Last month marked Mental Health Awareness Month, which aims to facilitate dialogue and reverse the stigma surrounding mental health, including depression, anxiety and trauma. But our mental and physical well-being are more strongly linked than one may think. Disabilities and health conditions can prompt struggles with stress, body image and everything in between.
Supermodel Martha Hunt—now the U.S. ambassador for Bvlgari—is using her platform and experience to advocate for orthopedic research funding and for girls struggling with scoliosis, just as she has since her teenage years. She is also the founder of Inégal, which aims to empower everyone doing the work to overcome limitations.
Alyson Gerber is the author of Braced, a novel about a 12-year-old girl’s first year in her scoliosis brace. Her new YA novel, Taking Up Space—based on her own experiences with disordered eating—is a story about discovering your power, learning to question diet culture, and finding the courage to take up space in the world.
Hunt and Gerber have both grappled with not meeting conventional expectations placed upon women’s bodies, and prioritize speaking on their own experiences to empower other young women and girls wrestling with physical conditions.
They came together for an honest conversation about self-worth, body image and learning to value oneself. Through their advocacy, Hunt and Gerber explore the intersections of physical hardships and mental health struggles.
Alyson Gerber: I’m curious to hear how you learned to value yourself.
Martha Hunt: I started to really value myself more when I found my voice and finally began speaking up about the things that mattered to me.
Early in my career, having an opinion and even saying “no” was not encouraged. The expectation was that I had to meet certain measurements all around. And where I came from, modeling was a rare opportunity to gain independence and financial freedom, so I stayed focused. Once I started having some success and was more established, I felt empowered to speak up for myself. I had more agency to choose jobs that felt like the right fit. And with a platform also comes responsibility. I became more transparent about my experiences and my views. And more confident in my ability to impact awareness for scoliosis and contribute to causes I care about in various ways. Being my true self is liberating.
What about you? How did you learn to value yourself?
Gerber: The truth is that I really felt worthless for most of my life. I started being monitored for scoliosis at 7. I heard a lot of important doctors referring to me and my body as a “problem,” and at the same time, I had undiagnosed ADHD, which meant I was fighting a battle in my head without knowing what I was up against. It was a bad setup. I thought there was something wrong with my body and my brain. And that belief led me down a self-destructive path, surrounded by a lot of people who saw me the way I saw myself.
It wasn’t until I was at rock bottom that I went to therapy and started writing. I put a lot of work into understanding how things had gotten so distorted in my mind.
After that, I started to surround myself with people who valued me and treated me with respect. Even now that I’m confident in myself, that sometimes means limiting my relationships with people who underestimate me and who can’t see how much I’m capable of accomplishing. How has your career as a model impacted your self-worth and body image?
Martha Hunt: I make a conscious effort to separate my self-worth from my career. I believe who we are matters more than our achievements, although our society doesn’t necessarily echo that sentiment. I’ve always seen modeling as a business and my profession. My career has however helped shape my experiences and allowed me to help contribute to something other than modeling. In that sense, it has affected my self-worth overall.
That said, my career has definitely affected my body image. From a very young age I was told exactly how my body should look, which was daunting, but par for the course of the job. I never felt comfortable with the idea of women comparing themselves to me since I spent so much time training to be in a specific shape. I’m glad that diversity and inclusion are leading the industry conversations now. Everyone deserves to see themselves represented. That is part of the reason I started speaking about my scoliosis journey, I knew that honesty would matter to younger people living with the condition.
You’ve been vocal about your experiences with scoliosis, ADHD, and disordered eating. How did that combination affect your body image? Do you think you overcame all of it together, or at separate points in your life? Have you found it challenging to separate body image from self-worth?
Gerber: For as long as I can remember, I felt like I was taking up too much space in the world. I thought I was too loud, too much, too difficult. I remember wanting to be smaller and take up less space—physically and emotionally—in school. I didn’t value myself, and I didn’t feel valued very often. And then, at 11, I got a back brace for scoliosis.
Looking back, I feel like my brace really swallowed me up. It literally took up so much space on my body and in my life and isolated me from everyone. In my mind, there wasn’t room for me to be anything other than in my brace. That’s when what I ate and the negative way I saw myself started to take up all the space in my mind.
I had to go back to the beginning of my scoliosis journey to untangle how my self-worth and body image and disordered eating got so mixed up.
