My Nine-Year Struggle with Anorexia by Brittany Snow

updated 10/15/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/2007 01:00AM

You know Brittany Snow as the perfectly coiffed vixen Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray (right), the conniving cheerleader in John Tucker Must Die or the girl next door on the former NBC series American Dreams. Until now, few outside her tight inner circle knew that through her own teen years, Snow battled anorexia, depression and self-mutilation. Now recovered and working with the Jed Foundation (www.jedfoundation.org) to encourage others to seek help, Snow, 21, recounted her struggle, and her courageous path to recovery, with PEOPLE's Lisa Ingrassia.

I always had in my mind that being skinny was better, even as a little girl. But I was never chubby or overweight. At age 12 I was on Guiding Light, and I wanted to be accepted by these adults I was working with. I started with the Eat Right for Your Type diet. A friend who was a little older was doing it. I have a perfectionist personality, so I wanted to do the best job I could. I was not eating anything it said not to. It was almost fun for me, like a little experiment. Then I moved on to other diets. The cabbage diet, the salmon diet—I don't even like salmon!—the Zone, Atkins, Slim Fast. When I started losing weight, I got compliments from people I looked up to on the show. Soon, I was addicted to getting results. That's how it started, but it progressed rather quickly.

Within a month, Snow lost 10 lbs. from her then 5'3" frame.

My parents knew that I was dieting. A misperception about anorexia is that you don't eat. Not true. Maybe you eat just 500 calories a day. It would be easy for me to say, "Why didn't my parents notice?" But I didn't want them to. I made sure to eat half a sandwich around my parents.

But then came the sadness and thinking I was a terrible person for eating the sandwich. I wanted to be a good girl, so I'd stick to "good" foods: salad, grilled chicken, mustard. Splenda in everything. In the lunch room at school, everyone would be like, "I'm not eating fries today." I thought, "I don't eat fries at all." My fear of fries made me realize I was different from my peers.

By age 14, she weighed 87 lbs. and Guiding Light's producers called her into their office to talk.

I was told that viewers were writing in, saying I had lost a lot of weight. The scary thing is, that made me happy. That people were worried meant this was going well. The producers told me not to go to the gym as much. But I would literally have an anxiety attack if I didn't go to the gym, because I felt like I was such a bad person.

I kept thinking, "Once you get to a specific number, you're going to be happy." At age 13, my number was 97 lbs. I got to 97 and, of course, that wasn't good enough. I got to 92. Not good enough. That's the illness: You'll never get there. I was 85 lbs. at my 2000 homecoming dance. But I wanted my collarbones and hip bones to show more. I'd feel my hip bones to make sure they were out. If not, I had more weight to lose. I lost my period until I was 17. I loved that. It meant I wasn't healthy, and I didn't want to be healthy.

In 2002, Snow, 16, moved to L.A. to star in American Dreams. She was 5'4" and back to 100 lbs. Soon after, she began cutting herself.

You can starve for only so long. I started eating, and depression kicked in. I wasn't getting "Gosh, you've lost so much weight!" And that wasn't okay. I worked out up to three hours a day. I felt shame that I was 100 lbs. Anorexics are supposed to be 50 lbs.

That's where the cutting came in. The more I couldn't control my eating, the more I did it. I wanted to look at my wrist and be like, "See what you did? You ate ____." It wasn't about the food. It was an emotional problem. I wanted it to bleed, but I didn't want to kill myself. It was about hurting myself so I could feel bad, cry and let it out.

Two different boyfriends saw the scars. But they chalked it up to me being dramatic. Or I'd get a massage and there would be a moment when the masseuse held my wrists and I'd smile and say, "It's okay, keep going." No one ever talked about it.

When I was 16, I read an article in a magazine about a model who was anorexic and bulimic and cut herself. I burst into tears. I saw myself. The model talked about how she got help and has an amazing life—I carried around that article in my back pocket for a month, to feel like there was hope. That article saved my life.

My dad was the first person to whom I admitted what was going on. He didn't understand, but he wanted so desperately to. In 2003 he got me a therapist. But I wasn't ready. As much as the anorexia and cutting were painful, I still needed them.

Finally I went into the hospital when I was 19 for depression and for cutting. I wasn't the person I wanted to be and I knew something was wrong.

The therapist diagnosed me with anorexia, exercise bulimia—instead of throwing up you go to the gym for hours—depression and body dysmorphia. All that, and yet I still had a career! It's shocking how many people in the business have great careers and this too, and don't talk about it. It's that drive and perfectionism.

I was about 110 lbs. when I went in. Being anorexic doesn't necessarily mean you're on the brink of death. It can mean that you were once at a dangerous weight and that mentality is still with you. They try to teach you how to eat normally. Gaining weight was scary. But I felt better. What helped was connecting with other people. I wanted to be there for them. It was the most amazing feeling to get out of my own head and listen to somebody else.

After nearly a month of treatment, I left a few days early to go straight to the set of John Tucker Must Die. I had gained about 10 lbs. I was 120, which isn't big. But I can understand why the producers wanted me in shape for a scene in my underwear. They were nice about it. They hired a trainer and suggested a diet.

Thank goodness for my costars, Sophia Bush and Arielle Kebbel. I told them, "You have to look out for me, because this is so hard." We would work out together and then they would pull me off the treadmill, and Sophia would be like, "Maybe you should eat this!" We had slumber parties. I started having fun, which was unheard of. Before, it was, "I can't have fun. I can't go eat a burger with my friends. How many calories are in that burger?" When I was getting better I met my boyfriend, Michael Johnson, a drummer in a band called Capra. Before, I never would have gone for a guy like him because I was so unloving to myself.

Today, being able to have a conversation and not think about what I'm eating? Amazing. I still see a therapist, but I eat like a normal person. I don't count calories—and I know the calories in every food. I go to the gym three times a week and do Pilates three times a week, but not for more than an hour. It's not healthy.

This past April I found out two of my friends from the hospital had died of anorexia. They had kids, jobs, and were amazing women. So when the Jed Foundation, which brings awareness about mental health disorders and suicide in college students, asked me to make an educational video, I thought, talking about my experience is something I can do to help. After the video aired, it made me sad that people thought I did it for publicity. I did it because people are misinformed. I hope this is an article that someone will carry in her pocket, maybe a girl who doesn't understand what's going on when she looks at pictures of celebrities getting skinnier and skinnier.

I'm an actress, and because of the way Hollywood is, I do have to watch what I eat. No one has told me I need to look a certain way, and that's great. The eating disorder will always be a part of my life. Some days, I think I'd like to be a size 0, but realistically, I think, "Come on, Brit. You're great."

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