Former Nickelodeon Star Jennette McCurdy Opens Up About Her Eating Disorder
Note: This essay contains discussions and images that may be triggering for some readers.
In support of the recent National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I’m coming out about my history with disordered eating, which I’ve never publicly discussed before.
I’d thought about sharing my story a few times in the past. Once I was asked to write an article for The Wall Street Journal on beauty and body-shaming. Initially I toyed with calling the piece “I Threw Up Three Minutes Before I Wrote This” and opening up about life in the trenches of bulimia, but ultimately I decided against it. It felt too vulnerable to talk about something I was struggling with (not to mention that I had recently written an article about my mom’s battle with cancer and I was self-conscious about coming across as one big cry for help).
But now I’ve been in recovery maintenance for two years. I’m no longer actively engaging in disordered eating. After spending a lot of time in therapy working on myself and confronting what I’ve experienced, I finally feel like I have the perspective required to write about what I’ve been through and maybe ― hopefully ― it might help someone who is going through the same thing feel less alone. (Plus, it’s been a good few years since mom died, so my quota for trauma sharing is ready to be refilled.)
My disordered eating started when I was 11. As a child actress working in Hollywood, I quickly learned that remaining physically small for my age meant I had a better chance of booking more roles. Unfortunately, I had a trusty and dedicated companion ready to help me with my burgeoning anorexia: my mom!
Me, my mom and my brother in 2004 having dinner at a restaurant where you could meet Disney characters. Our trips to Disney were always so complicated for me. I loved Disney and wanted to be able to just enjoy it, but instead I’d spend the days leading up to the trip looking up the menu, planning exactly what I would eat, calculating the calories I’d consume, and starving myself as much as possible to “save room” for the “big meal” ― at which I’d wind up restricting myself anyway. At least I always got a hug from Baloo!
I don’t hold this against my mom at all. I don’t think she could help it. Mom had been hospitalized for anorexia on several occasions when she was a teenager and I’m not convinced she ever overcame her disordered eating. When I was growing up, the only dinner I ever saw her eat was a plate of steamed broccoli and cauliflower with a single pinch of garlic salt for flavor.
I always remember feeling that my mom really struggled with my body, weight and diet. She’d regularly compare my size to that of other girls. She’d portion out my meals for me. She’d help me count calories.
At the time, instead of being bothered by her suggestions, I remember thinking that she was actually helping me ― that she “got it” more than the other moms ― and that she wanted me to be successful.
“Are you sure you want ice cream? You’ve already had 900 calories today,” she’d remind me as I yanked open the freezer door. I’d pause, rethinking my decision, and then I’d lose my grip on the door and let it shut slowly as a wistful expression crossed my face. That’s mom, always looking out for me.
I didn’t really recognize that my mom was aiding in my disordered eating until one night riding home from dance class when I was 12. She turned around to face me from the front seat and said, “Angelica’s mom is really concerned about your weight. She said she brought it up to the other dance moms and they’re all worried you’re too thin. They’re thinking about calling to get you help.”
She paused. I processed.
“If anybody asks, just tell them you’re eating normally,” she directed.
Me with my childhood friends Danielle Chuchran, Dylan Meyer, Megan, Tessa, and Caitlin Meyer at the Young Artist Awards in 2003. I was 12 and really struggling with anorexia, so any sort of social eating like at this luncheon was genuinely my nightmare. The woman sitting next to me at our table noticed I was fiddling with my roll instead of eating it and commented loudly, “You haven’t eaten a thing!” I seethed with anger that this woman almost blew my cover as a closeted anorexic.
I nodded numbly, piecing it all together as mom turned back around and made some comment to herself about how she really hoped we made it home in time for the new episode of “House” and how Hugh Laurie was a great actor and you just would never know he’s British.
In retrospect, that moment alone should have been alarming enough to make me question mom’s support. But even if I had wanted to stop at that point, I don’t think I could have. I was already too controlled by my eating disorder to see clearly what was happening to me. Plus, being small was doing wonders for my career. I booked six roles that year, all for characters several years younger than I was. I made justifications for my mom’s support of my disordered eating and I made justifications for my continuing down the road I was traveling.
At 14, I was cast in the Nickelodeon series “iCarly,” and by the time I was 15, the show was starting to get popular. The stress of having to be “on” all the time got to me. I became even more fixated on food and my body. I monitored every bite I took. I exercised obsessively. I measured my thighs with a measuring tape every night before bed.
When I was 18, my mom was diagnosed with cancer for a second time and this time it was terminal. “iCarly” had become a global phenomenon, I had a record deal with a fancy record label, mom was dying, and I just couldn’t handle the pressures of everything happening around me. But this time, instead of turning away from food, I turned to food. Lots and lots of food.
