Eating Disorders: The Stories We Tell

[This is a repost of a piece I wrote a year ago on Teen Skepchick. I’ve started therapy specifically focusing on disordered eating, with a goal of leaving college in a Mostly Functional state, and was reflecting on past experiences. I still live by the ballet studio, and I’ve stopped in once, to pick up a schedule. I’ve never gone back.]

When I committed to writing in the Teen Skepchick Eating Disorders series, I said I’d write about personal experiences. After all, I do already. It wasn’t going to be too hard to do it again, right?

But that’s not true, and it never works like that. I told this story yesterday. Unexpectedly. I’ve never told it in its entirety before. It is, ultimately, why I quit dancing.

[I’m going to put a big neon TRIGGER WARNING on this right now. I’m about to be pretty blunt about anorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica tendencies. I’m going to tell a story about things I’ve done, and if that’s going to make you feel bad, then please stop reading. Take care of yourself.]

I was a dancer, you see. Not a hobby dancer, not something I squashed into the occasional afternoon. By the time I graduated high school, I was spending around twenty hours a week at the studio. My feet changed shape. I damaged my knee. I wore leotards daily, compared the merits of my preferred pointe shoe (Grishko 2007, medium shank, 5X wide, size 6.5), and for a while, I wanted to be a professional dancer.

There’s a number of reasons I couldn’t do that, and I made the decision to pursue psychology at school with no regrets. I never thought I’d stop dancing. It would always be something I loved, one of my favorite things about coming home.  Over my first Christmas home, and my spring break, I threw myself back into the schedule. I’d take a full set of classes, waking up miserably sore for the first few days, until my muscles settled back into their place.

The inevitable happened–my ballet friends improved and were more powerful and flexible and talented each time I returned. We no longer spent most of our free time together, and they had grown closer as I’d been gone. We talked about summer, when I would be home for months, able to train properly again–to feel like I was part of the company. I was excited.

I came home mid-June, to find a small part waiting for me in a show. I was overjoyed. I wasn’t the too-old returning student; I was back in my old place. The show was fancy: excerpts from Swan Lake and Don Quixote and Carmen the troupe would perform at a country club. Several dancers had been commissioned for the show–hired on contracts to train and perform just for the occasion.

They spoke Spanish, their first language, together, and knew each other from past shows at other studios.

I speak Spanish. Actually, that’s not quite true–I speak it quite poorly. Years of high school reading drills and an immersion class in my junior year have assured that I understand it quite well, and I used to read entire books in the language.

So, it was a few days of adjusting to the Cuban accent and speed of speech before I started picking up on bits of what the guest performers were saying. It was a few days later when I heard “lift your fat ass”. A few weeks until I heard them complaining about how I never managed to get better. How sad it was to watch me. And then my brain adjusted and I could hear it nearly every day we rehearsed. I got better at hearing the jabs, and I started hating myself more. In the single studio, every time I stepped onto the floor to rehearse, everyone could see me. It was constant oversight. I couldn’t focus on my dancing. I was perpetually listening and trying to translate and trying to pretend it didn’t bother me.

I stopped eating, again. After more than two years of maintaining an average intake of >1,000 calories per day, I wasn’t doing it anymore…and I was slipping into anorexia athletica. I had a gym membership, and suddenly I was spending two hours lifting and pressing and running, a few more hours in the ballet studio, and spending the rest of the day in work or an internship.

On good days, I’d eat a sandwich and drink a few cups of coffee. On bad days it was half a sandwich.

I became a good deal skinnier, though never to the rock-bottom I hit in high school–when I actually qualified for the very narrow dictionary-and-DSM-definition of anorexia nervosa at 75% of my recommended body weight. Just like in high school, people told me how pretty I was looking.

Two months of sweaty gyms and barres and mirrors later, the costumes for our show arrived. There had been an order mixup. The only costume available to me was an extra small. We tried them on over our ballet clothes, all in the middle of the studio. Mine didn’t even fit over my hips.

The show was that weekend, and I dropped out gracefully, citing a work schedule conflict that really, would just make iteasier if I didn’t dance after all. It was no trouble at all.

I haven’t danced since that summer. Not once. I’ve put on the clothes, the shoes, found an empty room and played the music for plies….and I just couldn’t.

I don’t call myself a dancer anymore. I talk about how I used to dance. I cut my hair short–I no longer needed it long enough to put up for a performance. Sometimes it overwhelms me. I can’t hear music without seeing choreography, and that’s been true for as long as I remember. But I no longer see myself performing the pieces. I’m too heavy to be lifted by a partner, you see. No one’s going to want to lift my fat ass.

I went home last summer and I worked at the same places. I went to the studio twice. I said hi, I hugged everyone. We socialized a bit, and I plead errands. I drove to the closest Starbucks and cried.

This year, I live by a ballet studio. I walk by it each day–it’s impossible to avoid on my way to school. The girls slip in, black leotards and elbows and knees and bobby pins. When I come home from my night classes, I can hear the music bouncing off the mirrors and wood floors.

I grieve.

For anyone concerned: I’m in treatment and therapy. Every Thursday, I get to talk and feel a little bit better. 
This also isn’t a story about what causes eating disorders. I had one before this story takes place. Ballet didn’t cause it. Comments about my body didn’t cause it. What they did do is make it so much harder to accept that it was okay to gain back the weight I had lost.

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