BYU alumna shares empowering message on eating disorders

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Josh Ellis
Hayley Smith speaks during an Eating Disorder Awareness Week event on Feb. 21, 2018. Smith shared her personal experience with overcoming an eating disorder and how it affected her during and after her time at BYU. (Josh Ellis)

Eating Disorder Awareness Week aims to bring awareness to the issue of eating disorders and to give students needed tools by providing a variety of trainings and events.

This year’s events included a booth in the Wilkinson Student Center, keynote speaker Hayley Smith, a Q&A panel aimed to help friends and family of those struggling with eating disorders, and an intuitive eating workshop.

BYU Women’s Services and Resources has been organizing this event for a number of years.

According to Annie Dye, nutrition and wellness specialist at Women’s Services and Resources, it is always a challenge to find keynote speakers that can appeal to a larger audience.

“Every year it is an interesting challenge of helping everyone be interested in eating disorders, even if they don’t have a personal experience with it,” Dye said. “Because of this, we look to find people like Hayley who have a personal story, as well as something else like her refugee work, so that it can help draw in more of a general crowd because everyone needs to know about this.”

Smith spoke about her personal struggles with bulimia, as well as her work starting her non-profit organization — Lifting Hands International — that helps refugees.

Smith developed bulimia during her sophomore year at BYU. At first, Smith felt like she was on top of the world.

“At first it was an amazing experience. It was like magic. I had never felt something so good,” Smith said. “I had this dark secret that no one understood, so whenever I said something dumb, I would just think about my dark secret, my best friend who made me feel really good.”

For the next year and a half Smith struggled with bulimia, and it eventually became so bad she turned to cutting herself and doing other things to harm herself.

Smith eventually told her family, who in turn helped to get her into therapy at the Center for Change in Orem. Smith learned strategies to help her control her bulimia through therapy.

“Treatment for anyone with a pernicious eating disorder is essential,” Smith said. “It helped clear the fog of my emotions and what I didn’t even know was going through my head, as well as what was going on and what had led to it.”

Smith went back to BYU and began to fall back into her bulimia after finishing therapy.

“I felt like I was struggling socially. It is a pressure cooker here sometimes,” Smith said.

One day Smith felt very alone, so she decided it was either binge and purge, or apply one of the strategies she had learned in therapy. Smith chose the latter and decided she wanted to learn a foreign alphabet. Smith went to the Provo library and found a book on Arabic.

“It was like this magic feeling that I hadn’t experienced before. It was electric, and it was definitely the spirit telling me to pursue this,” Smith said.

Smith learned the alphabet and said it ignited a fire in her to pursue learning Arabic. It led her to minor in Arabic at BYU and teach Arabic at the high school level after she graduated.

According to Smith, learning Arabic gave her a purpose and helped her survive.

Smith eventually started the non-profit organization, Lifting Hands International. The organization has a refugee center in northern Greece and provides various services to the refugees such as trauma-informed yoga and language classes.

Some of the refugees Smith has worked with have dealt with eating disorders and self-harm in the past. Because of this, Smith has been able to use her unique experience to help them.

Smith said she really struggles with the concept of, “all or nothing.” In other words, she often feels that if she is not perfect at something, she is terrible.

“My therapist once told me, ‘Hayley you have a whole lifetime to learn and get better at these things, you don’t have to do it all in one day … be gentle with yourself,” Smith said.

BYU student Whitney Holman enjoyed the lecture because she has friends that have struggled with eating disorders.

“I’ve had my own much smaller struggles, but I really like that she said that you aren’t expected to just say, ‘I’m better, I’m fine.’ She was real and authentic in her experiences, and I think a lot of people here were able to relate to that,” Holman said.

For information on eating disorders and tools to help, visit the BYU Women’s Services and Resources website.

New Chapter, an eating disorder support group for female BYU students, also meets during the semester on Thursdays. For more information or to join the group, email .

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