By Perry Lefko
To see Ashlee Smith today, a healthy woman who works out six times a week, eats regularly and properly and has become active in fitness modeling competitions, it is hard to believe that only four years ago she was emaciated and close to death.
The 21-year-old native of England had dealt with eating issues since her teens because she hated her body and had no confidence. She became severely anorexic, losing some 50 pounds, and by her own admission hit “rock bottom” and had to be hospitalized because her organs starting shutting down. Her skin colour was grey, and her hair, once thick and curly, was falling out and she had sores from lying in bed.
“I was in critical condition and told I had a couple of weeks to live at that point,” she said following a spirited strength and conditioning workout led by Steven Jay Wong this past Saturday at Battle Arts Academy. “I did eventually end up recovering. It took about four or five months of hospitalization. Unfortunately I didn’t deal with the post-hospital situation that well. I transformed from anorexia to bulimia.”
“I couldn’t handle the weight increases and became suicidal and lifeless,” she says. “Seeing the pain it caused my family, I knew I needed to get healthy and not be stuck in a cycle of self-destruction and tried my hardest to do whatever it took to improve. I started compulsive binge-eating and built an even worse relationship with food and self-image. Although I was physically recovered and a ‘normal’ weight, mentally I was still extremely unhappy and believed I would have to be forever miserable with myself.”
She literally ran away from her situation, beginning what she calls the “crazy section of her life,” heading off to Germany. But mentally couldn’t cope and flew back. She tried it a second time and lasted a little longer, but dealt with daily mental breakdowns and returned home again. She stayed in bed dealing with severe depression and anxiety attacks if she had to leave the house.
Once again, she decided to leave home, but this time travelled to Australia, taking along her “mental and physical baggage…everything I had with me.”
She met her current boyfriend, Jake Guiry, and they decided to travel for a year.
“I saw a lot of the world, but mentally it was tough because I had to try to deal with all the eating issues, the depression, the anxiety, while in the middle of nowhere with no family or friends around,” she says.
She came to Canada with Jake, looking to start a new life, but still experienced good days and bad days.
“I kind of accepted that’s how it was meant to be; that that was going to be my life and I’d have to struggle through, just deal with it,” she says.
She heard about Denise Marler, an Oakville resident who was friends Jake’s sister. Denise had lost 25 pounds through a regimen geared toward fitness modeling.
“That image stuck with me until spring, 2013, when I finally decided to just contact her and ask who her trainer was and get me started,” Ashlee says. “Denise just looked so fit and healthy. I thought maybe that’s something I should work towards rather than being super skinny. It just interested me, of having a goal; having something more realistic than the mental problems that eating disorders can give you – the distorted images.”
Denise put Ashlee in touch with her trainer, Justin Orsini, and nutrionist, Alison Peloso-Golding, in April, 2013 and Ashlee began the process of living healthy. In September, she decided to train for a fitness modeling competition sanctioned by the International Drug Free Athletics last November in Meadowvale. Denise had won it before.
“Denise suggested doing it because it was a rush and probably one of the hardest things I’ve done so far,” she says. “Suddenly being told what to eat and to exercise and still trying to deal with all my other issues going on at the same time was tough. Lots of times I was crying and wanted to give up and not do it anymore. But I (hung in there) and I’m glad I did.”
She finished third in the Novice Fitness Model class.
She also won the IDFA Transformation Challenge for that particular event. The Transformation Challenge is an annual competition that the IDFA does, offering a $1,000 prize for the person that best transforms their body without drugs. Ashlee sent a photo of herself taken a month or two before she hospitalized and a story of her background. It was a stark reminder of just how unhealthy she looked.
“I remember feeling so fat that day and refusing to let my Mum take photos of me,” she says. “She wanted to do it – I found out recently – to one day show them to me to prove how I really looked. At the time I couldn’t see it. When I saw the picture it shocked me.”
She won first prize in the Transformation Challenge for the event and at the end of the year they took all the winners from each competition and put them online to vote for an overall men’s and women’s winner. Her trainer wanted to put Ashlee’s photos on his website, which she agreed to as long as he didn’t tag it on Facebook.
“I didn’t want to become the girl with the issues again, although now I’m generally over it,” she says.
The photos drew support from various parts of the world. She was contacted by some of the people with whom she in hospital and others from high school who had no idea of her disorder and offered up stories of their own similar struggles.
“I was astonished by the response I got from people,” she says. “Once I realized it was a positive thing I agreed to spread it a bit more (by posting in on Facebook).”
She told her story with explicit detail.
“It was still a sensitive issue, but I realized people aren’t necessarily looking down on me or judging me any differently,” she says.
She won the competition, which was a big surprise because she hadn’t expected it.
“It was the first story where they had a weight gain transformation rather than a weight loss,” she says. “I think that was part of (what contributed to the win). It was tears of happiness when I found out.
“I feel very healthy now. My past issues feel like a lifetime ago. I’m moving on and so much has happened. It’s just one, big crazy blur. Trying to remember dates, I’m like an old person, even though it was only two or three years ago. I like now. Now is a better time. It’s taken me 21 years to figure it out, but I’ve got there eventually, I think. I still have crazy moments, for sure, but the frequency has changed completely. I don’t want to say ‘I’m perfect, I’m cured, here I am.’ I’m definitely not at that point yet, but so close.
“Working out is my therapy. The squat bar is my counselor,” she says with a laugh. “It’s so empowering to feel so powerful and have people surprised at what I can do. A couple years before I physically couldn’t even get out of bed. I was so weak. I had no body strength. Here I am now deadlifting the same weight as most men. It’s a good feeling and mentally everything that goes along with it.
“My body image has changed completely. I still have days where I feel like crap, but for the most part I like my body. I like how fit and healthy it looks. There is the odd comment on line that ‘she looks like a man.’ I just brush it off. I laugh in their faces. I know I don’t look like a man. I don’t even care what they think because I’m happy. When I was severely underweight I’m sure there were people who could tell me I looked great, but at the same time I was literally dying.
“I’ve become ever-stronger and now understand the importance of a balanced diet and working out and I love it, too,” she says. “I’m a whole new person and I’m where I’ve always dreamt – being fit, happy and healthy. It was a touchy subject for me for the longest time, but I hope now that it’s out there people can at least see the importance of a healthy lifestyle and realize the damage and stigma that goes along with mental health issues.
“I’ve already had lots of people message me, sharing their own struggles, asking questions, telling me I’m ‘an inspiration’ to them. So I’m amazed and pleased that one photo and story is able to have an impact on at least one person.”
She has also received sponsorship from Iron Bodies Designer Suits.
Perry Lefko is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author living in Mississauga. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years, including 21 for the Toronto Sun, in which he was a runnerup twice for the Dunlop Award for outstanding sports writing in the Sun Media Newspaper chain, and voted writer of the year by the Ontario Curling Association. He has also had articles published in The Toronto Star, Trot Magazine and is currently a frequently contributor to Goodlife Mississauga Magazine and Goodlife Brampton Magazine. He is also a contributor to Sportsnet.ca. He writes about sports, health and fitness, business, entertainment, arts and politics. He is passionate about writing personality profiles, in particular the human condition and overcoming the odds. He has had seven books published, including two that were national bestsellers: Sandra Schmirler, The Queen of Curling; and Bret Hart: The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be. He has also written books about Doug Flutie, Michael (Pinball) Clemons and Sandy Hawley. He has been contracted by Penguin Publishing to help broadcaster/athlete Colleen Jones write her life story. He also reviews books for Quill and Quire Magazine. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.