How 'Manifest' Actress Melissa Roxburgh Healed Her Relationship with Exercise After an Eating Disorder

And how she manages the super triggering environment that is her career.

Photo: Getty Images / AdobeStock

Long before Canadian actress Melissa Roxburgh landed the role of Michaela Stone in the NBC series Manifest, she was, what she calls, "the Jack of all sports but the master of none."

Born to a retired professional tennis player mom and former university soccer star dad, Roxburgh says athleticism wasn't so much a choice but an inevitable outcome of her upbringing. "Being from Vancouver, it's kind of hard to not be athletic because there's so much to do outdoors: kayaking, canoeing, hiking," she says on a Zoom call from her home in New York City.

While her two sisters and younger brother each excelled at different sports, Roxburgh says she struggled to find one that was a natural fit. "I kind of tried to be good at all [sports] and was good enough to make the teams but not really good at any specific one. I realized my favorite sport was running because I didn't have to compete against anyone but myself, and I'm also a bit of a loner so I really liked that time because it's meditative for me, too. But it became a bit of a problem later on."

This is where Roxburgh's fitness journey took a turn that many fans may not know about. While her peers were going through puberty during eighth-grade, she watched friends get attention for their developing bodies, and feelings of inadequacy crept in. However, when her dad's sabbatical afforded the family a months-long trip around the world, Roxburgh saw the escape as a potential shot at a fresh start in ninth grade.

"I took months off school then we had our two-month summer break, so I was away from people for four months," she says. "During the family trip, we were walking around a lot and I started losing a little bit of weight because of that. I saw it as an opportunity to 'reinvent myself' going back to school. I was going to get in shape and start wearing makeup and come back like a teenager — the way all of my friends were. So that's what I did."

When she returned to school, Roxburgh says her crush started paying attention to her, and the positive feedback and attention were intoxicating. The external validation and sense of social acceptance that came from changing her appearance only reinforced these behaviors. And because, during adolescence, so much of life is out of your control, she sought to manage the few things she was able to — exercise and food —as a way of "controlling the one thing I could in my life."

As Roxburgh started to increase the distance of her daily runs and reduce her food intake, the more she says her self-worth became wrapped up in her physical appearance. "[The documentary] Miss Representation talks about how we're so influenced by the idea that our only value as a woman is to find love or is to be the 'it girl' that everyone wants to talk to, and it subconsciously seeps into us even if we've never watched Mean Girls or read magazines about 'how to get the guy.' I wasn't allowed to do any of those things but it still societally seeped into me."

Roxburgh says that over the next two years, she developed anorexia athletica (sometimes called "exercise bulimia"), a type of eating disorder that can involve restricting calories despite a high volume of physical activity. While the National Eating Disorder Association doesn't consider anorexia athletica an "official" eating disorder diagnosis, it is a very real phenomenon. It can involve "fear of gaining weight/becoming fat when underweight" and "weight loss of at least 5 percent of body weight due to dietary restriction and excessive exercise," according to NEDA, which also notes that "Binge eating and the use of pathogenic weight control methods (i.e., self-induced vomiting, or use of laxatives or diuretics) may be present."

As with many eating disorder sufferers, Roxburgh didn't realize the full extent of the damage she was causing her body. "I wasn't eating nothing but I wasn't eating enough for the half marathons I was doing every single day," she says, noting that she lost a significant amount of weight over the course of a year and a half. "Obviously, that caused my parents and sisters and friends to worry. But at the same time, no one would really tell me the truth because we were all so young and I don't think my parents knew how to deal with it. So everyone would kind of skirt around the issue and say, 'hey you don't look good anymore,' or 'hey you should try eating a cheeseburger,' and those comments didn't help." (See: Can We All Agree to Stop Commenting On What Other People Eat?)

Eventually, however, Roxburgh's health deteriorated to a point that warranted medical intervention. (If left untreated, anorexia athletica can result in damage to the bones and joints, a weakened immune system, arthritis, osteoporosis, and irregular menstruation, according to the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association.) "I wound up in the hospital in an in-patient program," she says. "The biggest regret I have is that I feel there might have been long-term effects to my brain. I was at the top of my class in grade nine and then all of a sudden, I just couldn't focus after the eating disorder because I was robbing my brain of vital nutrients during really formative years. You don't think rationally; you're not in your rational mind when you're going through it. Even though I could look in the mirror and see that I was thin, it wasn't as disturbing to me as it was to other people. I knew what my body looked like and I knew every inch of it and I knew if I gained a pound or lost a pound so it was more about that than how I actually looked."

