Emily Kinney for The Walking Dead discusses her struggles

Walking Dead Star Emily Kinney Discusses Work, New Album and Body Image Issues

Emily Kinney is best known for her role as Beth Greene in the television series “The Walking Dead.” She resonated with the character because she and Beth share a passion for singing, drawing and the arts. But Emily Kinney is more than the talented blonde woman from AMC’s popular horror drama series. She is a critically acclaimed American actor who also starred in Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” in addition to being an alternative folk singer and songwriter. 

On April 9, Emily Kinney is dropping her fourth album, “The Supporting Character,” on Jullian Records. The tracks touch on personal themes of heartbreak, loss, grief, and body image, as well as her upbringing in Nebraska. 

I feel like my music and poems are my chance to write down the thoughts in my head that I don’t feel comfortable sharing with others

Emily Kinney

As an actor, Emily Kinney plays lots of parts. But as a woman in contemporary America, she’s also been forced to play the same part the vast majority of women play in their daily lives. She’s included in the whopping 97% of women who suffer from having an unhealthy, or negative, body image. 

Kinney, like most women, perceives small, or even imaginary, ‘flaws’ on her face and body as if they’re abnormal blotches, because, like so many of us, she subconsciously — and even consciously — compares herself to photo-shopped magazine spreads and airbrushed images of other celebrities. 

Like most women, Kinney is a member of this large group of ladies battling body image issues. She even involved herself with IDONTMIND, a non-profit organization focused on dispelling the stigma associated with most forms of mental illness, including eating disorders and body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, bipolar and substance abuse. 

Emily Kinney announced her role in the initiative (helping people to stop feeling the need to hide their own mental illnesses) on social media three years ago, when she posted about her struggles with depression. 

“I don’t mind,” she wrote beside a hashtag (#idontmind), an action IDONTMIND’s program encourages people to do, along with revealing their mental illness, diagnoses and negative emotions from plain ol’ shitty days. The hope is, the more people who band together in the effort to help will reduce or eliminate the judgment revolving around mental health issues, including body image issues, a disorder this organization helps people with. The hope is that more posts on  social media should prove more successful than just a few folks publicly sharing their struggles.

Courtesy of @emmykinney via Instagram

“I want to be skinny, let my bones show,” Kinney sings in her song, “Skinny.” 

Her vulnerability and courage throughout the track are admirable. As someone who suffers from body dysmorphia and anorexia nervosa myself, I relate to this song more than any I’ve ever heard. 

Link to song by Emily Kinney “Omaha Hotel”

In a wide ranging interview with The News Station, Emily Kinney spoke openly about her personal mental health struggles and ongoing recovery and  briefly discussed her role as Beth Greene — her character on “The Walking Dead,” who played an important role through seven seasons — the off and on therapy sessions she attends, advice she has for teenage fans and much more.

The below interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.  

The News Station: What did you enjoy the most and least about playing Beth Greene on “The Walking Dead?”

Emily Kinney: Well I did love that she was a singer and that sort of artist, which I found great because the character wasn’t in the comic books, so I felt like the writers got to know me and shaped my character to some of my strengths. We had kind of decided that Beth was a little bit more artistic. When people saw in season three that she was in her bunk in this prison, she had pictures up, showing how she had been drawing in there. She wrote in her journal and sang, and I liked that part of her which shined through, mostly because I connected so much to that part of Beth.

TNS: You resonated with your character.

EK: Yeah. So I loved that part about Beth. And then of course the thing I didn’t like was her getting killed off!

TNS: That’s understandable! Have you fully transitioned from film and television to singing and songwriting?

EK: No, I mean I have a full acting team. I actually have an audition tomorrow morning. I’m always seeking new roles. But this year since production stopped for quite a while because of the pandemic, there haven’t been a lot of new shows or movies. Obviously this year has been slow, although now things are opening up again. I can’t wait for my next new acting job.

TNS: In a few words, what genre defines your music?

EK: I would say folk alternative. But I feel like my last album was probably closer to folk pop. This one is a more alternative, I would say. Basically though, I feel like all my songs are really rooted in folk songwriting and storytelling. So it depends on what instrumentation and sounds I’m leaning on.

TNS: The track “Skinny” on your upcoming album resonated with me quite a bit since I personally suffer from anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphia. When did you first start experiencing body image issues yourself?

EK: I think being an actor makes you so aware of how you look all the time. I remember when I first moved to New York City and I had several auditions in one day. I went to the mirror to re-fix my hair for the next audition, change my clothes, and I recall thinking, wow, I didn’t used to look at myself so much and obsess over my appearance. 

