The University Record, March 18, 2002

Model overcomes eating disorder to find a new career

Kate Dillon went from being called “Overweight Kate” in the seventh grade, to being a svelte 5-foot-11-inch, 125-pound model, appearing in Vogue and Elle. But in a recent presentation at the Michigan Union Ballroom March 11, Dillon said that being a supermodel came at a price and revealed that age 12–19, she was anorexic.

“Sometimes I would go for a couple days to a couple weeks just eating fruit,” Dillon recalled. “Other times I’d have a donut and then not eat for two days.” Speaking on behalf of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Dillon talked about how media and society influenced her concept of the “ideal” body image.

Taunted mercilessly in the seventh grade by her classmates because of her weight, Dillon said she made a conscious decision to become anorexic after watching a television movie, “Kate’s Secret,” starring Meredith Baxter as a bulimic clinic patient. According to Dillon, a character that Baxter encountered at the clinic was anorexic. “She was really cute and really appealing, and I looked at her and said ‘oh my God, that’s a really good idea.’ The fact that this woman died in the movie had way less of an impact on me than the fact that I had this solution now to the problem I was having in school.”

By the end of the school year, Dillon said she had lost 30 pounds and gained six inches in height. She also gained popularity and acceptance among her peers, which led her to associate her new thinness with “having friends and being happy.” But what began as simply a way to achieve social acceptance escalated into a more serious problem when she entered the modeling business at 16.

Meeting photographers and modeling for such magazines as Vogue, Elle and Allure, Dillon said, “In many ways it was as glamorous and cool as it sounds.” But, she said, the pressure to be thin began to take its toll, both physically and mentally.

“I was being told I needed to lose anywhere from 10–20 pounds all the time,” Dillon said. She said she got her first reality check when a man from Harper’s Bazaar approached her after a fashion show to tell her she looked fantastic. “This alarm finally went off in my head after seven years,” Dillon said. “I thought, ‘this is a little nutty here—they’re finally telling me I look wonderful, and I haven’t eaten in 2 weeks.’”

Worried about her health, Dillon went to a nutritionist. Dillon said she suffered from anxiety attacks and started to binge after gaining 15 pounds. She was told by her modeling agency that she was “huge” and “a mess” after becoming a size 8.

“After seven years of fighting this battle on my body, I decided to fight for myself,” Dillon said. “I was tired and I couldn’t continue doing backflips, trying to be who I thought culture was telling me I should be.” Determined to find her “true self,” Dillon said she returned home to San Diego, Calif., where she spent the next two years discovering freedoms she never experienced before, such as the freedom to walk down the beach with her “rolls” and not feel self-conscious. Dillon said the process of recovery was difficult. “I gained 50 pounds, and it was hard, having spent all this time associating ‘big’ with being ‘ugly’ and ‘bad,’” she said.

During this time, Dillon said she thrived on her newfound individuality. Eventually, though, she felt compelled to move on with her life. After delivering pastries and working at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore for two years, Dillon left her parents’ home to attend school in New York. However, the modeling world once again intervened. While job searching in New York, someone suggested to Dillon that she become a plus-sized model. Since then, Dillon has been highly successful as a model and was named by Mode magazine as 1998 Model of the Year. Now a size 14, she also has modeled for American, French and Italian issues of Vogue, and was featured as one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in 2000.

“I’ve done better as a ‘big’ girl than most ‘skinny’ girls do as skinny models, so it’s been amazing,” she said. “But what’s more amazing is that I did it on my own terms.”

“Mixed messages are everywhere,” Dillon said. She said she often reads articles in magazines about herself being a positive role model, only to turn the page and find an article about how to lose weight.

On her current status, Dillon said she is still dealing with the emotional scars from years of anorexia and low self-esteem. She goes to counseling whenever she can and has occasional anxiety attacks. But she maintains that she has not had to sacrifice anything to be a plus-sized model and is happier and more secure with herself, while making twice the income that she did as a “skinny” model.