Meet Kate Leddy: Eating Disorder Survivor Directing 'What's Eating Katie'

In my first month as a college freshman at UMass Amherst, I found myself sobbing on the floor in the meeting room of a group called Active Minds, which aims to raise awareness and reduce the stigma about mental illness. I was surrounded by students I hardly knew, messily mopping up the smudged mascara underneath my eyes and opening up about something I only recently had the courage to admit to myself: I have been struggling with anorexia nervosa since I was 15 years old. Four years, several healed bone fractures and over 40 pounds gained later, I thought I was completely better. I finished high school at the top of my class, I had a job, I was a runner, I had beautiful friends and family members, and I was doing well adjusting to college life. I was happier than I’d ever been in a long time—but something didn’t feel quite right.

I realized I was feeling loss. A tremendous sense of loss—I wasted the past 19 years of my life critiquing myself until I destroyed myself and was forced to put the pieces back together. After I spoke, another girl told me about her struggle with an eating disorder. Her name was Kate Leddy, and she is currently directing a play for her senior thesis about a college student’s struggle with disordered eating. Kate’s passion about the stigma of mental illness inspired me, especially when she addressed the idea that people often don’t receive help because they feel they aren’t “sick enough.” The concept of being "sick enough" struck me, and I wanted a way to reach out to the many college students that do not receive treatment for their mental illnesses and eating disorders. I also wanted to know more about Kate’s project and her past experiences, so I introduced myself after the meeting was over, and we agreed to talk.

Her Campus: Can you describe your background with your eating disorder?

Kate Leddy: I started dieting in eighth grade. It turned into dangerous behaviors by the end of my freshman year of high school. My value automatically became attached to just that weight. I was obsessed with being thin, losing weight and over-exercising. At the same time, I've always been a person that really wants to have control in situations, and it became a control problem. I didn’t have to be the smartest person in my friend group—I felt like I was the best at being thin. I was struggling weight-wise and engaging in a lot of unhealthy behaviors, and my friends tried to intervene. Some people who suffer from eating disorders unfortunately come from really troubled family lives, and I’m fortunate enough to say that wasn’t the case for me. But no parent wants to admit that this is happening to their kid, and for reasons that were understandable at the time, I think my parents didn’t really understand what was happening. They didn’t really see it. Another unfortunate thing—eating disorders can be easy to hide. It was actually my junior year that was the first time I’d admitted I had an eating disorder. I started dating a guy who not only noticed what I was doing, but was more persistent than anyone else had ever been. I honestly owe so much of my recovery to him, because he kept pushing me to see my first therapist. Pretty much all of senior year was my launch into recovery. I was struggling with it for all of high school, but I wasn’t fighting against it until my senior year, and that was when things got even harder. I saw my school therapist, went to an actual psychologist, went to a nutritionist. I got the whole team together.

HC: So for the most part, you consider yourself recovered at this point?

KL: The funny thing is, now I consider myself recovered, but I would say my recovery threshold very recently happened. This time last year, I was struggling a lot with the depression aspect that I hadn’t really dealt with—eating disorders, anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand. I went abroad and that helped my recovery a lot because it forced me to do things that were out of my comfort zone—things I always knew were good for my recovery but never actually did. I used to think this was a sad thing when I would hear people who have recovered say this, but I don’t think it’s a sad thing when I say it now: I don’t think there is such a thing as "fully recovered." It’s just that it’s easy now. There are habits that have been so ingrained in me, and there are a lot of days where that voice is still there and says, "Well, you could do this."  Sometimes it throws me off a little bit, because I was not expecting to have that thought. It’s always going to be with me, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, because I can ignore it now. And that is a reminder of how much stronger I am.

HC: Can you talk about your history with Active Minds?

KL: I went to one of the first meetings my freshman year because I found the club on Campus Pulse. I just remember we had a personal discussion, and something prompted me to raise my hand and talk about my eating disorder. It was huge for me at the time, because I hadn’t told anyone about it, but it was like this safe space. There was another student who approached me when the meeting was over and said, "I admire that you talked about that, I’ve dealt with this too." And we got talking, and a third student joined us, and we had this open conversation about mental illness with each other, and that was what locked me into Active Minds and made me want to get more involved with the club. Second semester freshman year, I was on the Advertising Committee. Sophomore year, I became the president. Junior year, I was president for the first half, and then I studied abroad. Now, I’m actually really excited to just be in the club without the extra stress of organizing stuff.