I also remember that point being a turning point. However, I think growing up impacted me, too. There aren’t “perfect, skinny” people, but the irrational thought of it is ingrained in our society. Not that my family did anything wrong, but I remember this being an issue — like, that person’s doing amazing because of their weight loss. The way a person looked was so much a part of how others judged how people were doing in life, and so much of how we described how people were doing growing up is still a part of our society.  

I remember that getting in my head as a kid, If someone lost weight, everyone praised them, and if they gained, they were looked down upon. So I think that I started to notice that if I was having a fun night out with friends, I wouldn’t have as good of a time if I felt like I wasn’t as skinny as the people surrounding me. 

TNS: Would you say that competition played a role?

EK: I think it is mostly about awareness, especially being an actor in an industry that expects underweight women. Having more awareness of how I looked, how big or small I was and really being aware of it played the largest role. I wanted to feel like I had some kind of control over the image that I was putting out. 

But I started to realize that I had some — or I wanted to have some kind of control over it. So the thoughts became a part of my mind in a way that was upsetting to me, which is why I wrote the song “Skinny.” I remember writing the song because me and my friend Haley had this talk about how we would gain several pounds and let it ruin our day. 

TNS: You have no idea how much I can relate.

EK: And it’s so silly. Why shouldn’t I have just as much fun with my friends? Who cares? But it did affect me, and I think that’s what prompted me to write this song. I started noticing these thoughts more and more, and they bothered me because I wanted to be able to have as much fun [the way I once had]. 

I don’t know why I thought I didn’t look good after gaining several pounds. It was some form of a control issue, but also our society. In the song it says, “it’s got its hooks in my brain, like a radio song they play over and over.” This is symbolic of the messaging in our world. This happens over and over until you decide that’s what you’re supposed to be, and you should constantly think about your diet. 

TNS: You said when you’re feeling skinny, you are at your emotional best. Can you elaborate on that for those who may not understand like you and I do? 

EK: I think that for a while, particularly at the time when I was writing this song, I had constant thoughts about whether or not I weighed the “right amount.” My unhealthy body image has a lot to do with control. Like, oh, I’m doing so good — I’m now in control of who I am. This somehow equated to me feeling happier or doing better emotionally. 

But the reality is, the times in my life when I’ve been at my lowest weight have actually coincided with depression, a mental illness that I suffer from. And the times when I would be at my skinniest were when I would have really bad depression, because you know, you don’t feel like eating and what not. 

I came to a realization. the times that I’m thinner have been when I’m feeling bad on the inside, and the times when I’m heavier, everything’s been great. I’m not thinking about how small I am anymore — I’m just living life, which is so much more fun.

TNS: I can totally relate. When you’re doing poorly, you can’t even order what you really want at a restaurant. 

EK: Yeah! I want to order whatever meal sounds the best to me with no calorie limitations. It’s all about enjoying life to the fullest, having a great time. And so I’ve come to an epiphany, where for me, I want to have fun in life. You know? 

TNS: In your own recovery, what challenges have you faced in building a positive body image?

EK: I feel like I am doing better in that I’m feeling more acceptance, and not only regarding  body image but also the world in general. There’s so much that’s out of our control, and having acceptance and knowing that there are so many parts of myself that I like really helps.

Like every morning I write down things that I am grateful for, and I also write another five things that I love about myself. Perhaps this sounds cheesy but it helps, and some examples are: “I love that I’m a good songwriter,” or “I love how my hair looks today.”

Sometimes it’s physical things, and other times it’s more about the reasons why I am proud of myself — like doing good in an audition or helping a friend. I do think that this kind of journaling makes you focus more on the present moment rather than things that belong in the past. 

But the difficulty is, I do feel a calling to be an actor and performer, and the truth is that when you’re in this industry, you are going to be on screens and stages. So there’s a little bit of analysis that’s going to happen of “what do I look like?”

So in a way I do struggle with body image during auditions. I look back at my self-tape and I think like, oh I wish this, or I wish that. But the thing that has helped me is to look at it more as an artistic expression. If I’m going to be onstage, it’s less about wanting to look different and more like, “oh, this song’s about this, so let me wear a cool flowy dress and let me do my makeup this way and my hair this way.”

How I look is an artistic expression, and even when I’m going on an audition, I’d rather not think about how skinny other females are or worry about not being thin enough. 

TNS: You said it ebbs and flows. When you feel depressed or unhappy with your body, do you have any other coping techniques that you use?

EK: One of the best things is really being in the present moment and to me, one way to do that is to reach out to a support group, friends. 

