Woman to Woman: A Candid Conversation on Body Image

Producer Alyonka Larionov and plus-size model Leah Vernon discuss their struggles with eating disorders

“When I see you, I experience someone who is so aware of their body, I almost wish that through osmosis, I could feel that way, too,” says Alyonka Larionov, a slender woman with fine, blond hair. “I’m curious — what do you see when you see me?”

Larionov looks across the table, and her piercing blue eyes lock on Leah Vernon, a full-figured black woman whose hair is wrapped in a black turban, a representation of her Islamic faith.

“First impression, I thought, ‘She’s a thin, white woman,’ ” Vernon says with a laugh. “When I started talking to you, it was a different level. I thought, ‘She’s really intuitive.’ And that she’s beautiful and striking.”

“I don’t feel any of that,” Larionov says. “And for some people, being a skinny white girl is a privilege and exciting and wonderful and yet, it’s been the worst experience of my life.”

Within a short time, the two women have developed a genuine camaraderie and fondness for one another despite their vast differences. Vernon, a fast-talking spitfire, self-identifies as being rambunctious, while Larionov is soft-spoken, often emphasizing her most poignant statements with a whisper.

Aside from their ages — both women turn 31 this year — Larionov and Vernon have little in common. But what binds them is their struggle with isolating — and in Larionov’s instance, life-threatening — eating disorders.

Larionov and Vernon’s unhealthy eating habits were rooted in a similar source: complex family histories. Larionov’s father, Igor Larionov, is a pillar in Detroit’s sports circuit as one of the Red Wings’ Russian Five; her mother, Elena Batanova, is a former figure skater. Admittedly, the pressure to live up to the expectations of such chiseled parents contributed to her illness.

One year into recovery from a severe case of anorexia nervosa, Larionov encourages men and women to share their personal stories within intimate, safe spaces through her podcast, Tell Your Story, and guided workshops across the country.

“Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of individuals with eating disorders are ‘normal’ weight or higher,” says Dr. Suzanne Dooley-Hash, medical director of The Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor. “Anorexia nervosa is the least common and affects 0.5-1 percent of the U.S. population versus as many as 10 percent for binge eating disorder.”

Vernon’s mother was a single parent and struggled with an eating disorder of her own. “My mom had a lot of eating issues that she put on us girls, which is why my sisters [and I] have eating issues, too,” Vernon says. “She was sexually assaulted when she was younger, so I think food was a control thing for her.”

After a years long battle with binge eating and body image issues beginning in her teenage years, Vernon has since joined the body-positive movement as a plus-size model and blogger, posting messages of self-love to over 25,000 followers on Instagram and YouTube.

Knowing that they’d be photographed for this feature, the fashion-forward duo color-coordinated outfits — Larionov in a slouchy, cropped black sweater that revealed a sliver of her stomach, and Vernon in a figure-hugging black dress — both owning their respective sizes. Standing side by side, they couldn’t look more different, a striking reminder that the perils of eating disorders and body image issues do not discriminate.

Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Alyonka Larionov: How would you describe your body?

Leah Vernon: There are two sides: the parts that I love and the parts that I hate. I like to describe my body as strong and voluptuous. On the other side, there’s my forehead, my thighs, my big feet. Those are the kinds of things that I got teased for when I was younger.

AL: I, too have two versions of my body. There’s the eating disordered version; ironically, when I was fully in my anorexia, I loved my body. I loved how sharp my bones felt. I felt light and like I could do anything. But when I step back into full recovery, I recognize that I have more power in my body. I’m able to feed my organs and nourish my brain. Unfortunately, right now, I just feel really big — which I realize is not real or realistic.

LV: When I had my eating disorder — I wouldn’t call it anorexia, but I was cutting calories down to the bare minimum and went from less eating to no eating at all — even though I was losing weight, I still hated my body.

AL: In hindsight, I felt beautiful in small spurts but I always thought I was fat. It’s only now that I can look at old photos of myself emaciated and think, “My God, I was that thin?” I literally thought I was obese at that time. Where did you get the idea of what a body should look like?