There wasn’t one moment where I was magically better. It was more like a series of small discoveries in therapy and in writing books that helped me uncover what I’d been through and gave me the strength to speak my truth and value my voice. All those pieces put together gave me agency. And in the process of writing Taking Up Space, Focused, and Braced, I got to help a lot of people recognize their value and find their voice.
Is there one thing you really value about who you are now that you wish you’d seen as a good thing earlier?
“Looking back, I feel like my brace really swallowed me up. It literally took up so much space on my body and in my life and isolated me from everyone. … I had to go back to the beginning of my scoliosis journey to untangle how my self-worth and body image and disordered eating got so mixed up. “
I hope #TakingUpSpace will help readers recognize how much they matter and see that, if something difficult is taking up space in their minds, even if there isn’t a name for it, they should ask for help. https://t.co/iO0vuN2YhD pic.twitter.com/At755Cs3qf— Alyson Gerber💥 (@AlysonGerber) May 24, 2021
Hunt: Early on in my career, I faced a lot of rejection. I really value that experience now. I learned to have thick skin. I’ve also been able to appreciate the moments of success and take advantage of the opportunities because I value them. I realize now that it made me resilient.
What about you? What’s one quality you wish you’d valued sooner?
Gerber: As an author, I get to develop characters, who seem like real people. That part of writing came very naturally to me. I’ve always been a quick and good judge of character. I know that sounds like an objectively great quality that I should have been able to recognize, but growing up, it’s actually horrible, because you have to do a lot of playing along and pretending, even when you know someone doesn’t have good intentions and you can predict the plot. It took me a long time to learn that in life you can’t just shout out the answer and be believed. I wish I’d learned to channel this quality earlier.
I’m wondering how comments from the media, friends, colleagues and casting directors have influenced the way you feel about yourself? What do you do to protect your mental health in moments that feel hard?
Hunt: I’ve heard them all! They are tough. Comments from casting directors are easier to handle because I don’t take them personally. If I wasn’t picked for the job, then it wasn’t the right fit. I still lose out on jobs every week.
I try to remember comments that come from others, especially online, have so much more to do with what that person is projecting rather than with anything that I’m doing, especially when I’m minding my own business. If you are confident in yourself and what you’re representing then unsolicited opinions don’t matter as much. It’s easy to judge a picture but have no idea what’s really going on.
Being an author, a public figure, and mental health advocate you also open yourself up to criticism. How do you handle negative comments from colleagues or friends and family?
“Comments that come from others, especially online, have so much more to do with what that person is projecting rather than with anything that I’m doing.”
Gerber: This is such a relevant question, because I recently wrote a very personal essay about the challenges I faced with disordered eating during pregnancy, and then made the mistake of reading the comments. Oof. I’ll never do that again!
Admittedly, it didn’t feel great, but like you said, I knew right away that the comments had way more to do with those people than with me. I actually remembered a conversation we had about this a long time ago, and it really helped me.
It’s taken me a long time and a lot of writing down my truth to get to this point, but I’m in a place now where I can see through unsolicited criticism, name it as unhelpful, and move on pretty quickly. If I find myself running the negative thought over in my head, I call or text someone I know can help me shut down the thought.
Hunt: It’s definitely hard when you’re putting a piece of work out there, but getting that resistance with comments means you’re doing something right—being honest and vulnerable and some people can’t handle that!
Gerber: I completely agree!
Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s struggling with their self-worth and body image
Hunt: The more confident I’ve become with who I am, the less I’ve been focused on the things I don’t like about myself on the outside. We all have insecurities. You are your own worst critic. Bodies are beautiful in all shapes and sizes, and you don’t need anyone else to validate your body or your worth.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! You’ve been so honest about your fears of taking up space. What advice do you have for people going through similar experiences to yours?
Gerber: Being honest gets easier the more you do it. And then, it’s impossible not to be honest all the time.
My advice is to make a list of all the things about yourself that you think are bad or wrong or a problem. Write down all the ways those bad things could actually be good. For example: I’m a really slow reader. I always hated that about myself, because I thought smart people were fast. But I’m also a very careful and thoughtful reader. I’m slow because I’m thinking and my imagination is going wild, coming up with all different ideas and theories and questions. Flip every negative thought on its head.
Hunt: That’s really profound advice and reminds me of a conversation we had where you had said, “Sometimes the things that make you different make you the best.” It was kind of like a eureka moment for me! I’ve thought of that line often.