Photos by Clarion Call, courtesy of Emily Kinney

TNS: Do you ever look in the mirror and still experience that longing to be skinnier and prettier?

EK: Yeah. I would say it’s not as frequent, though, but yes. I have moments where I look in the mirror and wish this was different  or I wish I didn’t have that wrinkle, thoughts like that. But I don’t think, and I hope, that negative thoughts won’t carry much weight, not like in the past. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad days. However, I try my best to not let those feelings consume me. 

TNS: So not allowing negative thoughts to carry weight helps you avoid regression?

EK: Yeah. I think letting the thoughts come and go, and then being like, “no worries, it’s fine though.” I need to get on with my day by moving on quickly.

I’ve placed post-it notes on my mirrors before,with positive affirmations written on them. This happened during the beginning of the pandemic because I spent so much time by myself. I think a little bit of time alone is great because you get to process situations you’re going through; you can read, do whatever you like. But at a certain point you feel the need to appease the nagging desire to control things. 

TNS: Were you formally diagnosed with body image issues, or do you see a therapist?

EK: No, no formal diagnosis. But I do attend therapy on and off depending on how I’m doing mentally. I’ve never gone to therapy specifically for body image issues, though. 

I’ve had therapy appointments specifically for depression. And I do think being a woman comes into play — I mean I wrote this song because I have, at times, felt pressure to look a certain way and I started to feel like, “wow, this is really ridiculous that I’m letting this take hold of me. 

The therapy sessions have been more so about dealing with my depression but also about being an actress. There is a lot of rejection and analysis of your body that comes into play and I’m sure both contributed to my unhealthy body image. 

TNS: 97% of women suffer from poor body image. What advice would you give your teenage fans dealing with the same problem as us?

EK: It’s so hard because of the society we grow up in. There’s messages you can’t really get away from. But I would say one thing to do is counter them with the other — be aware of the things that you’re consuming, and what’s consuming you. Teenagers are at a point in life where they’re developing and figuring out what things they love, what kind of person each one wants to be.

So I think indulging in activities that give you a sense of excitement and happiness, finding things you love, and really focusing your energy on the friends that you have  and the hobbies you find pleasure in is important. Whether it’s basketball or singing or acting — commit yourself to these healthy hobbies rather than things that are more about control or that make you feel bad about yourself.

Fill your mind with positive thoughts that make you feel passionate and content. Stay close to your friends and develop a strong support network to lean on.  

Photos by Clarion Call, courtesy of Emily Kinney

TNS: Can you touch a bit on your depression and how the symptoms affect you?

EK: I’m not really sure where to start. The first time I noticed signs of depression was probably around the age of 27, a while ago when I had been working on “The Walking Dead” between seasons. It was sort of a mystery to me. Signs started showing up, and I didn’t even want to leave my bed.

What led me to get professional help was my close friends suggesting a couple of therapists. It took me a while. But I had enough bad days, but sometimes the depressive symptoms went away. So I’d be like. “Oh that was weird, maybe I’m fine now” — feeling back to myself. 

The darkness would always show up again, though, and that was the first time I reached out, found a therapist and have since gotten better. Yeah, I’ve had bad moments but finding little tips to begin feeling happy again helped me. Therapy, music, and friends have really been the most beneficial. 

TNS: What do you want other folks with body image issues to know?

EK: I want to tell you all that you’re so unique and beautiful, and since life is short, love yourself. On the other hand, acknowledging that your recovery may be a journey is OK. I don’t know what to say, but I do think finding people you love and trust, who you connect well with, all helps. I want to say again, you are all so special and unique. You deserve to love who you are. 

TNS: Do you have any final words you want to share with our audience?

EK: I hope people enjoy listening to my upcoming album and enjoy the songs, maybe find some comfort in them. I feel like music is one of the ways how I process the world, and I’m excited for it to come out. 

Also, I’m happy with how I look now, even on my computer screen speaking with you. I don’t have any judgement about my appearance. This is how I look and that’s that. 

Megan Lane is a columnist for The News Station. She writes about health and wellness, cannabis and entertainment, including musician and celebrity interviews. In her spare time, she enjoys practicing yoga and playing with her daughter, Simone. Megan’s work has been featured on various websites, including Al Jazeera, HuffPost, Insider and High Times.

Megan Lane is a columnist for The News Station. She writes about health and wellness, cannabis and entertainment, including musician and celebrity interviews. In her spare time, she enjoys practicing yoga and playing with her daughter, Simone. Megan’s work has been featured on various websites, including Al Jazeera, HuffPost, Insider and High Times.

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