Chumash Auditorium was filled with chlorine-coated swimmers, complete with tosseled, wet hair and Cal Poly swim gear, as well as college-aged women of all shapes and sizes and a scattering of college-aged men. Amanda Beard, a seven-time Olympic gold medal winner in swimming, took the stage to share her story about struggling with bulimia Tuesday night.
Having dealt with an eating disorder for more than 12 years, Beard agreed to speak at Cal Poly to inspire others fighting eating disorders to get help.
“If anybody is struggling it makes them see that there are other people out there. It shouldn’t control your whole life,” she said. “I hope that people can listen to my story and see that I was able to overcome it and still achieve great things.”
After polling students last spring, Michelle Crawford, the Associated Student Inc.’s (ASI) program coordinator, said that issues such as body image and eating disorders topped the list of what students wanted to learn more about. In response, Cal Poly contacted Beard to appear as a guest speaker for ASI’s True Life Series, a program where guest speakers talk about a variety of issues that college students can relate to.
Before this event, Beard had never publicly talked about her eating disorder.
“I haven’t purposely kept it a secret from the media. I was just never asked about it. This will actually be the first time that I’m talking to the public about it so I just hope that everyone bears with me,” Beard said. “It’ll be nice to finally get this off my chest. It’s nothing for me to be embarrassed about.”
Part of Beard’s appeal is that students can relate to her story, Crawford said.
“Everything is very true. There is not a script. I think students typically leave feeling more educated and better about their own situation,” Crawford said.
Dressed in blue jeans and a casual black and white striped long-sleeved shirt, Beard immediately created a relaxed atmosphere by removing her high heels once on stage.
“I’m a new mom and I just can’t take one more second in these,” she said. “Girls, you know what I’m talking about.”
After lightening the mood and providing the audience with a brief history of her childhood, Beard jumped right into where her eating problems began.
After gaining 25 pounds and eight inches in height between ages 14 and 15, Beard participated in The Janet Evans Invitational, a swim competition in Los Angeles in 1997. Not accustomed to swimming with her new, more womanly body, Beard did not do as well as she expected. Newspaper reviews surfaced in the following weeks saying things like, “Beard is washed up, she has gained weight and she was a one-hit wonder.”
“I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I’m ugly, I’m fat, how is anyone going to love me?’” she said.
While Beard’s issues with her body developed in her mid-teens, problems really took off when she began college at the University of Arizona in 1999.
Throwing up six to seven times a day, Beard became preoccupied with trying to hide her secret while sharing a dorm room with another girl by scouting for empty bathrooms and quickly throwing up in a garbage can when her roommate would leave the room.
“I would be throwing up just blood because my throat was so wrecked. It should have scared the crap out of me, but it didn’t because being thin and pretty was my priority,” she said.
Beard’s swimming career also took a toll due to her eating habits.
“I was exhausted 24/7. I would go to classes then train for five or six hours each day. My swimming was struggling. At that time, I didn’t care as much about my swimming as I did about being thin. That just shows how sick I was,” Beard said.
After college, Beard began modeling for magazines including Playboy, Maxim, FHM and Men’s Health.
Beard recalled one photo shoot in particular that further escalated her bulimic tendencies. The client called Beard’s agent and told him that Beard needed to lose 10 pounds in two weeks. For those fourteen days, Beard did not eat any food. Meals consisted of diet pills washed down with large mugs of black coffee. However unhealthy it might have been, it worked.
“I looked good. Nobody around me knew what I was doing to myself though. The worst thing that you can tell people with body issues is, ‘you look great,’” she said.
Even after she dropped 10 pounds for the photo shoot, Beard was still just as self-conscious in front of the camera.
“I was in a bikini and everyone was staring at me. All I could think about was, ‘Oh my god. What are they looking at? Are my love handles too big? What’s wrong with me?’” she said.
The turning point for Beard came when she met her current husband, Sacha Brown, a photographer.
“Within the first few weeks of dating, he said to me, ‘What is wrong with you? You need help.’ He was the first person to ever recognize what I was doing to myself. The best thing was finding that one person that wanted to help me,” she said.
Beard described days when she would be curled up around the toilet, crying hysterically because she thought she was fat and ugly. Brown was always there to scoop her up off the floor and tell her she was beautiful, she said.
After years of therapy, medication and self-reflection, Beard has her eating disorder under control, but still struggles with it everyday.
The recent birth of her baby boy, however, acts as constant motivation for Beard to maintain a healthy self-image.
“When I felt a fist push against my stomach or felt the imprint of a foot, I didn’t care how big my butt got,” she said. “I want my son to grow up with a loving mother who is comfortable with herself.”
After an emotional presentation, Beard opened up the floor to student questions and comments which included everything from a person admitting they recovered from an eating disorder to questions about her past boyfriends.
Students seemed enthralled by her presence, buzzing with conversation as they exited the auditorium and lined up for a meet and greet, clutching cameras, pictures and pens for signatures. One girl even had a heart-to-heart with Beard, exchanging hugs and phone numbers.
Another girl, with Cal Poly swim team sweat pants on, hesitantly removed her jacket, exposing tanned, muscular arms. Beard addressed the student athletes in the audience during her speech, encouraging them to not be ashamed of their athletic build, as she was.
“Now I don’t feel as self-conscious showing off my arms,” she said to her friend.
Ariel Tormey, a kinesiology junior, attended because she is a swimmer and could related to Beard.
“(I attended) because I wanted to learn more about her life and understand what she has gone through,” Tormey said.
Michelle Oden, a science sophomore, attended because she was getting credit for a class.
“I came out because I was getting credit for my biopsychology class. We are learning about eating disorders, body image issues and things like that,” Oden said.
The enthusiastic response from the students was something to be expected as ASI decided to bring Beard to Cal Poly because she could talk about what students wanted to learn about.
“It’s important to us because it’s important to the students. We wanted students to become more educated and open up their eyes to the topics,” Crawford said.
The overwhelming requests for these topics should not come as a surprise as many college-aged people struggle with body image issues, said Ann McDermott, director of the emerging Cal Poly Center for Obesity Prevention and Education and kinesiology instructor.
“It removes some of the stigma and shows people that there are others who are dealing with the same issues. Eating disorders are so prevalent that people wouldn’t even begin to guess,” McDermott said.
In a survey conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association that involved both undergraduate and graduate students, it was determined that one in five people have had an eating disorder and of those people 70 percent never received help. The number one reason was cultural pressure, followed by stress, McDermott said.
“(College) is a period of time where people are very aware of their appearance. If (an eating disorder) doesn’t personally affect you, chances are you know someone who it does. It’s a pressure-cooker environment,” McDermott said.
Although this was the first time that Beard has talked to college students, she said that she wants to keep doing this because it is a good way to reach out to people.
In one of her final lines of the night, Beard said that despite her struggle with bulimia, every bad moment shaped who she has become today.
“I wouldn’t change anything about my past,” Beard said. “It has made me a stronger person today. I’m very comfortable with myself. I’m about 20 pounds heavier than when I’m competing, but who cares?”
If Beard could give any advice to those living with eating disorders she said it would be to learn to love your body.
“You know that saying, ‘Nobody will ever love you until you love yourself?’ It’s cheesy, but it’s so true. You have to love yourself,” Beard said. “Wake up every morning and feel confident and sexy. Just be the best you can be.”