Nikki DuBose’s eating disorder that began in childhood was exacerbated by her high-profile modeling career, but the tragic death of her mother sparked a life transformation. She quit the modeling industry and has since served as a driving force behind proposed legislation to ban underweight models and regulate the industry in California. DuBose is telling this powerful story in her new memoir, Washed Away: From Darkness to Light, which was released on September 30.
In her exclusive interview with Recovery.org, Nikki DuBose talks about her difficult childhood, the difficulty of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as a professional model and the steps she took to transform her life.
When did your eating disorder first begin?
Nikki: It began when I was eight years old and lasted until I was 25 or 26. I’ve been in recovery for the past five years, so it lasted pretty much all my life.
I grew up in a home that had a lot of trauma, so that’s what triggered my eating disorder. My parents divorced when I was two and my mother remarried to a man who was abusive towards her. There was a lot of physical, sexual and verbal abuse. What really triggered it was the sexual abuse.
My mother also had Bipolar Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder, so she self-harmed a lot. There really wasn’t any stability in my household. Even though I went to a private school and my stepfather provided all of these nice these things, it was a nightmare behind closed doors. It was one thing to the public, but another privately, so I didn’t know how to deal with it.
You’ve also said that your mother struggled with an eating disorder. What was that like for you?
Nikki: I heard my mother purging when I was 10, so I started doing that and it became my best friend. I was introverted by nature and my parents had raised me to be a perfectionist, but that was combined with a lot of abuse and these religious standards. When you combine all of that, it lays the groundwork for this behavior to manifest. I also developed depression and Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I just wanted someone to love me and care for me, so that became my eating disorder. I felt like I had nowhere to turn to.
How did you get involved in modeling?
Nikki: I didn’t start out as a professional model. I got into modeling through the darker side of it as an amateur model. I met with these shady photographers on Craigslist and just took my clothes off and had them take pictures of me. I did manage to transition out of that and get signed by one of the biggest agencies in the world, but it’s not that much different [laughs]. It’s still an unregulated industry. And some of the most famous photographers are publicized for doing horrible things, yet they still continue to work.
Even though you don’t blame the modeling industry for your eating disorder, do you think it exacerbated it in any way?
Nikki: I already had mental problems that I wasn’t taking care of. Models don’t have employee benefits or health insurance. They’re often far away from home. And agents aren’t educated about eating disorders or some of the primary issues that often concern models, so how can you expect them to be healthy and stable?
I was raped as a model, but as often happens with rape, I was made to feel like I was crazy or that it didn’t happen. It’s a very poor working environment, but that’s how the industry is run. You don’t have health insurance, so you can’t just go to the doctor if you’re struggling with a mental health issue.
I developed anorexia when I was working and it was glorified, which exacerbated the issue. The skinnier you get, the more work you often get and the more agents will push you to work. They’re not looking out for the health and protection of the models.
Since you weren’t receiving help for your eating disorder from the industry, where did the catalyst for you to get help come from?
Nikki: It definitely didn’t come from the industry. Because I had Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which often co-occurs with anorexia, I thought I looked amazing when I was at my lowest weight. That was also being reinforced because I was getting so much work in Europe.
What happened was that my mother passed away. She struggled with a lot of things, but she was really sick with alcoholism. I flew back from home from Spain to have an intervention with her and she went to rehab for 60 days. I went back to Spain and then she ended up dying.
My life and my mother’s life parallel a lot. I also struggle with alcohol, not to the extent that my mother did, but on and off. It really woke me up, made me take account of my life and realize that I didn’t want to die.
What were some of the steps you took to get well?
Nikki: I just quit modeling because it was a huge trigger for me and decided to redo my life. I redid my modeling website and changed it into a blogging website so I could write for therapy. I pretty much stayed home for two years. I didn’t even know how to eat because my eating disorder was all I’d known, so I had home care. I just did whatever it took to get better.
Image Courtesy of Nikki DuBose