01/03/2014 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On Staying Authentic as a 20-Something in New York

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Friends and peers back home often ask me how one makes it in New York. But as someone who survived her first year in this city as an unpaid intern selling clothing to make rent (Beacon's Closet, thanks for keeping me in business, but I want my Stella McCartney dress back) I might venture to say I am far from having "made it." Still, in the short two and a half years I have lived here, I have learned a thing or two about the amount of strength, levity and hunger it takes to succeed in one of the world's most competitive cities, beyond unlimited resources, which doesn't hurt either.

As a shy, insecure 19-year-old, I flew from my small, Catholic college in South Bend, Indiana to New York to intern during Fashion Week at one of the world's top modeling agencies. I don't think culture shock begins to explain how terribly awkward I felt, and probably appeared, during my first brush with the inner workings of the fashion industry. I had grown up in a small Pennsylvania town idolizing the industry, and it would be a few years before I was able to survive and thrive in its cutthroat environment.

I hit the ground running, more often than not in the wrong direction, wearing shoes in which I could not walk. I did not yet have a smartphone, the subway system was entirely unfamiliar, and the 16-year-old Russian model I had accompanied spoke not a word of English. I spent the better part of the week getting lost in a very snowy Manhattan, but managed to get the models to their castings and shows on time by having my saint of a father send me HopStop directions through a series of texts.

My entrance into life as a New Yorker has been tumultuous, to say the very least, but thankfully I have managed to stay grounded (quite literally). The very first time I attended a fashion show, I tripped over the front row bench trying to exit, and fell face flat on the runway, causing quite a scene in front of tastemakers I greatly admired. It was at that moment I realized no matter how sophisticated or edgy I tried to be, I would always be Christina underneath. And in case you are wondering, Christina (that's me!) can be a total nut.

I was petrified to be myself because I was so focused on how I measured up to that ideal, over there. You know, that really thin chick with perfect hands that manages not to get lipstick on her teeth. We all have in mind an aspirational version of ourselves, but for many of us, this becomes an unhealthy crusade toward an impossible ideal.

I have spent years trying to fit the mold of what I considered perfection. Instead of becoming a thinner, more attractive edition of my bubbly self, I became a thinner, less attractive, less bubbly, more insecure, shell of my true self. Photos from my first Fashion Week show a pale, gaunt young girl with a tired smile and thinning hair, who nearly swooned backstage, not over designer confections, but from years of self-starvation and malnourishment.

That was five years ago, and in the past five years I have spent over twelve months in total in and out of treatment centers and hospitals reclaiming my life from anorexia. Being in treatment offered plenty of downtime, and the prime opportunity to rediscover and embrace my genuine self.

In the two and a half years since I moved to New York, I have grown into my own, and it's been the best time of my life. It has taken me an incredibly long while to get to this point, but I am beginning to cherish my idiosyncrasies, of which there are many. It is now more important to me than ever to stick to my values; values instilled within me from my parents at a very young age. Upon initial arrival in New York, my goal was to be some effortlessly cool fashion chick. Since then, that objective and naivety, has faded. It is now most important to me to be authentic, kind, positive and skilled at what I do. Cool is overrated. Inhibiting all of that creativity, sarcastic humor and boundless energy, in fear of being myself, was exhausting. So now I am, for better and for worse, unapologetically myself (albeit still somewhat shy), which has brought me countless meaningful relationships and opportunities I would not have had otherwise.

The sum of many challenges? I now feel incredibly strong, from my conviction to my handshake. New York is not a warm and fuzzy city; she won't always love you back. Depending on your profession, it is unlikely it will provide the opportunity to be all "kumbaya" in the workplace. That's life. But simply because it's not always a kind place does not mean you cannot be. While New York is not exactly known for its compassionate folk, those who have taken me under their wing and treated me with tough love have inspired me all the more to do the same.

One year in New York is almost like a dog year -- it flies by. So buck up, ask for what you want. Walk it off, as a friend of mine always says. Think before you speak, and listen up. Respect your superiors (and your interns). Spend some time alone. Be kind. Chin up. Stick to your guns, and never forget where you came from. Work hard, and work late. And at the end of the day, the only person you have is you. So be yourself. Be your authentic self, always. For in a city where only the strong survive, there is no greater sign of strength.