HC: How is Active Minds involved with the play you’re directing for your senior thesis?

KL: This is entirely a student project. Since it is just me—I’m with the Public Health Department, but I’m in charge of my funds—Active Minds has been very kind to donate some money, book the space for me and help with advertising. I’m excited for Active Minds to get more presence on campus, so I’m excited we’re working together to get the word out about what each other is campaigning for.

HC: Can you give us a synopsis of the play?

KL: "What’s Eating Katie" is a musical that stars a girl named Katie, who’s going to college for the first time. Katie meets a character named Ed, and he’s the embodiment of the eating disorder. He starts making these suggestions: "All you need to do is be skinny. It’s as simple as that.’" He’s very charming, charismatic, and they’re friends. As Katie is getting more miserable, Ed is getting more aggressive and abusive—abusive in a way that kind of reflects domestic violence, unfortunately. It’s someone that you think you love, and you think loves you, and there are these subtle verbal and physical abuses that build up and she doesn’t really see what’s happening because she’s sick and starving herself. There are a lot of characters that play a role in perpetuating this diet culture. What I really like about this show is that it’s not a bleak show, which, as serious and important as eating disorders are, we’re trying to make this an educational performance that keeps the audience engaged. I think the way Dina Zeckhausen wrote it is very clever, well-done and tasteful. You don’t want to make jokes about eating disorders, but she peppers it with little skits that are advertisements for diet culture. They’re so exaggerated to the point where it seems real and hits close to home. Another thing I like is that there’s a lot of flexibility about it. I want to purposely cast some of the characters as male or gender nonconforming. The show portrays what it’s like to have an eating disorder, but it also isn’t specifically a white rich girl’s problem, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to get away from.

HC: What are you most excited about?

KL: I’m most excited about the opportunity for representation. We are going to have a post-play discussion—I don’t want to tack on every potential problem that leads to an eating disorder and put it on Katie’s persona, because then it's less realistic. We’re working with the Walden Behavioral Center in downtown Amherst, and a therapist is going to help with the post-play discussion. I’m really excited to talk about how men and people of any race can get eating disorders. Eating disorders do not discriminate, and getting away from the stereotypes is something I want to portray. We’re not going to typecast Katie and pick someone who’s really bony. It’s not just anorexia. There’s also binge eating disorder, OSFED, bulimia—there are so many different kinds of struggles. A person can be suffering from an eating disorder and not outwardly look like skin and bones. Diet culture is ingrained in our society, but there are things like control and trauma that also contribute to eating disorders that people don’t talk about.

HC: Do you have any advice for students who struggle with disordered eating?

KL: If you have any inkling that you might be struggling with an eating disorder, that is valid and you shouldn’t just let slide by. In college people really normalize—and kind of romanticize—overexertion. People will be like, "I’m so stressed, I haven’t eaten all day," because it’s college, and we’re all stressed. College culture and diet culture make it so that people can get away with disordered eating behavior and it’s just seen as, "Oh, whatever. She skips meals, she’s stressed," or, "He spends all his time at the gym, he’s so determined and dedicated, I wish I had that self-control." When I was struggling I was in denial a lot, but if there was anyone that knew there was a problem first, it was me. I could deny it all I wanted to myself, but I was inside my head 24/7. People would see this stuff on the outside and start to point things out—that sets off a big red flag. Follow those concerns, because they’re important. They’re not something you should brush off. It’s your body, and eating disorders can have really serious consequences and become harder the longer they go untreated. Follow any intuition. You should talk to someone and get whatever help you need, whatever the expense. In the same way that physical health is important, mental health is just as important. You’re worth it. 

"What’s Eating Katie" (which, despite its name, has no affiliation with Kate’s individual story) is written by Dina Zeckhausen, and Bryan Mercer is the musical score writer. It will be performed at UMass Amherst on Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4 at 7 p.m. Auditions will take place on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30. Anyone at UMass is welcome to audition, and theater experience is not required. If you have any questions or would like to become involved, email Kate at [email protected].

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