Christina Grasso and Ruthie Friedlander had known about each other for years just from working in the fashion industry, but they didn't connect until last year, when Grasso slid into Friedlander's DMs — a surefire start to any good friendship.
Having gone through an eating disorder of her own and understanding the courage it can take to share your story, Grasso reached out to Friedlander in response to the piece, saying, "Hey, I’m so proud of you, if you ever need anything please don’t hesitate to reach out."
Since then, they've become each other's support system.
"We both struggled with eating disorders for almost 20 years, and working in this industry adds another layer of challenges, and we just really saw each other and understood that struggle," Grasso says.
Grasso, a former magazine editor and now digital content creator at Revlon, and Friedlander, a special projects director at InStyle, harnessed that bond to create The Chain, a New York-based, not-for-profit peer support and mentorship program for women in the fashion and entertainment industries who are struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder. In the two weeks since Grasso and Friedlander have gone public with the initiative, Grasso says they've heard from hundreds of people who have reached out, either to offer support or to to become members. In early March, The Chain is holding it's first support group meeting in New York City.
The focus on women in the fashion and entertainment industries, Grasso says, is because there are certain elements of these industries that can make it difficult for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. It's not that these industries necessarily foster eating disorders, but Grasso says that if you're in recovery, there are specific triggers in this line of work that can make it difficult to maintain any progress.
"There are a myriad of issues that cause these illnesses, but certainly many of the things that can be considered triggers in our industry don’t really help," Grasso says.
To learn more about this experience, we spoke with Grasso about what it's really like to be recovering from an eating disorder while working in fashion, and how she hopes The Chain will help those who are struggling.
How did you first get into fashion?
"I actually started when I was scouted by a model scout in my hometown when I was 14 or 15, in Ohio. This woman and I kept in touch and I ended up not growing much taller and didn’t want to go down that road [of being a model] anyhow. Years later, she gave me an internship at her agency in New York, and it was sort of my entry into the industry."
As exclusive as people think [fashion] is, it’s pretty accepting and that’s amazing. But at the same time, eating disorders haven’t been talked about as much as they should be.
What are some issues people may not think about when it comes to recovering from an eating disorder while working in this industry?
"Obviously it’s very much a choice that we make, continuing to work in this field. But there are many downsides to that, and an analogy I always give to people is that it's like someone with alcoholism working as a bartender. You’re kind of setting yourself up, and that’s really hard. But I think it’s taught [Ruthie and I] both to be very resourceful and be very self-aware.
"I’m not an editor currently — that was my last job — but that was very hard. On the daily, you’re getting pitched things like cleanses, and you’re having to engage with the different types of content and being around very thin celebrities and models all the time. There are brands that will send you things that for some reason are always a size XS.
"If there’s a gala or event and you’re friends with a brand, they'll send you samples to wear, but speaking from experience, that happened once after I had undergone weight restoration (a process of recovery in eating disorder treatment), and I didn’t fit in the sample anymore. That sounds so trivial, but it’s really hard.
"It’s challenging because a lot of what they teach you in treatment is how to value yourself for not what you look like, but who you are — however cheesy that sounds — and it’s kind of undone by working in the industry. So I think it’s really important to be surrounded by a solid network of people who understand what you’re going through and can reassure you, like, No, you’re on the right path."
How do you maintain a balance between loving this job but understanding that it can be triggering when it comes to recovering?
"I think it’s really important to have a solid support network, and my family is really supportive, I have a great group of friends, a great doctor, I’ve had a lot of great resources that I wouldn’t take for granted because they aren’t available for everyone. Treatment is really expensive, it’s something that a lot of people wish they could get but don’t [always].
"It also comes down to me at the end of the day, and having to be self-aware of how I’m doing. If I’m doing well, how do I maintain that? And if it’s not good, how do I change that? And it’s about working on myself and the people around me and staying accountable and honest."
In what ways do you think eating disorders are still stigmatized in the industry?
"I feel like the fashion industry, as exclusive as people think it is, it’s pretty accepting and that’s amazing. But at the same time, eating disorders haven’t been talked about as much as they should be. There’s a lot of discussion on weight and body image when it comes to models and models’ health, but that conversation hasn’t really been opened up to the rest of the people in the industry who are also engaging with the content and maybe having their own struggle.
"In a sense, it’s hard because there’s also disordered eating, which is more common than eating disorders. When you’re working in this industry, there is a lot of flippancy when it comes to weight and body image, and I think the topic isn’t taken as seriously as it should be."
What do you mean by flippancy?
"Like, for example, we can be in a car full of editors during Fashion Week who don’t have time to stop for lunch, but for someone recovering from an eating disorder, it is crucial to make time. For the average person, missing lunch isn’t a huge deal. But for someone who has a [eating disorder] problem, it is a big deal."
What resources do you wish you had when you were first going through your eating disorder?
"Honestly, something like The Chain, because I can remember back when I first agreed to be profiled on my experience with an eating disorder by a large publication, I was so afraid to do it, because I was like, What if this hurts my career? What if people don’t want to hire me after this? Because I was straight out of college and didn’t know anyone, and didn’t know how this industry worked. And I was just so afraid that, If I have this problem, are people going to like me? Are they going to hire me? Is it going to be a detriment to my career down the road?
"And I didn’t know the answer, but for some reason I decided to move forward with it, anyway. And I think that really changed my life, because opening myself up opened me up to other people who also struggle, and that kind of led me to thinking, Hm, you know, there’s a gap here that needs to be filled, what can I do to alleviate the issue?
"I don’t really think Ruthie and I doing this is going to necessarily solve any problems, but we just wanted to create a resource to help people pick up the pieces, in a way."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.