Category Archives: Body Image

Sixty Year Old Girl on a Treadmill: Stress, Food and Body Issues at Any Age

There’s been a lot of press in the past few years about older women (meaning me and up) struggling with body image problems and eating disorders.   Headlines include: An Older Generation Falls Prey to Eating Disorders ,

Eating disorders are common in older women, study shows, and

Face Of Eating Disorders Changing: More Older Women Struggle With Disorders .

Though the articles are well-written, well-researched and in many ways validating, I couldn’t help thinking: this is no surprise.  I know women of all ages who are affected by how they view their own bodies–enough for things to cross the line into a full-blown eating disorder.   I’ve known women who have moved from their twenties into their thirties, who cannot release themselves from an adolescent standard of thinness, who struggle with infertility as a result.  I’ve known women who develop body image issues for the first time at the onset of menopause.

So … Why do Older Women Wind up with Eating Disorders? 

One reason is relapse.

Now, it’s common knowledge that teenage girls have body image problems. (Not all, and yes: we now know that boys do too, but when we think of eating disorders, we tend to think of teenage girls.  When we watch a TV show in which someone has an eating disorder, that someone is usually a teenage girl or a woman in her very early twenties.)   But you don’t just “get over” an eating disorder because you hit thirty.   Eating disorder specialists know that making the illness go away and stay away is a grueling, often lifelong process.  Therefore, it is not a surprise that many of these “older” women developing eating disorders had them when they were teens.

The psychic reverberations of eating disorders are likely to be felt when stress runs high.  I’ll use myself as an example.  While I never starve myself any more, while I never binge and purge, if I’m really struggling with my work or otherwise going through a rough patch, my positive body image is the first to go.  I can look at myself in the mirror and be perfectly content, then an hour later, after tossing outa whole chapter that just wasn’t working (though I’d been revising it for days), I can look in the same mirror again and see something completely different.  A distorted version of myself that in younger days I called huge.  I wasn’t anything like “huge” then.  I’m not now either, but it was my word for uncertainty.   I was convinced that “fixing” my weight (erasing my own hugeness) would make the rest of my life—if not perfect, manageable.

In the olden days (my tweens, teens and early twenties), it was almost as if calling myself something harsh would neutralize my anxiety.  My Punishing Self was in charge and would whip me—my body, my coursework, my dancing—into shape.  I wouldn’t feel so out of control.

At this point, I’ve been in recovery for so many years, I know what my triggers are: mostly worries about not being good enough in some area of my life.  I know how to get through the trigger situations without taking it out on my thighs, but it still happens.  Not the eating disorder itself, but the feelings of self-doubt that once evolved into one.  As a therapist, I’ve had enough training to know how to counter the negativity, to stop myself, to walk away from the mirror and get on with life.  But I can easily see why the recidivism rate is so high among eating disorder survivors.

Another Reason is Holding onto Who We Used to be.

Some of the articles describing this phenomenon mention the usual: unrealistic ideals of female beauty that become more elusive with each passing year.  One mentioned that older women should have more role models with realistic bodies.  I found that a little hard to swallow.  I don’t think at our age we’re looking at the big screen or the small screen for role models.  I also think many of us are surrounded by realistic, healthy. diverse images of female beauty: our best friends, our sisters, our neighbors—we come in all shapes and sizes and the “perfect-looking” girls we were intimidated by in high school are hard now fewer and farther between.

In any case, I just don’t think most women over forty are trying to look like (who’s hot now?) Megan Fox, or Zoe Saldana.  I don’t even think most of us are looking at Kelly Ripa or Gwyneth Paltrow,  and saying god I have to look like that.  I’d wager though, that for some of us, the image we aspire to, hold onto, compete with and, in many cases are tormented by, is that wedding photo sitting on the mantelpiece: our younger, pre-baby, pre-forty selves.  Regardless of how flawed or flawless we think we were, that image has probably evolved somewhat.  Were you known for looking a certain way?  Did you always get compliments for being tiny, buff, a voluptuous hour-glass?  That body-reputation is part of your identity.  As it ages, the changes can be unnerving.  Who am I now?  Accepting a different body image may be part of the life cycle—for some, a hard part.

