It was a sweltering hot August morning in New York City, and I had just met with Caroline Rothstein on an assignment for I Am That Girl, an organization devoted to promoting authentic confidence in women around the world. I chose to interview Caroline because a friend told me about her courage in advocacy and activism towards body empowerment and sexual abuse awareness. Caroline is a NYC-based spoken word poet and freelance writer. Caroline also has a YouTube series called "Body Empowerment" where she discusses eating disorder recovery and how to maintain a positive body image. I was soon to find out that Caroline is a woman who has changed the lives of many women all over the world, and that she'd impact my life, too.
After a conversation over a cup of coffee, we walked three blocks to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where Caroline is a regular performer. When she said that she would recite her spoken word poem entitled "Fat," there was no preparation for the piercing words I was about to hear.
"I am not fat. It took me 22 years to purge words onto the page the same way I purged my body into stomach ulcers, popped eye blood vessels and missing tooth enamel. 22 years to tell the tale of my bulimic, anorexic and disordered eating hell."
"...This is a Poem About playing Russian roulette with my esophagus as my gun barrel fingers triggered tragedy down my throat."
[See the full video of 'Fat' embedded at the bottom of the article]
These words hit me like a pile of bricks. The rhythm and conviction with which she relayed her poem was not angry. Instead, it was shockingly powerful, thoughtful and informative. After her two-minute performance, I felt as if I, too, had lived the struggle that she has faced with eating disorders since the age of eleven. She had shown me the rawest version of herself, making me feel that I had known her for years, as opposed to just hours.
I have never seen a woman be so open and readily available to share her personal experiences with the depth of honesty that Caroline did -- and right on the asphault of a busy NYC street, no less! I stood frozen like a deer in headlights, my jaw dropped and amazed by what I had just seen.
I YouTubed Caroline's "Body Empowerment" series and was amazed to find the huge archive of videos of Caroline sitting in front of a camera. The videos are sincere and direct on what she is talking about on that given day, integrity oozed out of them. She speaks about personal experiences that she has had overcoming her disorder, and general ideas like loving your body, just the way it is.
She has reached over 50,000 viewers and has become a valued resource for people all over the world. One viewer commented, "I am currently trying very hard to recover and your videos are helping me a great deal. Your [sic] wonderful."
The "Body Empowerment" series initially started because of work that Caroline did with The National Association of Anorexia, Nervosa and Associate Disorders (ANAD) in 2000. She became a "resource person," a non-professional that people dealing with eating disorders could contact for guidance and help.
Caroline received a call from a young woman in Brooklyn. This woman had called a suicide hotline previously, and got in touch through ANAD's directory. She called Caroline and said, "I need to meet with you. Nobody knows I'm bulimic and it's killing me."
The woman told Caroline that she wanted to be "as confident and recovered" as she was. She also urged Caroline to put her story and advice on YouTube so that she could help other women struggling with body issues around the world.
Following through with the young woman, Caroline felt no fear when putting her message into cyberspace, and instead felt a pressing feeling of responsibility.
It is estimated that eating disorders affect approximately 24 million people in the U.S and 70 million worldwide, although Caroline believes that this number is too low, only accounting for the recorded cases. With so many people struggling, the subject is still very taboo. I know that within my own life, body image issues are seldom discussed with girlfriends who are experiencing problems. Shame, fear and weakness is often attached to ideas of distorted body perceptions. Similarly, Caroline found that when studying at UPENN it was "impossible to get women to talk about eating disorders." Yet through her series, as well as her performances, Caroline is encouraging a discussion, and breaking the taboo.
Caroline's own struggle with eating disorders started at the age of eleven. In 2004, she went into recovery and now, at age 28, she is fully recovered. Another area that Caroline advocates for is sexual abuse and violence awareness. Caroline was molested in high school for a year and a half, and date raped in University.
The fact that Caroline can be so positive and courageous in sharing these very personal stories after experiencing such trauma made me feel like I was in the presence of a super woman. She is so fearless and selfless in her decision to ensure that no one is "locked in a bathroom stall crying on their own because they have no one to talk to."
Caroline lives her life based on the motto, "Triumph over adversity." She embodies this idea, turning every hardship she has faced into an opportunity, creating a platform to educate and help others. Caroline continues to spread her message through her YouTube series. As a journalist and a spoken word poet she has also found time to self-publish two books, "What I learned in College" (2006), and "This Book Wrote Itself" (2009).
I walked away from my morning with Caroline invigorated with the sense that I had met someone who truly personified courage. It inspired me to be a little bit less reserved about things considered "taboo." Knowing that I too could stare adversity in the face and triumph in the end just as Caroline has shown me.