- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

TAUNTON, Mass. (AP) - What began as keeping an eye on calories turned into a dieting obsession for Taunton High School senior Haylei Conte.

Beginning in the summer of 2013, Haylei started meticulously watching every morsel of food she consumed. This focus continued, along with the downward numbers on the scale. This wasting away drew on, despite the physical strength her body needed to complete complicated dance moves on stage.

At one point, Haylei weighed 80 pounds. A picture taken at the time shows the thinness of her arms, the prominence of her collarbone. She is 5 feet, 2 inches tall. It’s not a photograph of herself that she likes, but her mother, Pegi Conte, shows the picture of Haylei at her lightest weight. This is Haylei’s “before” photo, an image of a waif-like girl. She stares straight ahead.

Pegi Conte has another photo, an “after” photo, that is in the same picture frame. It’s of a more relaxed, smiling Haylei, looking healthy, fit and trim. Haylei, now 17, is set to enroll in Dean College in Franklin this fall.

The path between the before and after photo took the pair, and the Conte family, on a rocky road.

There were arguments between mother and daughter. Haylei’s twin sister, Hannah, threw the bathroom scale out the window one day, frustrated over her sister’s frequent weigh-ins, Haylei said.

Haylei and Pegi Conte recounted their experiences during an interview at the family’s cozy and warm home overlooking Lake Sabattia.

Dance comes as easy and as natural as breathing for Haylei.

Haylei said she likes to dance “to relieve stress, think about things, get away from things.”

Despite that creative release of energy, the petite student could not find peace within.

When she berated herself and cried out loud for allowing herself to eat a tablespoon of ice cream one day, her mother stepped in. Haylei’s eating problem required professional help.

Pegi Conte brought her daughter to a local doctor, who referred her to a specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

In a week’s time, from one doctor visit to another, she dropped another five pounds.

“I wanted her to be admitted,” Pegi Conte said of possible hospitalization for Haylei.

Medical insurance issues prompted a different solution: an outpatient program where patients came to the location daily during the week. Yet this option meant Haylei’s regular routine, including dance classes, would be temporarily abandoned. Haylei received some counseling. In the end, she opted not to participate in the outpatient program.

“I was better off learning to recover at my own house,” she said.

As part of her recovery, Haylei made the time to learn what was at the root of her eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa. She wanted to be more in control. She discovered she had a distorted image of how she looked physically to others, as a self-portrait she drew shows.

“It’s not even about the food anymore,” she said. “It’s about control.”

To be sure, Haylei’s strong will, despite two doctors’ warnings to stop dancing due to her weight loss, propelled her to dance in another locally produced musical.

She did, and the physical consequences scared her.

“I thought I was going to die. I was hot and cold at the same time,” she said, her mother listening. “My heart was pounding. It was petrifying.”

Haylei knew she had to change her eating habits. Her mother, also despite doctors’ warnings, took a more active role in her daughter’s recovery. Pegi would go to Taunton High School and sit with Haylei in the cafeteria while Haylei ate lunch. Sometimes Haylei would eat lunch in her school guidance counselor’s office.

She grew stronger, emotionally and physically. All of that inner strength and drive combined in last November’s Miss Taunton pageant. Haylei participated in the pageant and received the Most Talented award. She danced during the talent program, presenting “Weigh-in.”

Now, Haylei Conte’s platform, or declared personal policy, is to inform others about the dangers of anorexia. She said she plans to enter the Miss Boston contest, sharing her story to help other people deal effectively with eating disorders. Miss Boston is a preliminary pageant for Miss Massachusetts and Miss America, its website notes.

Most of all, she wants people to learn from her experience; learn about the side effects of low self-esteem caused by school bullying; learn about the problems that come striving for perfection.

“So they don’t have to feel like I did,” Haylei said.

___

Information from: Taunton (Mass.) Daily Gazette, http://www.tauntongazette.com

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