Coping with Stress: Reaching for another Cookie, or—on the other hand—Refusing to Get off the Elliptical.

Being busy, holding ourselves to high standards in every area of our lives gets brutal sometimes.  Some women use food as a refuge (I’m treating myself, I don’t have time for a nap or a pedicure).  Others get carried away with dieting to “get healthy.”  Decreasing numbers on a scale can be addictive: evidence that we’re accomplishing something, getting results—no matter what else we may be struggling with.

We women seem to put on new hats with each passing year—between work, children, spouses and ex-spouses, caring for aging parents, commitments at our synagogues or churches, book group, cooking, laundry.  With our kids entering adolescence (or wrapping it up and fleeing the nest) we’ve got just as many variables as they do, just as many balls in the air, with menopause fast approaching (or having come, gone and left its mark).  Food is often the one area where we retain some control (who shops in your house?).

As mothers, we are responsible for feeding our families—making it taste good enough for kids and partners to gather ’round the table, but keeping it healthy enough for us all to enjoy each other for a long time to come.  As women, our bodies are changing (yet again), and like it or not, many of us feel responsible for controlling that.   Compulsive over- or undereating for stress relief is not uncommon.

Sometimes it’s Easier to Make a Teen go to the Doctor than to Seek Help Yourself.

I think teenagers are more likely to get help for disordered eating patterns primarily because they are still children and, to some degree, being looked after by parents.  Also, friends are talking about eating disorders, looking for symptoms in one another and seeking the help of adults (hopefully).  Adult women don’t necessarily have that support.  If it’s up to us, we may muddle through until something drastic happens, like collapsing on the treadmill.  That actually happened to a friend of a friend, who’d been feeling victorious about losing thirty pounds, much of which her doctor—and husband–wished she’d kept.  The important thing is for friends, sisters, cousins and partners to look out for one another, for women who suspect their own behaviors around food are changing in destructive ways to seek help: an individual therapist or a support group.

So, Your Body Changes; You’re still You.

Our bodies are inextricably connected to our identities, I don’t think there’s a way of getting around that, but it’s imperative to remember that the shape we’re in is only a small part of who we are.  As women we are all individually diverse, multi-talented, and beautiful in our own unique and ever-changing ways.

License to Write Outside Your Self

I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams.  

License to Write Outside Your Self

William Styron took on Nat Turner , made his version of the rebel slave real to readers.  Anne Rice did the same with the Vampire Lestat —an undead male of her own fabrication from 18th Century France.  In White Teeth, Zadie Smith did this with people of multiple ethnicities, only two of which she shared.  In She’s Come Undone,  Wally Lamb wrote so convincingly as Delores, a young, troubled girl—got inside her head, made you feel as if you were Delores—that I had to keep checking the front cover, incredulous that a man had written the book.

It happens all the time: a writer brings to life a character who is unlike himself or herself in many ways and manages to pull it off masterfully.  Without stereotyping (though unfortunately, that happens too).  Verisimilitude is so important in fiction, so in such cases lots of research is imperative.  But still, how does a writer justify taking on a character with whom he or she has little or nothing in common?  How does a writer feel entitled?

The twins in my WIP are both compilations of people I knew when I was dancing, with traces of some of my adolescent psychotherapy clients mixed in.  I made my character sketch over a year ago, but as I’ve been writing, the twins’ personalities and identity struggles have evolved and gained dimension.  But knowing them better actually highlights how different they are from me, especially Oliver.

Olivia is easier, she’s a female, pre-professional ballet dancer whose body is different from that of the ideal ballerina.  Though I am biracial and she is white (the twins are of Irish and Italian descent, which I’ll address in another post), though Olivia is plagued by other people’s criticisms while I suffered most from my own negative body image, I can speak as her with some authority.  I know what her toes feel like after a long day at rehearsal; I know what it’s like to get your period in the middle of pas de deux class when your partner is the guy you have a crush on.

Olivia’s twin brother, on the other hand, is removed from my personal experience in many ways.  Oliver is not only white, male, seventeen, and a math and physics whiz (who uses these skills to perfect his dancing), he also has the classic ballet physique (unlike his sister, unlike me).  And lastly, most importantly in this story, he is gay.

