April 22nd, 2009
06:53 PM ET

All for a sash and a crown

By Jessica Silvaggio
CNN Medical Intern

When I was a freshman at the University of South Carolina, I became a peer health educator. The health topics we promoted on campus included body image and eating disorders. This hit home for me.

Since I was 13 I have been competing in beauty pageants. One pageant director told me I would never win if I didn’t lose 20 pounds. I obsessed about my weight, cut my 1,200-calorie diet in half, and worked out twice a day. All of this just to be the girl who walked down the runway, waving, with the bouquet in my arms and the crown on my head. When I came to college I compared myself with other girls on campus, continued to count calories and wore oversized clothes to hide what I thought was a heavy body, which, in fact, was far from true. I just didn’t like the way I looked.

According to the University of California Davis, approximately 15 percent of college women and a rising number of men suffer from eating disorders. A distorted body image and dieting can contribute to eating disorders. Two ruling passions in my life were too little food and too much exercise. This had to stop.  Surely there was a way to build confidence and feel good about my body. I had to strive to value myself for other strengths such as intelligence, my outgoing personality and dancing abilities.

While training as a peer health educator, I learned to cope with my unattainable pursuit of perfection. I realized I had to learn to praise myself and have a positive attitude to boost my self-esteem. Exercise was good for me but not for weight loss – instead to reduce stress, promote strength, balance, and flexibility. I learned that eating well-balanced meals was healthier than cutting calories. And support from friends and family members was vital.

After seeking counseling on campus and realizing that God had blessed me with a healthy body, I was able to educate my peers on an issue that was personal. I have overcome my body image battle. Through the process, I learned that I have to be comfortable in my own genes or should I say jeans?

Do you have an issue with your body image? We’d like to hear about it.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Jamie


    April 23, 2009 at 00:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Jerry

    Wow! Very powerful story. Keep up the good work both with yourself and your great blogs.

    April 23, 2009 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Tanya Ruff

    I am so proud of you!!!! Great blog and so true for many women, not just college freshmen.

    April 23, 2009 at 08:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Steve Norman

    Ms. Silvaggio..very good words for the wise. Thank you for sharing your experiences, may we pass this advice to our younger generation for them to consider. I truely appreciate your previous blogs here, you have a great future ahead of you!

    April 23, 2009 at 12:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Emily Brandenburg

    Really well written! So true! :o) Great job at overcoming and realizing that being positive and eating healthy is more important than counting calories!

    April 23, 2009 at 17:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Rob, California

    How sad that this continues to be a problem in this "enlightened" age. This affects women far more than men. Until men learn that women come in all shapes and sizes, and can see potential relationships beyond the phyical appearance of a woman, it will continue to be a problem. Sadly, I have known some plainly average looking, dumpy men, who had unrealistic expectations of what a woman should like. And kudos to my guy friends who like women of all shapes and sizes.

    April 23, 2009 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. John

    Jessica's narrative exposes how self-defeating thoughts about one's esteem can impose horrible consequences on both the body and the mind until a healthy approach to life is adopted and put into practice. How ironic that life can be reduced to a treadmill when execise machines are relied upon as a source for happiness and contentment! This author should be grateful she has arrived at such positive conclusions while in college; far too many women (& men) in their fifties have never learned and thus are padding the wallets of plastic surgeons in the never ending quest for acceptance. If only these individuals could shift their focus outward instead of cashing their lives dowward into the quicksand of superficiality!

    April 23, 2009 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Ellie07

    While I wouldn't say I have a severe issue, I would say I have a mild issue concerning my body image. It's difficult not to compare yourself to other women who may be slimmer, leaner, more toned, or younger looking. At thirty-years-old, it can also be difficult not to buy into all of the "alterations" one can begin making to oneself or thinking about making.

    I find it's very helpful to be as objective as possible. Am I at a healthy weight and eating healthfully? Am I working out a healthy amount? Am I healthy for my body's frame, type and age? For me, a list-maker, it's easier to make a list of when to work out based on official sources, and what to eat, when (from official sources, of course). I also follow the rule of "everything in moderation", so if I want ice cream or cake, I'll have some provided it's an appropriate serving size (typically a small) and it's not everyday. I also keep a watch out for emotional eating and have found regular, healthy amounts of exercise help with this issue. When you have issues with body image, I've found it's better to do things more so "by the book".

    I make being healthy my first priority, only taking advice from trusted sources i.e. my doctor and her suggested websites, and not going by the size of clothing, but rather how I look and feel in my clothing. There is nothing you can do about your frame size, or certain areas that may be bigger or smaller on your body, and I think the healthiest thing one can do is accept oneself.

    April 28, 2009 at 11:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.