Strutting Her Stuff

Noor Aldayeh, 18, didn’t know why she was nervous. She was a life-long performer, and had never gotten stage fright during her countless dance competitions—but as the Torrance, Calif., native prepared to give a TED-style talk to her freshman English class in March of 2016 about her struggle with bulimia, she found herself trembling.

Aldayeh steadied herself and did what she had trained herself to do in the spotlight: to connect with the people before her, to move them. Ten minutes later, she received a standing ovation. In the weeks that followed, Aldayeh’s South High School classmates approached her and confided in her about their own struggles.

“Everyone has their battles, and you never realize it,” Aldayeh told Ms., “and then sometimes talking about your own makes it so you have a form of connection or trust with somebody.”

Motivated by the success of her English project, Aldayeh, who is Jordanian and Syrian, began posting about her journey online—sharing insights about being a competitive athlete trained in tap, jazz, hip hop and ballet and the stigma around discussing mental illness in the Middle-Eastern community. She often posts pictures of herself dancing and wearing bright clothes, captioning each image with tips for how her followers can practice self-love, such as how she learned to embrace her “beach body” this past summer.

“Especially because social media can be such a negative place, and it is a place where I have spiraled before,” Aldayeh explained to Ms., “I wanted to be a positive person on the platform.”

Aldayeh had around 2,000 followers on Instagram when she first decided to share her story. Today, she has over 40,000.

Aldayeh has also returned to the stage several times, not just to dance—which she said both exacerbated her eating disorder and helped her recover—but to speak to people directly. Through the Qatari Foundation International’s YALLAH (Youth Allied to Learn, Lead And Help) Commit to Action program, Aldayeh and her peers traveled to Qatar in 2017 created the Education Emotion Project, which provides mental health resources to people around the globe. 

When Aldayeh’s group returned to Qatar in March and October 2018 to present their work, student activists who listened to their first speech said they were inspired by EEP to begin creating Qatar’s very first suicide prevention hotline.

“They told us that even just, like, having people come and talk about mental health so casually, like without it being like a big deal,” Aldayeh said, “definitely helped them with what they were doing.”

One of EEP’s co-founders, Gabriella Jarvie, a 16-year-old student at Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, Calif., said the positive feedback they’ve received from other student activists has inspired them to begin working on an ambassador program and to expand upon EEP’s current eight branches.

“Our main goal is to break the stigma around mental health,” Jarvie told Ms., “because it’s a thing that people don’t really talk about that much.”

Raising awareness about eating disorders and mental health issues can help smash that stigma. “Awareness is so important,” therapist Michelle Bracken, who has 25 years of experience working with adolescents and their families in Los Angeles, told Ms., “because it allows people to identify the symptoms in themselves, be able to realize what and put a name to that and then hopefully be able to ask for help.”

Despite the thousands of impressions she has made, Aldayeh, a freshman at Oxford College at Emory University hoping to major in Media Studies, said she still values the unquantifiable smaller personal interactions. “When you hear from somebody else that you’ve helped them,” she said, “it’s truly life-changing.”

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Saba Nia is JEA-award-winning student journalist and former member of the Los Angeles Times Student Advisory Board. She’s originally from Los Angeles, but currently lives in Washington, D.C.