Being gay is not generally a strike against a guy in the ballet world itself; Oliver knows plenty of others like him as well as having strong role models who are out and proud of who they are.  But outside the ballet world—at his “regular” school, in his family, he’s faced what any LGBT or questioning teen might face, including bullying peers and a parent who can’t accept him.

Oliver has every advantage in ballet: turn-out, Feet (with a capital F, meaning gracefully high arches, a ballet dancer’s prize), musicality, extension, elevation—the list goes on.  He would seem to lead a charmed life.  But the twins’ homophobic father is determined to stop Oliver from pursuing the career he is clearly made for.  Dad, though supportive of Olivia’s ballet dreams, has other plans for Oliver: a career with great financial rewards, hopefully in finance or engineering.  It isn’t always clear whether Dad’s protests against ballet (for Oliver) are a smoke screen for his anti-gay sentiments.  In any event, Oliver’s biggest conflict is longing to be accepted and loved by his father, even as he claims and is claimed by Ballet—a world his father disdains.

When I was dancing I knew so many guys like Oliver: beautiful, talented, and bright, who seemed to have it all together now that they were a world that loved them for their gifts without judging their orientation.  Often these were the guys I had crushes on in my youth–both before and after I learned that my affection was unlikely to be returned.  Sometimes I was jealous of guys like this because I believed they held all the power.  (Which I will explain in yet another post).  But I only saw these real life “Olivers” in the context of the studio, not with their families, not in settings where they’d been discriminated against or attacked.  That side of the story I didn’t learn much about until I worked as an adolescent psychotherapist.

Of the kids I saw in my practice who were gay, bi or questioning, I am glad to say that a good percentage of their parents were supportive of their orientations.  (Peers tended to be more of a problem.)  Some parents were dismissive though, refusing to believe the child’s statement, others were in denial, believing that this was a “phase.”  I knew only one angrily unsupportive father of a boy who had come out.   This man made a point of not attending family sessions, though I tried to get him in.

What is compelling for me about Oliver is how he longs for his father’s love and approval, how not having it takes a terrible emotional toll no matter how supportive the ballet world is.  (Contrast that with Olivia’s situation: in Dad’s eyes she is perfect, but the ballet world cannot love her as she is.)  Oliver’s cross to bear will always be the condition of not being the son his father wanted.  I think this is something that many people can relate to.

Writing this book is a process–sometimes thrilling, sometimes kind of scary, but it’s less scary when I remind myself that this is only a first draft.  When it’s done I get to revise, which is the fun part.  In the meantime, I’ll do as much research as I can, let my characters speak—no matter how different they are from me—and grant myself license to tell their story.

Blog Vs. Book

One of the things I like best about blogging is the other bloggers I’ve met this way.   Wonderful writers, women and men, who live all over the globe, some of whom share my day-to-day routines of parenting, writing, house-maintenence (or house-neglect which is more apt these days), others whose schedules do not revolve around carpools, pick-ups and drop-offs.  I look forward to reading the blogs of the people I follow, many of whom follow me.  Through my followees (and followers) I am exposed to lives I’d never have discovered on my own.

There’s responsibility in blogging, though.  Your blog is more than an expression of yourself and your take on the world.  As it gains an audience, your blog becomes a thing of its own.  When I am asleep, someone on the other side of the planet might be reading, sharing, commenting on my blog.  When I check it again, it’s got new growth.   Like a garden, you have to care for your blog, feed it, nurture it, recognize when it’s stagnating and then do something about that.

When the bloggers I follow are silent for a while, I might miss them, but I won’t judge them.   I know we all have to live our lives and that often the blog is the piece we can leave unattended while we’re caring for a sick relative, working, hosting the in-laws or, what was that other one?–writing a novel.   For me it’s that last one I’m having trouble balancing with the blog, though it seems like everyone else online manages to do it.