“Eating disorders are highly heritable. Research has shown the that risk of development of an ED can be explained by genetics in 28-74 percent of those with anorexia nervosa and 42-57 percent of those with BED.” —SDH

LV: Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. Those were my two favorite magazines. I want to say Gwen Stefani was on the cover of Seventeen. Britney Spears was on one [of the covers]. They all wore these low hip-huggers where you could see their muscles and the bones on their hips. I was just like, “Damn, it’s going to take a lot of starvation to get bones there.”

AL: Social media has taken what seeing Britney on the cover of Rolling Stone was for us growing up, and making any f***ing girl “thinspo.” Only now, you can access it all the time, which is devastating.

LV: Yeah, you have all of these Photoshopped images, the blur feature, ways to make your thigh gap gappier. [Laughs] And then there are the trolls. I’ve had people reach out to say how disgusting I was. To say that I promote obesity. That I should die because I’m fat. But on the flip side of social media, it’s also given light to a lot of activists and plus-size models like me.

AL: Was there anyone in your life who knew about your eating disorder?

LV: No. If my friends were eating, I’d say, “I’m on a diet.” Or, “I’ll eat later.”

AL: I’d do the same thing. I’d show up to a dinner and say I already ate, or, I’d just show up when people finished eating. Did people really not know, or were they just so fearful of speaking about it? Because I do think that it’s a topic that people don’t feel comfortable bringing up. Did anyone ever say to you, “Hey, Leah, you have a problem”?

“Individuals with eating disorders are often reluctant to reveal their illness due to shame and the stigma of mental illness. Many people with EDs get positive feedback for their initial weight loss, which reinforces their behaviors and increases the drive to continue on the ED path. The average length of time from onset of illness to diagnosis is five to seven years.” —SDH

LV: Nope. I got congratulated [for being smaller]. I got more attention from boys. Girls wanted to talk to me. You get all this attention and positive affirmations when inside, you’re dead.

AL: It’s like, “You look great!”

LV: Right. I didn’t feel great. But I didn’t tell people that. You never say, “Well, I self-harm. I have migraines all the time. I’m always hungry.” You just say, “Thanks so much. I drink a lot of water and changed my lifestyle.” I guess it’s shame.

AL: For me, it was that if I said it out loud, it would give life to the problem. Admitting it meant I had to take a step to get healthy, which means I have to gain weight, which means, I don’t want to go there. And the physical ailments that come along with abusing your body — the migraines, the bruises, breaking bones left and right, the loss of menstruation — as much as they’re painful, they’re also exciting. Because that means you’re skinny.

LV: Because you’re getting the outcome. My hair started to thin out and I used to think that if I didn’t have a migraine that day, that I was eating too much.

AL: I grew hair on my face and on my back. It’s a telltale sign of severe anorexia nervosa.

LV: The body is fascinating. That’s why I’m a part of the body-positive movement. You can do all this [stuff] to your body and it still breathes for you. It’s like, ungrateful to f*** around with it. Treat your body good. Put good things in it; it deserves it.

AL: Did you intermittently have binge days?

LV: Yes, my binge days were usually Fridays. I would go to all of these fast-food restaurants and binge and in my head I’d be like, “Tomorrow you’ll go back on your diet.” Every Friday, I’d be so sick after eating all the food.

“The severe dietary restriction that is part of anorexia creates a nutrition deficit that impacts our bodies on the cellular level, making our bones weaker, our immune systems less vibrant, and our endocrine system more askew,” says Julie Feldman, MPH, RDN, a dietician based in West Bloomfield. “The body acts to protect itself in this state of starvation by doing things like growing hair to protect against heat loss that is associated with severe weight loss. It takes calcium from our bones to maintain cardiac and muscle function, but often leaves bones brittle and weak.”

