For years I struggled with identity without thinking about identity. I was a secular Jewish, black and white biracial girl, an only child of “older” parents, an Upper Westside kid. But I didn’t think about these designations. More important than anything else was that I was a ballet dancer, and all that it entailed: daily after school practice, weekends booked with rehearsals, summers in a hot studio, no vacations, no French fries, no non-dancer friends. When, I broke ranks and went to a liberal arts college instead of joining a ballet company, I was suddenly a swan out of pointe shoes, lost without the familiar ballet culture, but also deeply curious and so excited about what else the world might have in store for me. I didn’t realize that my life was about duality, always straddling two roles, two cultures, navigating two divergent paths. I said I struggled without thinking about it because I had no time to think about struggling with identity or anything else; all through college I had a full time job whose name was bulimia.
I’d been anorexic in high school, but in college, the stress led me to abuse food as a substance rather than starve myself. Being thin was all that was left of my ballet self, I thought. And I clung to it.
I had an eating disorder from the age of eleven until I was twenty-three, and at no point did I understand that this had to do with pain, a refusal to accept my body or myself. I wonder what would have happened if one of the therapists I saw at the time had gotten me thinking about identity.
Who exactly are you anyway?
Who am I? Thin, that’s who.
No, I mean besides that.
I had no idea. Skinny was my starting point, my grounding: if I could feel my hip bones, if I stood feet together and my thighs didn’t touch, I was okay.
I remember a session when I was nineteen. I was on a year’s hiatus from college to dance. I’d just signed a contract with the Cincinnati Ballet and was preparing to move to Ohio. I’d be rooming with a friend from my ballet school, Alessandra (name changed), who was also anorexic. I was anxious about the move but not for the reason my therapist thought.
“Leaving home can be difficult,” she said, “to go far away for the first time brings up all kinds of feelings.”
This was true, but I’d lived away from home for a whole year in college. Before that, I’d spent summers in California with friends. What I was really afraid of was living with Alessandra, whom I knew was a “better” anorexic than I was. She had restriction down to a science, never lapsed into vulgar binging and purging as I did. She was thinner.
It’s hard to write this, hard to imagine that I once felt this way, but a big piece of my identity was being the thinnest among my closest friends. Granted I now lived in the world of professional ballet, where reed-like was the norm. My body-type dictated that I would never the thinnest in the dance studio. Being just five foot three and busty—despite weighing well under one hundred pounds—disqualified me, I thought, from having the ideal dancer’s body. In a land where a B cup is considered huge, I was a C-D, which did make me appear heavier than my scantly endowed counterparts. But thinner dancers didn’t bother me so much in the rehearsal studio. There was distance between me and those girls. They weren’t my closest friends; they weren’t my family, so they didn’t infringe on the space where I was me. I was afraid of living with someone like Alessandra because I imagined that she was more me than I was.