(Yes I know, everyone chooses what they reveal of themselves online; some let it all hang out, others show only their most glowing selves.  Recently I read a great article about social-network envy–the perception that everyone on the internet is accomplishing more than you and having more fun doing it!)  I am sure everyone struggles balancing blog and life, or in my case, blog and book, but I find myself occasionally overwhelmed with guilt for choosing one over the other.  Not that I believe there’s a galaxy of fans who would be devastated if I took a hiatus to power through my novel.

The most regular of my followers and commenters happen to be kind and supportive and understanding (and yes, I feel like I know you and wish I could have coffee with you sometime!).   But I’m not worried about letting other people down.  Instead, I’m concerned about missing out, which I know is a piece of my character that stems directly from being an only child.  What was the sibling world doing while I was home with my parents?   With all their brothers and sisters around, would they forget about me?

If I took a month off from my blog, what would happen?  If I abandoned Twitter?  Would I have to start from scratch?  Would people remember me and still be my friends–I mean followers?  I don’t know, but I have decided not to find out, not yet.   I will slow down here, though.  I’ve actually slowed down already.   I’m giving myself until June to finish a draft of the new WIP, and will post here only about once a week for now.  (Don’t worry: I’ll still read your blogs because they are often so wonderful and mentally sustaining.)

But, as much as I don’t like to blog about blogging or write about writing, I’m going to temporarily let go of that to make this blog a better partner for my fiction.  Actually, that shouldn’t be hard, because my new WIP is all about body image and identity, which is the tagline for this blog.

I’m almost done for tonight, but first I’m going to share something about my WIP’s protagonists and why I think their struggles are relevant here.  They’re seventeen year old twins, both pre-professional ballet dancers, one male and one female.  Here I’ll just call them GT for girl twin and BT for boy twin.  Here are their conflicts:

  • BT is bullied by his homophobic father who suspects (correctly) that BT is gay.  BT’s father makes BT promise to give up dancing, but BT continues behind his back.
  • GT is bullied by the directors of their pre-professional ballet company because of her weight.  GT is a normal, healthy weight for a seventeen year old girl and the powers-that-be find this unacceptable.

I’m not going to share plot details because, though I’ve written over seventy pages, I haven’t yet finished the outline.  But these twins will face major obstacles to their dream of succeeding in ballet–all directly or indirectly related to the themes of body image and identity.  (See?  There’s my blog tie in.)

Anyway I hope to finish a draft, possibly a second draft, by the end of the school year, when I will lose a good chunk of writing time (as my angelic children will be home).  Please root for me!  Thanks!

Stay tuned …

Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist, Part 5

Today I forgot my knee brace, the thing I call my ‘external connective tissue.’  I didn’t notice it was missing until the class was three quarters over, and only then because I bent to stretch with my hands on my knees.  Instead of thick, industrial elastic and nylon I felt … a knee, and one that didn’t hurt.   A not-so-small victory.

But let’s not push our luck, my mind said, let’s not jump.  My heart countered: But why not just try? Because now the music had started; my muscles were aching for a crack at petit allegro.  Just this once.  So I wound up jumping, carefully, but not tentatively.  Not too high, but boldly, and with épaulement—loads of épaulement!  My knee, miraculously, went along with the program.  No ginching, no sharp pain, no kidding.  Is it possible that I’ve learned to dance for maintenance and longevity after all?  That this dancing-again thing isn’t just a flash in the pan, a backward glance in an old, cracked mirror?

I think I get to keep you, after all, Ballet.  You’re part of my routine again—tights, leotard, pink satin shoes.  When people say, “Do you dance?” the answer is no longer, “Back in the day I did,” but “Yes.”  A simple question with a simple answer.

Sure, my sense of triumph is tempered slightly when I acknowledge that, at my age, this probably as good as it gets.  Performing Swan Lake, Agon, Concerto Barocco—all my favorite balletsthat part is over.  But I feel like I’ve come home to myself.