And so began my binge eating phase. I still tracked, calculated and obsessed about every single thing that went into my mouth, just the same as when I had anorexia. The only difference was that I was eating a lot more. I was constantly preoccupied with food. Nothing meant more to me than my next bite and nothing gave me more shame than my last one. I was in a toxic, self-loathing cycle.
By the time I was 21, I had just signed a deal for a spin-off series starring my character from “iCarly,” I was dating an NBA player, and mom was weeks away from dying. I had also become acutely aware that I was a role model for kids, which I felt like I was supposed to find cool but actually found upsetting. My great “contribution” to society was walking onto an overlit Nickelodeon set shouting lines about fried chicken (my character liked fried chicken) and that’s what kids were looking up to? Granted, we can’t all be Pema Chodron, but there was something about the shallowness of my success that made me resent it. That resentment festered, providing even more fuel for my disordered eating. I actively began to engage in anorexic behavior again.
But this time it was a bit different. Every day I’d try not to eat ― I’d give it my best shot, I really would ― but eventually, my mind and body would cave in and demand food. I would eat … and then I would throw up what I ate.
They say when one door closes, another one opens, and that was certainly the case for me when it came to disordered eating. Goodbye, anorexia; hello, bulimia!
When I first began to vomit after eating, I was honestly thrilled. Are you kidding me? I could eat whatever I wanted and then throw it right back up and avoid the consequences of eating (aka gaining weight)? It was the best of both worlds!
Plus, my disordered eating was reinforced wherever I went and by whomever I saw. I’d lose weight and go to a wardrobe fitting where the stylist would look at me excitedly, wag a pair of double 0 jeans, and happily singsong, “Down a size!”
Or I’d get a phone call from my agent, who would say, “You’ve never looked better. Keep doing what you’re doing.” Thanks, Steve ― little do you know that at this very moment you’re muted while I throw up my spicy tuna roll.
Or I’d be walking across the soundstage lot on my way to a table read and a producer would roll down his BMW window and tell me to “keep it up!” I’d flash my pearly whites (or ― more accurately ― slightly-stained-from-the-stomach-acid whites) and feel proud.
My disordered eating was reinforced wherever I went and by whomever I saw. I’d lose weight and go to a wardrobe fitting where the stylist would look at me excitedly, wag a pair of double 0 jeans, and happily singsong, ‘Down a size!’
Another thing I soon learned about eating disorders in Hollywood was that they can be highly competitive. Highly. Competitive. I encountered countless famous actresses, singers and entertainment personalities with eating disorders and found out there was a kind of “disordered eating hierarchy” in young Hollywood, with anorexia reigning over bulimia.
I’d show up at red carpet events and feel like I was getting side-eyed by girls I knew to be anorexic. They’d look at me with what I believed to be pity and I’d look back at them with admiration. In my mind, they were so poised, so full of control, so disciplined. And there I was, puffy-cheeked and swollen-knuckled from all my purging. I was unable to not eat and unable to keep down what I ate.
I started to feel ashamed that I wasn’t good enough at disordered eating. I’d analyze my bulimia and feel terrible. I told myself that if I were better at this, if I were truly committed, I would just be able to not eat. I was convinced that bulimia was nothing more than poor man’s anorexia. What kind of hack was I?
Inevitably, the shame snowballed and so did the bulimia. Before I knew it, I was having five, six or seven purging sessions a day. By definition of the disorder, I was truly succeeding. And yet my bulimia always felt like a failure ― like I was coming up short of what a true disordered eater could (and should) accomplish.
Me at the Creative Emmy Awards in 2013. It’s scary to me how easy it was to cover up what was really going on. If you throw on a nice outfit and smile big for the cameras, they’ll never know! I really want to help change this by encouraging people struggling with disordered eating to speak openly and honestly about it.
This hellish bulimic spiral continued for three more years. And during those years ― plus the 10 years before when I was wrapped up in other forms of disordered eating ― not one person in the entertainment industry confronted me about it. Maybe my destructive behavior was obvious to everyone around me, but if they were all monetizing the situation ― and essentially me ― then what incentive did they have to try to change it or help me?
The one person who did ultimately confront me was my sister-in-law. I was living in Toronto while shooting the Netflix show “Between,” and she and my brother came to visit me for Thanksgiving. We went out to a nice restaurant where I ate lots of turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce … and then I made my way to the bathroom. I purged and purged and purged, celebrating the Pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World the way I knew best. Then I swung open the bathroom door and came face to face with my sister-in-law.
“You need help,” she told me. And I knew she was right. I felt a strange combination of terrified and relieved ― terrified that someone knew my secret and I would have to face my disordered eating, and relieved that maybe now I would finally get better.
Once I got back to Los Angeles from Canada, I met a therapist named Laura whom I really liked. Laura was a spiritual type who hugged me at the end of every session. She had long auburn hair and wore prairie skirts and used the word “beautiful” a lot ― often after I’d said things that were not even remotely beautiful (which was confusing to me until I realized that she used “beautiful” in spaces where most therapists would say, “I understand”).
