In a world of fad dieting, Instagram models, “thinspiration,” Snapchat filters and detoxing, Ponte Vedra resident McCall Dempsey wants to break the bathroom scale. No, not by stepping on it the morning after an all-you-can-eat pasta night (we’ve all been there). Actually, Dempsey prefers a sledgehammer.
Welcome to Southern Smash, a nonprofit that is dedicated to raising awareness about eating disorders and celebrating true beauty and self-love. Founded in November 2012 by Dempsey, Southern Smash tours college campuses across the country to host events that include panel discussions, along with its “signature” smashing event, where attendees can smash scales to symbolize letting go of defining their value by a number.
The organization was recently recognized nationally for its work in the eating disorder field, receiving Eating Disorder Hope’s 2019 Seal of Excellence in the nonprofit category. This recognition is given to highlight significant contributions in the eating disorder field and for helping people find help, hope and healing across the nation.
“People think that eating disorders might be decisions of vanity or choice,” Dempsey said. “But they’re illnesses. The brain is part of the body just like any other organ. So, our mission is to really push that eating disorders know no bounds. They affect every race and every gender or socioeconomic level. One of our clinicians in a panel talk said that, 'The only requirement to have an eating disorder is to have a body.' That’s it.”
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), at least 30 million people of all ages suffer from an eating disorder in the United States. In addition, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate over any other mental illness.
To address this issue, Dempsey has hosted Southern Smash events at Louisiana State University, the University of Mississippi, Duke University, the University of North Florida and Flagler College. She recently got back from a trip to UCLA in Los Angeles and Clemson in South Carolina, after having made appearances at over 100 different schools since the nonprofit’s inception. Her events draw students for not only being interactive but high-energy, giving away koozies and T-shirts and playing music. Southern Smash’s mission statement is, “to challenge men and women to rethink their beauty and redefine their self-worth,” Dempsey said.
“It’s really unique and different because it draws a crowd,” Dempsey said. “If I sat at a table and said, 'eating disorder information' nobody is going to come.”
At least that was the idea when she was first asked to come speak at LSU in Baton Rouge in 2012. At the time, Dempsey had been blogging about her experiences recovering from an eating disorder that lasted 15 years. She was treated at both outpatient and inpatient facilities after recognizing she had a problem with a host of issues, one forming after another. She struggled with anorexia, compulsive exercise, diet pills and binging, before identifying the illness through the help of a close friend, who suggested treatment.
“I had never thought about doing something public like that,” Dempsey said. “I called them back and said yes, but I have this really crazy idea — I want to do a scale smash. They said, ‘What's that?’ And I said, ‘smashing bathroom scales with sledgehammers?’”
The event proved to be a success and afterward Dempsey said, “I just knew in my gut, this is why I am on this earth.”
Since then, she has worked to fight against the poor body image and negative self-talk that she says has become a “cultural norm.” She believes, however, that eating disorders are mental illnesses that, just like any other disease, are passed through genetics. Dempsey sees culture as “pulling the trigger” on what biology has already determined. She says that media and social influence play a significant role on whether or not these illnesses manifest themselves. “Our society is a disordered eating society, and it tells us to be thinner, richer, whiter,” she said.
Dempsey would like to stress, however, that these illnesses don’t just belong to super models. They are prevalent in all types of people and body types. Sometimes, she says, they don’t even have anything to do with weight loss.
“This is not a rich, white girl disease,” she said. “We are seeing in children what used to be written off as picky eating. It’s actually an eating disorder. Not all eating disorders are a drive for thinness.”
In addition, she said that no diet is a good diet. Instead, she would like to make the focus on personal health.
“When we talk about diets, none of them are good, Dempsey said. “Anytime you cut out anything. Why not come from a place that we are all born with? It's called intuitive eating. We eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. It’s this amazing phenomenon that nobody seems to get. It’s not about, ‘Let’s eat cheeseburgers all day every day.’ It wouldn’t be healthy. Just like it’s not heathy to eat kale all day every day. There's a balance.”
At a Southern Smash rally, there are all types of people with all types of bodies. Dempsey believes just because a body isn’t thin, doesn’t mean it is any less healthy. What isn’t healthy, she said, is obsessing over it. Instead, people should be asking themselves the question, “If (I) weren't thinking about food and body, what would (I) have time for? How much free brain space would I have?”
For anyone struggling with eating disorders or negative body image, Dempsey recommends checking out the Health at Every Size philosophy or visiting the Turning Tides Eating Disorder Treatment Center at 4300 Marsh Landing Blvd. in Jacksonville Beach. For more information about Southern Smash, visit southernsmash.org.