Granted, when I look in the mirror to check my line—really look, not glance or squint—what I see is something that only vaguely resembles what I once looked like.  That discrepancy could be pretty painful if I let it get to me.  But since that first day, when I chose to waste precious moments of my life obsessing about my thigh-width, I’ve banished that sort of thinking from this process.  Regardless of how I measure up to the old, professional-dancing me, I won’t hate this me or her non-twenty-year-old-sylph body.  The fact that I can still do this on any level is too thrilling to lament a loss of extension, or a gain of pounds.   So I won’t.  (Okay maybe I will sometimes but I vow to stop when I catch myself.)  When I leave ballet class each week, regardless of how my jeans are fitting that day, I’m less hard on myself, less judgmental.  One reason is the confidence that comes from being true to who I am—by letting dance back into my life.

This return to ballet class began as an experiment, something to write about.  It wound up healing a part of me that I didn’t know was wounded.

Now that ballet no longer hurts so much, I can’t call myself a masochist anymore, which is why this is the final post in the “To Dance Again” series.  Nevertheless, all this writing about dance has inspired me to dust off something I’ve had in ‘My Documents’ for some time now.  A ballet novel, for which I’ve already got a cast of characters I’m in love with, a setting and even a few chapters.  (My first novel, Birch Wood Doll, is about a ballet dancer, but it’s not a ballet novel).  I won’t say more about the new work here, but it’s calling me.  I’ll put the “Dissociative Identity Disorder” novel on hold for now, pace myself with this blog, stop worrying about my newish Twitter account and let this new book happen.

Stay tuned.

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 4

In the Sleeping Beauty Pas de Trois, 1984

About that shoulder injury I mentioned in my last post.  I skipped last week’s ballet class because of one silly maneuver I tried to pull off during the class before.  There’s an exercise known as grand battement en cloche: the standing leg remains straight while the working leg swings from a high front kick to a high back kick, then repeats: front and back and front and back, like a pendulum or a real swing (your foot is the kid going higher and higher, you’re the tree and the mirror is the fence over which your foot can see the whole world).  Just as there’s some give to the rope of a swing, it’s okay to bend your leg in attitude as you cloche.  The idea is to free your hip and get a great stretch without straining.  Grand battement en cloche happens toward the end of barre when your body is pretty warm and at its most flexible.  When nothing particularly hurts it’s kind of fun, especially if you’re sixteen and each leg weighs about ten pounds.  When I was younger, my favorite thing to do was grab my foot at the end of the combination and pull it down over my head to touch my nose.

Doing the exercise two weeks ago, I experienced a warm surge of nostalgia, wacked my leg as high as it could go in back and lifted my chin.  Yes!  I could see my foot!  Just like in the old days!  On the next pass I kicked just as high to see if I’d been dreaming.  I hadn’t been: there was my foot, just inches from my forehead.  Then I pushed my luck.  On the last swing, I kicked with total abandon, arm in fifth overhead, turned my face toward the mirror to see if I looked just as fabulous as I felt, and heard a loud snap.   It was the head-turn that did it.  My leg came down, but my arm would not.  Nor would my head comfortably return to the front-facing position.  It shouldn’t have been a surprise; this had happened before.  I can usually recall the origin of my dance injuries—where I was when they started (my Cincinnati Ballet Knee-Blow-Out), what I missed, how my psyche was holding up.  Each old battle wound comes with its emotional baggage (my Pacific Northwest Ballet stress fracture, the subsequent weight gain and depression).  As for this shoulder thing, its era was high school.

So as I stood there, massaging my shoulder blade—two weeks ago, in January, 2012—1983 descended upon me.  Performing Arts High School, Dance Studio A: longer than it was deep, sticky with resin, rank with the bodies of energetic teenagers, of whom only a handful were fastidious about deodorant.  I see my friends in the mirror, dressed in tights, cut-neck t-shirts (we predated Flashdance with that, by the way), chiffon skirts, bunchy leg warmers.  Someone is out on the fire escape smoking a cigarette under the assumption that the teachers can’t see him.  There’s music playing, of course, and there’s me.  Tiny, hyperactive, even for a dancer, dressed all in slimming black, though I don’t quite weigh ninety pounds.  I’m making people laugh with a Gelsey Kirkland imitation,  now an imitation of the teacher himself.  I look like I’m having a blast until I look in the mirror, which I used to do often.  Checking, always checking.  That was how I got the trick shoulder.                                                                                                                                                                                                              I’d take a grande jete  ( a big leap) with my arms overhead, go as high as I could, split my legs 180 degrees, arch my back.  Then I’d toss back my head to look in the mirror.  When I came down, my left arm would stick in place and I’d have to get someone to help me release it.   The teacher would scold me; I shouldn’t turn my head at such a crazy, unnatural angle.  It wasn’t choreographed; it broke the line; it didn’t look right.  But I’d do it again the next time.  Just to see myself fly.  To see a joyous version of me when the real one was anything but.

