An interview with Annie Shiel and Merideth VanSant, co-founders of True U
Annie: I started yoga as a type-A, perfection-obsessed teenager, and I can’t imagine where my relationship with my body would be without yoga. In a yoga practice, we focus on how the body feels, not on what it looks like. We practice non-attachment to physical results. We listen to the body and learn to trust our intuition, including taking rest when we need it. And we learn to quiet the constant chatter in our minds – which for many of us, means a chorus of “I’m-not-good-enoughs.”
These concepts completely transformed my relationship with my body. We founded True U to make this invaluable practice of yoga and mindfulness more accessible to those who need it most: teen girls across the socioeconomic spectrum who are dealing with complex body image issues, histories of trauma, social-, school-, and family-related stress, and pursuing their passions in a society that repeatedly tells them they’re not good enough.
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Merideth: The focus on external beauty is crushing. We wanted to shift the perspective from objectifying our bodies to using our bodies like the strong tools, machines, and the vehicles that they are! Each yoga class we take, mountain that we hike, ball we kick, and sidewalk that we run, we train our bodies (and minds!) to support what our bodies can do for us rather than what they look like. True U works to shift how we perceive our body’s purpose – from visual to functional. If we can do that, we can fuel and serve our bodies in a way that supports our strengths.
You use the term “survivor of adolescence” – what exactly do you mean by that?
Annie: Adolescence is ROUGH. No matter who you are and where you grow up, your teenage years are full of self discovery and the pressure to answer that seemingly impossible question: “who am I?” Ultimately we all just want to be loved, and sometimes we’re willing to change a lot about ourselves in order to get there. For me, the pressures of teenagehood led to disordered eating in my quest for control and perfection; for others, it could be bullying, negative self talk, depression, anxiety, behavioral issues, self harm… the list goes on. We call ourselves survivors of adolescence because we GET IT, we’ve been there, and we made it through and found (and LOVED) our best selves – just like the girls we work with.
What have you learned about today’s generation of adolescent girls and eating disorders?
Merideth: Our society, our culture, has created this emphasis on external beauty. In fact, we can cite research by countless economists and behavioral scientists examining how external beauty is often used as a silent indicator, predictive of career success, entry into social clubs, and treatment in public. Unsurprisingly, girls internalize these crushing expectations, which can manifest as disordered eating, risky sexual behaviors, and other self harming behaviors.
What we’re doing with True U is changing the messaging adolescent girls are hearing, and helping them create a more personally-empowered path. We communicate that our value and quality of life is not about how we look but instead how much we love ourselves, and how amazing our bodies are – just as they are! That each body deserves to be here – every shape, size, and color.
What advice would you give to parents of teenagers with eating disorders?
Annie: With so much stigma around mental health, remember that your child is not her eating disorder. Talk about what she’s going through, share your own experiences, and absolutely seek professional help – but remember that in spite of everything she’s going through, she is not her mental illness and she certainly didn’t choose it. She is still a whole person with complex emotions, passions, and dreams. So while you seek care as a family, don’t forget to keep nurturing the rest of her.
Merideth: Taking care of yourself as a parent is so important. Protective factors that we know support recovery, like parent-child closeness and trust, are greater facilitated when parental self care is exercised. Self care looks different for everyone – daily walks, yoga, facilitated parental support groups that share similar experiences… anything that decreases stress, recharges, and gives space and perspective.
Annie Shiel and Merideth VanSant are the co-founders of True U, an organization working to empower adolescent girls with yoga, mindfulness practices, and honest conversation. Annie is a trauma-informed vinyasa yoga teacher dedicated to using yoga as a tool for healing, self love, social justice, and empowerment. Merideth holds a Masters of Science in Human Development, and uses her professional and personal background to promote resiliency and empower women to build strong and inspired communities. She is a trained power flow and Rocket yoga teacher. To learn more about True U and bring their work to your community, visit www.trueugirls.com.