Jenna Booth poses wearing a sweatshirt with the Truly Me logo. Booth is selling the sweatshirts as part of a fundraising campaign to fight eating disorders. Courtesy / Jenna Booth

SCARBOROUGH — At first, Jenna Booth thought she was doing the right things to control her weight — exercising more and eating less.

It’s what everyone says to do, right?

But taken to extremes, what starts out as a good idea can become dangerous or even deadly. When Booth visited a clinic at Mercy Hospital in Portland in 2015 and saw emaciated people, some unable to stand for themselves, she saw the dangerous path she was headed.

“That was my turning point for me, because I didn’t want to get like that,” she said.

Booth, 17, was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and since then she has gone from a journey of recovery to a mission of raising awareness. She has raised nearly $2,000 in funds for fighting anorexia and related eating disorders, and last week was honored with the President’s Volunteer Service Award for her work.

The civil award, first established by President George W. Bush, “honors volunteers that give hundreds of hours per year helping people in need,” according to a Dec. 16 statement by marketing company BLP Associates.

Booth said she believes her disorder first emerged in 2015, at the age of 12 and a student at Scarborough Middle School. No matter what she did, she couldn’t shake the belief that something was terribly wrong with her appearance.

“I was convinced I wasn’t skinny enough or pretty enough,” Booth said. “I thought there was something wrong with me, and I needed to fix it.”

It started simply enough: watching her diet, eating smaller portions and exercising. Then smaller portions became as little as a quarter cup of rice or pasta for dinner. She began eating meals at odd times of the day so the rest of her family didn’t notice how little she was eating, and she exercised to excess to burn off the few calories she was taking in.

By the end of 2015, Booth weighed 89 pounds. Her mother, Marci Booth, said she knew something was wrong one day when, after dinner, she discovered Jenna running in place in her room, despite her daughter running outside earlier in the day.

“I remember saying, ‘This is getting serious,'” Marci Booth said.

It was at her parents’ insistence, Jenna Booth said, that she began seeing a therapist, first at a clinic at Mercy Hospital, where she saw the emaciated extremes some people had gone to, and later with Maine mental health care provider Sweetser. After six months, Jenna Booth said she had stopped her disorder from getting worse and had begun recovering.

By 2018, she was a student at Cheverus High School in Portland, but the lack of open discussions about eating disorders still bothered her. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders cites studies on its website that show 28.8 million Americans, or about 9% of the U.S. population, will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. The association also indicates eating disorders are responsible for 10,200 deaths each year, making it one of the deadliest mental illnesses.

Jenna Booth said disorders like anorexia are considered taboo,  which makes it harder for people to get help.

“It’s very hidden, shut behind doors,” she said. “If you show you’re vulnerable, people like to exploit it and to judge it.”

So she set out to change that with rubber bracelets and sweatshirts she made herself bearing the slogan “Truly Me.” The affirmation, she said, represents being yourself and not caving to society’s expectations.  Booth used her own money and now sells them on her website. She has nearly reached her goal of raising $2,000, money she will donate to Sweetser. Given the positive feedback she’s received so far, Booth said she’ll probably keep selling the products even after reaching her goal.

“I know it’s helped quite a few people, and I want to continue to do that,” she said.

Todd Henry, Sweetser’s director of development, called what Booth is doing “amazing,” and that in 19 years, he’s never seen a teenager take such initiative with a fundraiser of this kind.

The money, he said, will go toward the provider’s New England Eating Disorders Program, a program that helps people of all ages.

Marci Booth said she was already proud of her daughter for facing down her disorder, and she’s doubly proud now.

“She’s inspiring to me, actually,” she said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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