I met with Laura three times a week for sessions and she attended particularly stressful industry events with me, since those events were often huge triggers for my bulimia. (Stress + crostini hors d’oeuvres = a bulimic spiral waiting to happen.)
This photo was taken right around the time my mom passed away. I was really struggling with disordered eating and had just dipped my toe in the waters of bulimia. I was absolutely terrified of gaining weight and I would take a photo of myself every morning to compare it to a photo of myself from the day before.
Laura was my plus-one to the 2015 Kids’ Choice Awards. Nick Jonas called me to the stage, I locked eyes with a clapping Angelina Jolie, and I got through my lines. Then I walked backstage to meet up with Laura, who was trying to be discreet about taking a picture of Adam Sandler (she wasn’t very familiar with his films but loved “The Chanukah Song”). She beamed at me as I scarfed down a few sliders. Then she quickly sensed my inner turmoil. We rushed to the backseat of an Uber XL where I began sobbing as Laura made sure that I didn’t throw up. The Uber driver was very confused as I repeatedly wailed, “The sliiiiiiiders!”
Around that time, Laura told me she thought I needed a higher level of care and suggested an inpatient treatment facility in Colorado. And that was when I quit seeing Laura. I told myself I was tired of her spiritual approach, but in retrospect I think it might’ve had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t ready to get better. I wasn’t ready to let go of my disordered eating.
Over the next year and a half, I continued to purge even as I also began to face various come-to-Jesus moments. My throat frequently bled and I popped blood vessels in my eyes from vomiting so much. Once I lost a tooth after regurgitated stomach fluids wore down my enamel. Another time I passed out on my friend’s bathroom floor from dehydration. Finally, I decided it was time to seek help again.
At 23, I was back in Canada working on the second season of “Between” and it felt like the right time to go back into treatment. I met a whip-smart eating disorder specialist, Hank, who used a combination of cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral and schema-based therapies.
Hank was not spiritual and did not hug. He dressed impeccably and his hair was perfectly combed. He weighed me at the beginning of each session and gave me homework at the end. He consistently challenged me and urged me to challenge him. When I said something that wasn’t logical, he’d say, “That’s your eating disorder voice.”
I began to face various come-to-Jesus moments. My throat frequently bled and I popped blood vessels in my eyes from vomiting so much. Once I lost a tooth when I passed out on my friend’s bathroom floor from dehydration. Finally, I decided it was time to seek help again.
Identifying my eating disorder voice was the most pivotal aspect of my recovery. I had to learn to understand this thing in and out. I had to recognize that this part of my mind, this eating disorder voice, was not healthy and was not going away. So if I wanted to get better, I’d have to call out my eating disorder voice every single time it popped up. I’d have to confront my urges to obsess or indulge in disordered eating behaviors (which arose hundreds of times every day), work to avoid or correct them, and act based on my recently adopted healthy mindset instead.
Recovery was brutal. It felt like breaking up with a bad boyfriend whom I loved even though I knew I shouldn’t. He treated me poorly, he ruined my life, he consistently devastated me, and yet, without him, who was I really?
Since so much of my identity had been built around the framework of disordered eating, I literally had to relearn how to think in order to rebuild my identity, which was as painstaking and uncomfortable as it sounds. I thought recovery was about walking along white sand beaches with a soft smile while wearing crepe pants ― not sobbing for half-days at a time or falling into a dark hole of depression because suddenly the thing that determined the largest part of who I was for 13 years was now gone.
I had several relapses during my time with Hank and several more even after I finished the program, but Hank warned me about relapses and told me they were totally normal. The important thing was getting back on the recovery program anytime I had a slip so that, as they say in recovery, “the slip doesn’t become a slide.”
Me in 2019.
And so far, the slips haven’t become slides. Anytime I’ve had a slip, I’ve gotten back on my program. It’s been two years and I’m doing well, recovering and moving forward. I still get eating disorder urges, compulsions and occasional fantasies. I still hear that old eating disorder voice, but luckily I hear it less and less often. And when I do hear it, I now have the tools to muffle it. So, thankfully, I can now open up about my disordered eating without titling this piece “I Threw Up Three Minutes Before I Wrote This.”
Jennette McCurdy grew up acting and had leading roles on shows like Netflix’s “Between” and Nickelodeon’s “iCarly.” Not totally satisfied with the work she did as an actress and wanting to take charge of her own creative narrative, McCurdy began writing and directing her own projects in 2017. Her first short film, “Kenny,” was featured on Short of the Week and in The Hollywood Reporter, and is an official selection for the 2019 Florida Film Festival, where it’s nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film. McCurdy’s newest short film, “Strong Independent Women,” is about a mother who puts all her energy into helping her daughter overcome an eating disorder. For more about McCurdy, visit her official website, Instagram and Twitter accounts.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter