Jessie Kahnweiler is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California. She’s pretty amazing. I reached out to Jessie after watching her web series, The Skinny, which closely touches on her own experiences with bulimia, and she agreed to do an interview! The Skinny is absolutely fantastic, and available on YouTube, so you should check it out!
K: Hey, Jessie! Thank you so much for talking to us!
J: No problem!
K: Ok, so here’s my first question: do you think there is a significant and separate stigma against just eating disorders in the world of mental health?
J: Yeah, definitely! I don’t even think I initially knew eating disorders were a mental illness, because it deals with food, and the representation of eating disorders in the media is so one-sided, like a thin ballerina trying to lose weight. It’s very focused on the physical aspect of it. I think it gave me the message that it was just a silly thing, and that I just needed to get my weight under control and then I’d be fine. I never considered it a mental illness, or even anything of the mind, and to me, that’s pretty much why eating disorders are so shameful. They’re not given the regard that other mental illnesses are given – and even other addictions! I guess people just assume that it’s food and you should just be able to handle it. So that’s part of the reason why I was in denial for so long, because I didn’t know eating disorders were a problem.
K: Yeah, I definitely think that’s a huge problem, and part of the reason why eating disorders are so detrimental. Part of the reason I loved The Skinny so much was that it felt like the first real, raw representation of eating disorders that I had seen in the media. I feel like eating disorders are often romanticized, and the media only seems to represent a very small percentage of the community. The way that eating disorders are represented in the media doesn’t even show relapse. I think that’s part of the reason why The Skinny is so powerful – it shows the full recovery process in an honest and genuine way. How did it feel to make something where you were really throwing yourself out there, especially with how The Skinny explored the underrepresented parts of having an eating disorder?
J: Well, it was really fucking terrifying, and I didn’t want to do it at first. But I saw those Lifetime movies too, and my friends and I would talk about them – and honestly, they did a better job of giving you tips on how to have an eating disorder than representing the issue at hand in an authentic way. That was part of the reason I wanted to make The Skinny. For me, the process was about how I could take this really personal thing and make it relatable for a wider audience. Life is all about trying to matter, trying to figure it out in the world, and trying to cope when you don’t have any resources. What do you do when you’re lonely and scared? What do you do when your heart is broken? Everyone experiences these things, but I used bulimia as coping mechanism. Of course, that caused so many more problems. That’s kind of the irony of eating disorders – you use them to escape your problems, and you wind up with even more problems. That’s what I really wanted to show – to heal and to start a larger conversation about eating disorders in general. I also didn’t want to make light of eating disorders in any way, but at least in my experience with recovery, there is so much humor in everything, and I get through my experiences in life by laughing at them, and that’s what I did with The Skinny.
K: Oh, yeah! The Skinny had perfect levity. It was so funny without making light of eating disorders in any way.
J: Thank you!
K: I also read another interview… I think it was with Refinery29, and you were talking about the importance of being honest, which I think is so important, especially with eating disorders. To you, what is the importance of being honest with yourself about your eating disorder beyond The Skinny?
J: Well, yeah, it’s kind of everything, right? How do I show up and live my life honestly? – That’s what being in recovery means to me. It’s a day-to-day thing. I also say that I will have an eating disorder forever, and I don’t mean this in a hopeless way. I say it in a way that keeps me honest. There are things I need to do everyday, to stay focused on recovery. There are big things, like finding healthier people to date, and there are little things, like getting enough sleep. It really affects every aspect of my life. For my art, right now I’m working on like seven projects at the same time, and I still have to figure out how to take care of myself. With The Skinny, this was what I really wanted to face. And the crazy thing is, once you stop vomiting, it’s like, “Well, what was I vomiting over? What was making me vomit?” And it was literally life. It was my inability to cope with life! For me, I’m also not going to get over it in a day, or by making a web series, but it’s also like, “Oh, this is the beginning of a much longer journey,” and that journey is life. I don’t think it ever stops, and I don’t think it’s ever like, “You have arrived.” That’s such counterintuitive thinking for my eating disorder, which has always said “Once you’re thin, you’ll be perfect and happy,” and that is such an illusion. Recovery is like trying to live in reality. Even with The Skinny, it felt really good for people to tell me that they loved the show, but I also was like, “Ok, this isn’t going to fix me.”
K: What does being in recovery mean to you, and how do you maintain or support your recovery?
J: Well, there are a number of things I do to support my recovery. I go to a support group, and I’m friends with lots of other girls that have had experiences with eating disorders who I speak with on an almost daily basis. I think it’s all about finding community, because it’s so hard. It’s really impossible to do on your own. Now I recognize how horrible my mindset was! I literally thought I could handle it on my own, and there was just no way I could have done that.
K: Yeah! Eating disorders can also be so isolating, so I definitely agree that finding a supportive community is so important.
J: Totally! And for me, I think it really forced me to get honest and find friends that got me for me.
K: Definitely. Going off on that – when you were in a more severe stage of your eating disorder, did you find that your relationships with others were affected seriously?
J: Oh, yeah, it affected every relationship. I mean I have ADD now –
K: Oh, I have ADHD, so pretty much the same thing!
J: I have no attention span, I’m always distracted, always thinking of a million things, and I think it all got really affected because I was so deep in self-hatred and was always obsessing my body, so I wasn’t really present a lot. It’s not a black and white thing – I still had a lot of amazing relationships, and had a ton of great people in my life, but I wasn’t fully present for a lot of it. That’s something I still work on. So many people think eating disorders are all about you and hurting yourself, but you’re really also hurting others, because you’re not able to be fully present or honest. Bulimia is like a full time job – you’re lying about food, you’re lying about where you’re getting food, you’re lying about where you’re going, and it just creates these heart-breaking barriers with people you love.
K: Yeah, that’s such a big part of it too – being mindful and in the moment is so important for me. Since I have ADHD, everything always feels like it’s moving so, so quickly, so it’s easy to act impulsively and such until I can really slow things down.
J: Dude, I fucking hear that. I think everyone struggles with that to some degree!
K: Yeah, definitely! It’s so hard to be present when there are so many other things going on at the same time.
K: Ok, here’s a question: what are the three things you truly want people to understand about having an eating disorder?
J: I guess it would be that it’s not about weight, it is in the mind, and the eating disorder can really be so incredibly powerful. I think when my parents and other people found out, they all felt really helpless. And it’s really heart-breaking – I get this question a lot, “What am I supposed to do?” So many times, it’s just offering support and empathy. What has really helped me the most is when people are like, “God, I get it.” or “I don’t get it personally, but I empathize.” That is the opposite of secrets, shame, and lying. Offer people the space to feel! And I guess in a dream scenario, think. Especially before you comment on someone’s body. You need to think and be sensitive because you have no idea what people are going through. We tend to laugh at eating disorders, but they’re really serious. It’s life or death. It’s a slow death, and it’s a mental death.
K: Absolutely! One last question: how has filmmaking been an outlet for you?
J: It’s been like my life! It’s everything to me – my creative outlet has saved my life. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I call it learning in public, because I’m just trying to go on my journey, and figure out what the fuck it means to be me! So yeah, it’s literally everything to me.
K: Amazing! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us! You are incredible, and I can’t wait to see what comes next for you!
J: Yeah, thank you!