One year ago, Mills Hayes was battling an eating disorder. Today, she is using her experiences to empower others through Carolina BeYOUtiful week.
Carolina BeYOUtiful week begins on Monday, Feb. 4, and ends with a National Eating Disorders Association walk on Saturday, Feb. 9.
Throughout her 2018 campaign for Student Government vice president, Hayes was coming to terms with her eating habits.
”I remember it kind of started when I hit puberty ... I was always really self conscious,” Hayes said. “I always thought, okay, if I can’t be the skinniest or the prettiest girl, then I was going to be the most successful. ... I’m literally chasing perfection; I’ve been chasing to be this super girl.”
Following high school, Hayes recalled gaining some weight. During her junior year of college, she began to engage in bulimic behaviors. During the second semester of her junior year, Hayes worked two jobs and ran her campaign, finding little to no time to eat.
“I started to lose weight because of that and everyone was talking about how amazing I looked," Hayes said. "Truthfully, I had forgotten what it felt like to feel full. I was so uncomfortable and foreign to me, and when the campaign ended and I had more time to eat again, I would get full over little things and I hated that feeling, so I would throw them up ... I felt like I had no control over my life, so I used that as a way to have control.”
Over the summer, Hayes was diagnosed with an eating disorder and went to Greenville for treatment.
“I will be honest, recovery has not been perfect for me,” Hayes said. “There have been times where I have messed up and I have slipped. The hardest part was definitely the weight gain ... you continuously have to choose recovery and choose yourself every single day.”
When Hayes returned to campus, she went to members of Student Government to create a movement that would help other students struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating habits. Hayes first met with Katie Cohen, the secretary for health and wellness. For the first time, eating disorder awareness was included in Cohen’s Stigma Free USC week.
“She opened up to me with her story,” Cohen said. “It was really powerful, and she helped me plan Stigma Free USC ... she kind of felt like there needed to be more on the topic of eating disorders because of the spectrum of disordered eating and eating disorders and the way that body positivity interacts with that ... Stigma Free sort of inspired this week, in a way.”
Hayes also went to her chief of staff and close personal friend Sophie Davish to help lead preparation for the initiative that would become Carolina BeYOUtiful week.
“When she brought me the idea of Carolina BeYOUtiful week, I was so excited for her, and it seemed, both as her friend and as her chief of staff, that this was going to be something therapeutic for Mills to tell her story," Davish said. “Instantly so many people came flooding forward.”
Hayes and her staff cite their campaign slogan, “Beautiful is just a word. Be more. Be you,” as emblematic of the message they are hoping to send.
”When I thought about the word 'Carolina Beautiful,' at first I really didn’t love it,” Hayes said. “What it was emphasizing was that you are individually beautiful, but that is not the point of the week. The point of the week is not to be so focused on whether or not you were beautiful or not ... so I added the slogan to it. ... You should want to be better and grow toward something bigger than the word 'beautiful.'”
Cohen says that the slogan helps to clarify the mission of the Carolina BeYOUtiful campaign, because the word "beautiful" could carry connotations Hayes and her staff want to avoid.
”The word 'beautiful' has this association with it that means physical beauty,” Cohen said. “Beauty, a lot of times, is associated with desire, and we don’t want people to feel like they need to be desired.”
In anticipation of the week, Hayes and her team have held several events, including a photo shoot that aimed to represent as many different people as possible.
“It was really cool because you could sort of see the transition while the girls and guys were taking their pictures, especially the guys,” Cohen said. “The guys really started very shy and kind of just smiling, and then towards the end they were posing, making muscle poses and they really loved the pictures ... that was a really impactful moment.“
Hayes and Davish also visited sororities on campus, where Hayes shared her story and spoke out about eating disorder awareness.
“Some people don’t know that the things they're doing are disordered," Hayes said. "And I went around to sororities the past two weeks ... I started off my speech and I asked ... 'Are you eating less carbs, going on a diet or exercising more for spring break? Do you ever skip dinner to save calories for drinking when you go out drinking with your friends in Five Points?' And so many people raised their hands."
Davish was personally moved when she first heard Hayes publicly share her experiences.
“We reached out to every single sorority on campus,” Davish said. “That very first time that I heard Mills say her story in her own words — it's so profoundly brave to speak in front of all of these women ... the confidence that she has really instills in me and really instills in all the girls that she’s speaking to."
As Carolina BeYOUtiful week draws near, Hayes and Davish hope that the campaign will push students struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating to seek help.
"If she can speak her truth ... we can overcome it together," Davish said.