagnosed with anorexia. As her friends traveled — eating whatever, whenever and however they pleased — Kuang’s parents monitored and prepared every one of her meals.
“I was on a weight regaining journey,” Kuang said. As the rest of her family ate a bagel with cream cheese and eggs, Kuang ate two bagels, double the serving of eggs, a piece of fruit and an extra glass of milk poured by her mother. After a year of restricted eating, Kuang felt physically pained by this new diet.
Eating disorder treatment is a long, arduous process of unlearning thought patterns and breaking detrimental habits. Eating and food is often only half the battle.
“I couldn’t do anything that might resemble calorie burning,” Kuang said, “because they knew I would take it to an extreme.”
Doctors advised Kuang to limit physical activity to the bare minimum. She could no longer run. She couldn’t even walk around the block.
Behind closed doors, Kuang broke these rules. She retreated to her bedroom, locking the door, the doctor’s orders, her parents and the world out. Before falling asleep, Kuang would climb on her bed and start doing the math in her head, counting the number of crunches she’d need to do to compensate for the day’s calories.
“Of course it did nothing, but it was psychologically soothing,” Kuang said.
When Kuang started college at UNC-CH, she was in a relapse prevention phase. This stage, as defined by the National Eating Disorders Association, is associated with the continued treatment of an eating disorder, which can be a chronic condition.
Kuang wants to eat everything in sight some days, while on others, the sight, smell or even thought of food may feel overwhelming. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have an average relationship with food,” Kuang admitted.
At first, Kuang felt uncomfortable by the idea of a room full of people assessing her body’s movements during her Pop Pilates classes. Now, she embraces it.
“I think it’s been very healthy for my body image because I’m having to put myself and my body on display for people,” she said.
Panting internally, Kuang harnesses the adrenaline coursing through her muscles to push through the final workout. Kuang’s participants come to her class for the workout, but also her authenticity and ability to connect with her peers.
“One thing I really like about Jo is she’ll say when something hurts or is hard,” Jordan Killenberg, a UNC-CH sophomore and Pop Pilates attendee, said. “It really feels like she is taking the class with us.”
Winding down, Kuang cues a slower song and starts to lead the stretches. To close her classes, she praises her attendees’ efforts, reminding them to feel grateful for their bodies’ hard work.
Smiling, she looks out at their sweaty, reddened faces. “They’re looking to me for guidance,” Kuang said. “Being able to celebrate what my body is capable of doing is much more important than feeling self-conscious.”
Edited by Rachel Crumpler and Maddie Fetsko