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Alyson Stoner says she felt 'unsafe' in her body prior to seeking treatment for eating disorders: 'I was so disconnected'

The actress and dancer opens up about feeling
The actress and dancer opens up about feeling "unsafe" in her body. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Yahoo Life)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Alyson Stoner has been admired as a skilled and charismatic dancer ever since gaining notoriety for her appearance in Missy Elliott's "Work It" video in 2002. But as she grew older and gained more popularity for her on-screen talent in films like Cheaper by the Dozen, Step Up and Camp Rock, she realized that losing control over her mind and her body was the price of fame.

"My body used to be a battleground, an unsafe place to exist. And I just didn't value the information it was presenting," Stoner, 29, tells Yahoo Life.

The "disembodiment" that she experienced is something she not only credits to the industry, but also to the environment that she grew up in. She says that an "unstable family home" played a large role in "losing trust with my body," something she's still in the process of recovering from today.

"My decision-making was never about, like, what is going to be healthy and good for my well-being? It was more like, does this help me, you know, survive through the night? Which might mean, don't go downstairs and get food because you don't know what's going on in the kitchen," she says.

The need to stay invisible at home prompted Stoner to neglect self-care, which was further solidified by her experience as a child actor. "I still to this day have to intentionally practice the basics of like, drink water, brush your hair," she says. "Those became tethered to industry. And whenever I was like, oh, I'm not going to be on camera today, then I would forget to do all the things because I associated all of that just with being ready for camera — not in and of themselves being, like, valuable rituals for self-care and health."

She uses these examples to explain the disjunction of her body and mind in the simplest of terms. However, the inability to check in with herself and her needs while catering to the expectations others had of her shaped the way "I showed up every day," she says, noting that she "breezed past cues" like thirst, hunger and pain while working. "On set, I believed you'll get the part if you are the fittest. Therefore, if you're in pain, it doesn't matter, because the goal is not well being, the goal is achievement."

She was convinced to take any means necessary.

"I read so many health and fitness articles that were not designed for my 13-year-old developing body. And I wasn't at all understanding that this was to be read in context, it was to be read lightly, it was not the same as a doctor's orders and prescription. You know, I was just consuming information, as if anything was worth following," she recalls. "I was helpless in my own experience. Or I was so disconnected because I was only focusing on my body outside in, as opposed to inside out."

At 17 years old in 2011, Stoner was hospitalized and entered rehab where she was diagnosed and treated for anorexia nervosa, exercise bulimia and binge-eating disorder. She also received diagnoses for generalized anxiety disorder, OCD and alexithymia — more commonly known as emotional blindness — linked to PTSD.

She shared details of her experience in treatment for the first time in 2019 with People. Remaining private about it in the interim was vital to her recovery.

"I recommend being mindful of who you tell and who you don't tell. And for the people who you do tell, let it be, you know, an intimate group who you trust while you're building that foundation and there's less pressure to uphold this, you know, finished product, or to say, ‘Yes, I did it,'" she says. "It makes the slip-ups feel more like you have a friend by your side, as opposed to you’re being tallied, to see if you've accomplished this yet or not — at least for me."

She refers to it as her "cocoon," which kept her insulated from outward commentary that would hinder the self-work. Avoiding external influences forever, however, wasn't an option.

"Just like with my sexuality and coming out, I waited until it felt like something I could talk about without being activated," she explains. "When it comes to food-related things or eating disorder recovery, I waited until I had gone through a season of family gatherings, and through holidays, and birthday, and hanging out with friends and being on set again, and like training for a role without relapsing in behaviors. I gave myself a chance to go through the practice in a bunch of different environments before I started really talking about it publicly."

Although she's more open about the hardships today, she continues to arm herself with the tools necessary for recovery, well being and self-love.

"A part of, like, buoying yourself, is creating a particular mantra or phrase you can return to when you inevitably encounter the feedback that's unwanted or unhelpful. For me, I actually had physical cards that I wrote out, you know, what those triggering comments might sound like or look like or who they'd be coming from. And I would create replacement statements that I would say in that moment inwardly just to maintain that orientation towards healing," she says.

Stoner emphasizes that it took years to integrate these practices into her life, and just as much time to reap the benefits of them. She hopes to save others that time by leading them to the tools she's discovered and created on her wellness platform, Movement Genius. "I know the manual of my mind and body and how they operate. And therefore, I feel empowered with the tools that will help me manage life," she says.

A capsule collection with the intimates brand Harper Wilde for May's Mental Health Awareness Month also gave the actress an opportunity to share some of her favorite slogans and affirmations — including "Human in Progress" and "Anxiety Armor" — to those who need them.

Being able to reach others in this manner and on this topic is her proudest accomplishment.

"I always wanted to get here — to be able to humanize each other, and connect more authentically. It was one of the scariest processes that started in rehab, actually because the admiration, the quality of fame, the cultural infrastructure around parasocial relationships really is not designed for sincere, safe exchanges. And I had so much fear around how people would respond, how it would affect my career," she says.

"When you have grown up in the industry, there is a brand self, product brand self, there's an artist creative self and then there's like true self. And true self didn't have much room to breathe, or to voice their needs," she continues. "So it was really scary until just recently when I feel like I've settled into who I am more, thankfully. I released the view of my body being a project to complete or an object to fix. I feel the freedom to just show up like this, wearing my friend's sweatshirt and not having makeup on and being like, 'Yeah, this is enough for today.'"

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder please visit the National Eating Disorders (NEDA) website at nationaleatingdisorders.org for more information.

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