Madison Mumma, 20, Duke University.
Steve Rosenfield is the creator & photographer of the powerful What I Be Project. He approached me to help share how the project is changing the lives of participants—one story at a time.
When the photograph was released, Madison “Maddy” Mumma admits, “Not a single person from my family reached out to me for two weeks.”
Maddy is a 20-year-old “rising junior” attending Duke University, in her home town of Durham, North Carolina.
Doing these kinds of interviews isn’t easy, and it was obvious she had seen her share of painful days. I think it was mutually understood that we didn’t need to talk about the nitty gritty of her trauma. So we didn’t. Whatever brought her to participate in this project, she sure as shit brought the lion’s courage. High fives for Maddy.
Preparing to take the photograph, Steve Rosenfield, the project’s founder, wrote everything but “eating disorder” on Maddy’s face. He took a photo.
“I’m such a private person who doesn’t share much,” she says.
Prior to shooting, Steve convinced Maddy to take two photographs. Steve wrote “eating disorder” and fired a second image. Maddy now had a decision to make. Which photo would she allow Steve to post?
“At Duke, we can anonymously report students we’re worried about. I had been reported twice,” says Maddy. “I was kidding myself that nobody had a clue. Especially friends.”
She ran downstairs to a friend who had also done an eating disorder related image for the project.
“I ran up two seconds later and told Steve to publish the second one. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I didn’t want to half-ass it. It was scary and weird.”
The image was posted to Facebook on February 23, 2014.
She said, “It felt like I was coming out of hiding.” Not an uncommon response to the emotional weight, often lifted, by participating in the What I Be Project.
Even more encouraging, 19 people have gone out of their way to send Maddy personal messages. Some she knows, others were complete strangers. They’ve applauded her bravery. They’ve shared stories of similar struggles with eating disorders. Including men. Sharing that she was not alone in her journey. They’ve all shared their gratitude. Many shared how impressed they were with her courage. That’s not even counting the comments in person or on Facebook. Maddy also said that the whole experience has brought her closer to her friends.
However, in spite of the overwhelmingly positive response, her family had grown extremely upset with her. In the weeks leading up to Maddy’s arrival home for spring break, after the image was released, she was nervous. She had reason to be. She arrived home to a full-blown fight with her siblings and parents.
“They are very much why I…they thought it [participating in the project] was all about them,” she says.
So, while Maddy was consciously doing something healthy for herself, her family was pissed off at her for embarrassing them. I could hear the strength of her voice waver as she continued to share. “It’s like destroying my family. We never talked about it again. And still haven’t. It’s simmering.”
After one conversation with Maddy, I could tell she was wise beyond her years. Her battle with anorexia and depression has actually given her much to be proud of.
“Avoiding the conversation is the whole problem. We have to destigmatize it. Make people talk about it. I’m a psych major and want to help people with their problems. So it was great to have people reach out to me. No regrets.”
Discussing the release of her photo, “I want other people to have that moment of relief. I had to own it and realize that I wanted to move on.”
If Maddy is any example of a beautiful person, let her closing words from our conversation seal the deal.
“The photograph, to me, was slowly accepting what had happened and accepting the recovery process. I’m definitely in a great place now and the photograph helped me get to that place. I’m doing well. I didn’t think I could ever say that…but I can.”
I could hear her smile.
You can read Maddy’s personal statement at the project’s website.
What is the What I Be Project?
Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be Project encourages millions, globally, to courageously address their insecurities. What started as an experiment in 2010 has since transformed into a full-blown, and sometimes, controversial movement. The subject of an image will share verbiage on his or her skin related to their insecurity. They accept this as part of who they are, however, acknowledging it does not define their whole being. Steve clicks the shutter and posts the photograph online.
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Editor: Travis May
Photo: What I Be Project by Steve Rosenfield