AL: Your Friday was my Sunday. I remember eating a whole tray of brownies. I’d have to get through all of it before it hit midnight, and then Monday, I’d run 7 miles and starve myself again. I still have this fear of Sundays. Not the typical Sunday scaries like everyone else, but the Sunday scaries of, “don’t try something that’s too delicious just in case it spirals you out of control.” Even in recovery, I’m very cognizant of what I’m eating. I have not stepped into food being desirable yet.

LV: That’s why I don’t diet, because of the fear of over-dieting. I don’t even use that word. It actually triggers me. I use “healthy eating,” or “cutting back.” And I’m always in the gym.

AL: During my eating disorder, I abused the gym. I’m just doing yoga now so that I don’t over-exercise.

LV: It took a long time [to grab hold of my eating disordered ways]. I really feel like it was the modeling. One day, a friend tricked me into modeling turbans and things changed. Yeah, my double chin’s in there and I don’t love my body, but the pictures were dope. It gave me the confidence to be carefree in shoots and in life. Modeling took me to this place of self-love by forcing me to look at myself in an artistic way.

AL: How do you describe fat? I’m so fearful of that word. But I don’t see you carrying it in the way that I carry fat.

LV: Fat, to me, is a lifestyle. I will always be fat. Even at my smallest, I was still fat. Even though I’m stronger, I’m still fat. So, when people ask me to use words to describe myself, I always add that in. We were all made in different sizes, shapes, forms. It makes life easier when we accept the physical attributes that we’ve been given. It’s a powerful word, but if you reclaim it, [the power] transfers back to you.

AL: I have a friend who walks around her apartment in a thong. She has curves and cellulite and just enjoys life. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say anything negative about her body, and I’m always like, “I wish I could be like you!”

LV: It’s funny because a friend said to me, “When I first saw you at this event, you walked in like you owned every person in this b****.”

AL: I love that! [Laughs]

LV: But it took some growth. It started with little things. I was like, “Look in the mirror for 30 seconds every day. Wear something that you wouldn’t wear — without a shaper. If someone comes up to dance with you, dance with them.” Now, it’s natural. When I go out dancing, I get in the middle of the floor. It’s OK to be the center of attention. You have to be able to dive into your fears. So basically, what I need you to do is wear a thong outside. [Laughs] I’ll have one on, too, so you can see all my cellulite.

AL: The day we do a shoot where we’re showing our bodies will be a huge success for me. I’m going to put that out in the universe.

“Research tells us that the risks associated with [BED] include the same risk factors as obesity, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, increased cardiovascular risk, Type II diabetes mellitus, and gallbladder disease. From my standpoint, the greatest risk associated with binge eating is the impact it has on self-esteem and well-being. Bingeing is most often a secret that creates a great deal of isolation for many sufferers. It has all of the negative emotional and mental consequences of anorexia, coupled often with weight gain and depression.” —JF

LV: To wrap up, what would you tell the girl who was in the eating disorder that maybe she didn’t know to help other people, as well?

AL: What people don’t realize is that there is a tipping point in your eating disorder where you are able to turn a corner and get out of it. But because it’s such an isolating illness, we are fearful to speak our truth and when we see the exit sign, we make a hard right into the mouth of the eating disorder. [My tipping point was] almost dying. I was going to either die or live — and death sounded scary.

LV: Death is scary. Living is sometimes scary, too. But you chose life and I’m glad you did.

AL: Thank you. If you are struggling with your body or with the way that you are consuming food, if you are restricting or over-eating, if you’re doing anything where you’re abusing your body — and you know when you’re abusing your body — talk to somebody. There are like-minded people out there who can be supportive. And I would nudge you to get professional help. Because I think there’s this fear of losing control, but in fact, you gain such control over your life when you let go of your eating disorder. And you’re not alone.

LV: When you’re at your lowest, having someone say that your feelings are valid is amazing.

AL: That’s all we really want. Like this conversation; it was so therapeutic. I feel like I’m going to be OK!

LV: You will.

To schedule an appointment at The Center for Eating Disorders, visit center4ed.org; for dietary support, Feldman can be reached at thrivenutritioncounseling.com.

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