She stared at herself in the mirror, disappointed in what she saw. She heard the voices of the popular girls of her high school in her head telling her that she was slutty and chubby – that she didn't deserve to be on the cheerleading squad like the rest of them. Each insult was another stab, another irreparable wound. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore – she had to be skinny.
She went into a bathroom stall and gazed at the reflection of her face in the toilet bowl water. She stuck her finger down her throat as all of the food in her stomach came rushing up.
Laurie Damstetter, a now 34-year-old UB alumna, began her yearlong struggle with bulimia her senior year of high school.
UB Counseling treats about 50 students per year that suffer from eating disorders, according to Carissa Uschold, a counselor on the Student Wellness Team. Bulimia in adolescents is on the rise, but not all cases are reported because of the stigma that surrounds eating disorders. Damstetter's case is one of those that went unreported. But four years ago, she fell in love with a healthy approach to losing weight: Zumba.
Where It All Began
When Damstetter was 15 years old, she felt the urge to be rebellious. So she moved out of her mom and step dad's house and in with her biological father because she knew he wasn't as strict as her parents. When she made the house switch, she also switched high schools.
She realizes now that her parents only had her best interest in mind when they were enforcing rules, and she regrets ever leaving their house. Since then she's matured she understands that she was just being a "bratty" teen, and wishes she could take back her actions.
When she moved to the new school, she decided to become a cheerleader.
"A girl on the squad [at my new school] got pregnant so they had an opening," Damstetter said. "So I went and tried out, and so did many other people, and I made it. So now I'm this new girl that comes into high school, and people were mean and cruel saying: ‘chubby, who's she making the cheerleading squad?' Then I dated a guy and we broke up, and I dated another guy, and they'd call me names – it just became too much."
The bullies at school that were calling her names and driving her to lose all of her confidence slowly engraved themselves into her mind. After a while, she became her own demon. They were no longer the ones telling her she was insignificant; now she was the one convincing herself.
She would eat and then lock herself in a bathroom using either her finger or the back of a toothbrush to throw up. She did this every single day.
"My best friend was totally mad at me," Damstetter said. "She would bang on the bathroom door and scream at me. She'd tell me it was stupid and ask me to stop, but I didn't care."
In the beginning of her senior year of high school, Damstetter was a size 8 to 10. By graduation date, her dress was a size 0.
She had finally reached her weight goal.
All on her own, she stopped making herself throw up and flushed her bad habits down the toilet along with her final purge. She finally understood during her senior year of high school that what she was doing was unhealthy and harmful.
A New Chapter: Taking Healthier Steps
Damstetter had her first son, Dylan, one month after finishing college at the age of 22, and then her second, Ethan, at the age of 27. She noticed she was gaining weight again, and decided not to travel down the path she followed when she was a teenager.
Instead she signed up for a gym.
"I would just do the equipment and one day I saw through the window that they were dancing," Damstetter said. "I loved dancing, I love music, I had been dancing my whole life, and I decided to try it. I just took a few classes. I fell in love and I became one of those regulars that just kept coming and coming. I saw a lot of results losing weight."
When Damstetter started Zumba, she was going through a difficult divorce, but the energy and happiness she felt during her Zumba class helped her through the hardships.
One day Damstetter's instructor told her that she should go to training and get her own Zumba instructor license. She took the training but didn't do anything with her certificate until one year later.
For the past two years, Damstetter has been teaching her own Zumba class at the Buffalo Athletic Club (BAC) for six hours a week and she attends several other classes, led by other Zumba instructors, for four hours a week. She wants to help others feel as free and lightweight as she does while dancing.
Her efforts are successful.
"Since I've started teaching, people have told me their stories," Damstetter said. "One woman came up to me after class and told me this is her escape. She has a sick husband at home; she takes care of him all day long and this is her one hour to get out, she comes to Zumba as her release."
Zumba is a savior to many, and Damstetter feels lucky to have the ability to spread the dance that saved her life upon others. Her classes range from 40 to 80 people, and she gets to know most – if not all – of them on a personal level.
Jodi Katz, a senior health and human service major, attends Damstetter's class at the BAC. According to Katz, it is Damstetter's energetic attitude and fun vibe that keeps members coming back for more.
"She's very energetic and spunky," Katz said. "She gets the whole class involved, even the most unlikely Zumba person. She does moves that everyone would be able to do and has everyone smiling and laughing. She screams and we all scream back. It's a good laugh and workout."
Members are sure to thank Damstetter after every class, and Damstetter thanks them back for coming, participating, and being a joyous part of her day.
"It feels good when they tell me they see how passionate I am [about instructing]," Damstetter said. "It feels like I've made an accomplishment. People come up to me after class and tell me I've changed their lives. I'm not there for my workout – it's for them. I'm just there to lead them."
In order to take a stand against child obesity, Damstetter and a colleague have created a Zumbatomic class targeted toward children.
"In 1980, 5 percent of children were obese in America, now 19 percent of kids are obese," Damstetter said. "They're the kids of today, but they're the adults of tomorrow."
She feels passionate about enforcing healthy living because she has personal experience with eating disorders and the dangerous lifestyle. She believes Zumba can increase physical health, but also mentally and emotionally stabilizes people.
Once members attend Zumba classes continuously, they begin to form relationships with members in their classes, according to Damstetter. She considers her Zumba friends to be her best friends; she knows that if she's having a bad day they will be there to support her – whether they are 62 years old or 22 years old.
Damstetter is now surrounded by four mirrored walls in her Zumba studio. Now she smiles at her reflection. She plugs her iPod into the jack, and when the beat blasts through the speakers she loses herself to the cumbia – a style of Zumba dance – the shuffles, and the kicks.
Her emanating smile and inspiring voice encourage those before her to "feel sexy and confident," in a way that she hadn't felt up until four years ago, when she enrolled in her first Zumba class.