Roxburgh spent a month and a half in the hospital and another month and half in a less intensive program that allowed her to go home on the weekends. While the medical staff had put a firm stop to her exercise while she was severely undernourished, the facility allowed her to start slowly integrating workouts — albeit limited ones — back into her life once her weight stabilized.

This isn't the typical approach, given the "propensity for individuals with EDs to (mis)use physical activity and exercise as a compensatory, weight loss, and affect regulating behavior," according to a paper published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, but the slow reintroduction of movement worked for Roxburgh. She said was able to continue going through the motions of physically recovering — eating and exercising according to a structured plan — but it was harder to psychologically recover and rewire her unhealthy inner dialogue. It wasn't until a therapist asked her a question that she says she "snapped [her] out of" the destructive thoughts that accompanied her disorder.

"She asked me if I wanted kids and I said yes," she says. "And she said, 'okay, then this body is not sustainable.' It took me realizing that to have a long, successful, happy, healthy life, I had to actually start taking care of myself again."

While Roxburgh says she hasn't had a complete relapse in the years since completing treatment, her career has certainly left her open to potentially triggering or even catastrophic circumstances. (See: 'The Biggest Loser' Trainer Erica Lugo On Why Eating Disorder Recovery Is a Lifelong Battle)

"I never slipped back but I used old tactics," she says. "One of the first jobs I ever had when I was 17 or 18, I got cast as 'the girl' and I got told I had to hit the gym before shooting and that I needed to get my body 'right' before we started filming. For a 17-year-old girl who is probably one and a half years out of her eating disorder, I freaked out a little bit and I thought 'okay, I'm going to use the one thing I know how to use to lose weight — I'm not going to eat or I'm going to go work out like a madman.' I don't think I could work out the same way I used to because of all the running I did in high school, I developed knee issues... so I thought, 'okay, I'm gonna stop eating this time.' And I did. I don't think I ate for two weeks straight and when I got to set, the costume lady said, 'oh my goodness you look fantastic.' And that feedback came again and I felt so good again and I felt so validated and seen."

FYI, most people don't have a perfect, linear recovery from an eating disorder: "Slips, backslides, and relapse tend to be the rule, rather than the exception," according to NEDA.

"I understand aesthetically pleasing people are fun to look at. Great. But that's also not real life and I think the older I've gotten, the more I've realized I don't want to portray unrealistic ideals. That is so not fun and frankly, quite fucking boring."

Roxburgh recalls several other similar experiences, receiving unsolicited comments from producers, crew members, castmates, and more. But she says that over time and thanks to a commitment to her recovery, she was able to develop a stronger mindset to combat the damage of others' opinions. "I think it comes with growing up and realizing the people making those comments are not entitled to make those comments," she says. "I understand aesthetically pleasing people are fun to look at. Great. But that's also not real life and I think the older I've gotten, the more I've realized I don't want to portray unrealistic ideals. That is so not fun and frankly, quite fucking boring."

Roxburgh says that a major motivation for her continued recovery is her position in the public eye as a role model. "I have never been more unhappy than when I had my eating disorder because all of my time and energy went into making sure I looked a certain way," says Roxburgh. "Before that, I was reading and drawing and painting and enjoying time with my friends — all of that went out the window because I was so focused on an ideal image based on the media or wanting love, or whatever. The older I get, the more I want girls who were questioning whether or not they should go on a diet to look at women on TV and think, 'no, because that girl looks like me.' Now, if I gain or lose weight, it's not because I've been told to; it's because my diet's changed or I haven't been exercising or I've been busy — it's life stuff rather than a choice."

Now 28 years old, Roxburgh has developed a more moderate approach to workouts and now treats exercise as a tool for overall wellness — not a weight-manipulation tactic.

"I still get a runner's high, but now I know I don't have to run for two hours to get that high," she says. "I can do a half an hour run and feel just as good and it does not have to go any farther. The whole point of exercise for me now is I've made it an all-inclusive thing. I work out more when I feel down because it gives me the endorphins. I know how to regulate my body now because of that. If I'm working out too much, I cut back, because then I get tired and grumpy and cranky. It's more that I just want to feel good in my own body, and there is a buffer zone, but there are also boundaries. I think everyone has their own version of that, and it's not just physical — it's mental and emotional as well."

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