It wasn't too long ago that Julia Schaeffer consumed only 300 calories a day.
She also refused to spend time with anyone, gave up on sleep and skipped classes to make time for exercise. Dance to gym to rehearsals to work and back to the gym — that was a typical day in her life.
Social gatherings were another no-no because they included food and allowed people to notice and comment on her abnormal choices.
"I couldn't concentrate in school, and I could barely hold a coherent conversation with my friends," Schaeffer, 22, recounted. "I would wake up in the morning and not want to get out of bed because I felt so stuck in my disorder."
Bulimia nervosa — that was the disorder that dominated her life, trapping her somewhere between restricting her meals, overeating and purging. As her conditioned worsened, Schaeffer began basing her sense of control on the scale. Dissatisfied with losing 10 pounds, she shed another 10, weighing herself repeatedly every day.
"I hated myself," she admitted. "My head kept telling me how ugly and disgusting I was."
Although still in high school, Schaeffer was overrun by a feeling of worthlessness until she first encountered Irvina Kanarek at Rock Harbor church in Costa Mesa.
As the founder and executive director of Rewrite Beautiful, a nonprofit that educates youths about eating disorders, Kanarek drew Schaeffer out of her self-imposed isolation. She soon went on to be the group's public relations intern.
Established in 2010, Rewrite Beautiful is poised to host "Transformation," an art show at the Island Hotel Newport Beach on Saturday. Attendees at the third annual event can participate in a silent auction that benefits eating disorder education at middle and high schools and colleges.
'I saw a couple of them die'
Jeannette Encinias, 32, of Laguna Beach, is an artist who has not only contributed work every year, but was also Kanarek's editor for her recent book, "How To: Rewrite Beautiful." Her pieces feature the words "brave," "wisdom" and "from within" painted on canvases.
"I wanted to create reminders ... things I knew to be true, but that, for one reason or another, we forget from time to time," Encinias said. "I could see that even in the moments when my best girlfriends (or myself) felt weak, they possessed such fortitude, and maybe just a few words, a little note of strength, could help put one foot in front of the other. So, the work was really created out of a belief in the women in my life and a fierce belief in myself."
Saturday's gathering provides insight into Kanarek's thought process as she supports and nurtures young women in their search for unique talents. She intends to show them that they can contribute to society with inherent skills, regardless of their physical appearances.
Until three years ago, Kanarek, 30, split her time between three jobs: a nanny, a teacher at the Irvine Fine Arts Center and a counselor at The Victorian, a women's eating disorder and addiction treatment center in Newport Beach.
"The arts students would be over- and undereating and exercising on their breaks," she said. "I'd go to rehab and see women, between 18 and 70 years old, who were educated and affluent ... going through divorces, and I saw a couple of them die. And then, I'd go back to take care of the baby, realizing that this is the world she will be welcomed into."
So, she decided to kickstart a conversation about eating disorders — a mental illness, which, she finds, forces people to justify actions as they would an addiction. A prevention program is key, Kanarek said, to increase exposure so people can look out for the disease's signs before it escalates.
Looking past the surface
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their lives. The number is likely higher because many cases are unreported. The knowledge that 42% of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner while a staggering 81% of 10-year-olds fear becoming fat has reinforced Kanarek's determination to respond to these learned behaviors by sharing that beauty lies in creativity, kindness and strength.
Likening her temerity to that of street artists — they place pieces in locations regardless of permission and believe in the value of their work even in the absence of a formal education and positive feedback — Kanarek said she is unperturbed. Her plan includes hosting 60-minute assemblies, featuring a documentary and live testimonies, at local schools and organizations, such as Girls, Inc., Sober Living by the Sea and Ensign Intermediate School. In the second half of these sessions, participants are asked to express what they believe makes them beautiful via art.
As cheer coach and adviser at Costa Mesa High School, Kori Johnson, 41, works closely with teenagers, taking note of perspectives about body image and self-esteem. She said that after Kanarek's presentation, many girls decided to focus more on their own, and their friends', inner versus outer traits.
"Young girls need someone to talk to — they need positive role models," Johnson said. "When I was younger, no one talked about eating disorders ... It is great to have a group that will go in and talk to girls before issues may arise in their lives and they can remember what they heard and learn from it. [Hearing] true survivors tell their heartfelt and honest struggle might just save a life."
No more skipping lunch
Morgan Goldstein's was one such life, but a few of her friends were not as lucky.
The UC Irvine student recalls watching middle school classmates skipping lunch because they'd eaten a bowl of cereal for breakfast with milk that had 2% fat. Listening to mothers chastise their children for eating Cheetos, she fell headlong into the same mindset, lying, obsessing about her body mass index and wanting to eat and weigh less than those who surrounded her. Simultaneously, she lashed out at her family and friends with increasing regularity and vehemence.
"If they weren't as concerned with me ... they'd have no reason to pay close attention to my eating habits or to be concerned about my health and well-being," she recalled telling herself.
Eventually, though, the anxiety became too much and helped her free herself from the grips of the problem. She scared herself out of it, she remarked. It was only after she got involved with Rewrite Beautiful that she regained her confidence and friends. Now, Goldstein serves as a "Beautiful Actionista" for her campus community. Having been similarly embattled, she cherishes every opportunity to uplift people's views of themselves — a change she knows will reinvigorate their spirits.
"While I still have thoughts that are disordered, I don't act on them," she said. "If I feel like I'm going to do something I shouldn't, I distract myself with friends, homework, TV, etc. I don't feel bullied by those negative thoughts anymore. I still have them, but they don't control me. I control them."
Meanwhile, Encinias, who is discomfited by the limited representation of beauty on billboards, advertisements, magazine spreads and elsewhere, is vying for a more holistic approach.
"We are intricate and complex — tender, strong, brave, fearful, inspired, resourceful, full of hope and love — and in these attributes lies our beauty," Encinias said. "How beautiful is your heart? How beautiful is your perspective? How beautifully do you help out your fellow human being? ... It never hurt anybody to clean up and look your best. But looking nice is only one way of honoring ourselves. It's the light behind our eyes and within our bodies that really matters."
If You Go
Where: Island Hotel Newport Beach, 690 Newport Center Drive
When: 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $35 pre-sale; $45 at the door