The mirror was fickle.  Sometimes it showed me the best of me; other times the worst.  It was a crystal ball who reveled in the lies it could make me believe.  It held what I needed: a positive answer to the question on my mind—on the minds of all my friends: Will I make it?  Will I ever get to dance with a ballet company?  That was all that mattered.  We grew up hearing that out of a thousand little girls in pink tights and leotards, only one makes it as a ballet dancer.  But we’d worked so hard for so many years.  We’d passed auditions; we’d performed.  At this point, we all felt we were that one in a thousand.  Not making it would be the end of the world as far as we were concerned.

But Ballet is hard.  If you go to the ballet, look at the girls, the women.  The intricate moves they pull off with superhuman strength and delicacy.  It takes years of daily training, hours and hours each day.  Ballet technique is based on a series of geometric lines that describe impossible images of beauty.   A human body simply cannot do it perfectly, but to be a professional you must come close.

Now take ballet, add teenage girls, and you have a dangerous mix.  Our fear of failure was paralyzing; the likelihood of failure ridiculously high.  Many of us smoked, starved, purged and engaged in other “unhealthy coping behaviors.”  Still, we’d never quit because we loved ballet too much.

There were moments when everything came together.  You’d hit your balance in a pirouette and sail around six times, or take off  in a leap and defy gravity.  When the moment was over, you’d look around hoping someone saw.  But we were often too focused on ourselves to notice one another.  So you’d peak in the mirror as you danced, trying to record those split seconds of success for the darkest hours of self-flagellation.  Those times when you stood in front of the mirror alone, listening to your inner voice tell you how fat you were, how far from being a true dancer.   Compared to you, it said, your friends are perfect.   Then, a small, quiet voice might break through your private torture, whispering: yes, but you can fly.  Yes, but you did six pirouettes.  And you’d survive.

That was long ago, and how I’ve survived.  Suffering only a little from the aftermath of that wild kick and inopportune head turn.  When I was sixteen, a short massage from a friend was all I needed to pop my arm and neck back into alignment.  Since I am not sixteen, this shoulder episode takes several massages from my husband, a week and a half of hot baths and compresses and a whole lot of Ibuprofen to work itself out.   While I am healing, I find a moment to stand in front of the mirror in tights and try to remember what it was that I loathed so much.  I am not perfect—in fact I’m way less perfect than I was at sixteen.  But when I take in my form, the darkness doesn’t come back.  I think of my kids, how special they are, how this body made them, how lucky that I recovered from my eating disorders in time to have them.  I think how cool it is that I get to dance again.

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 3

The Second Class

It’s today.  I’m actually so excited about going to class, I can’t think straight.  Okay, my knee already hurts and I have a butt spasm because I didn’t stretch enough after running yesterday.  Not to mention that I fell down half a flight of stairs last night, landing on my hip, under the full laundry basket I’d been carrying.  But this is why God made Ibuprofen.   Medicated, caffeinated, I’m standing strong and ready to go.

Like Murphy’s law, both kids (aged eight and ten) are home sick today, but I persuade my sweet, supportive husband to telecommute for the first part of the day.  I make everyone lunch, stick it in the fridge and go find my new black tights.   (Oh, yeah, gorged on Thai food yesterday at a friend’s birthday celebration but who’s looking at my thighs??  Not even me.)

And now that I’m gathering my dance clothes, a word on footwear.  After the first ballet class, I noticed that the balls of my feet felt bruised.  It had been so many years, it took me a moment to remember why.   From my father, I inherited a strange (painless in itself) foot condition which involves the absence of a few ligaments.  This has been confirmed by X-rays.  You’d only notice if you decided to squeeze my feet; you’d find that they’re not tough and thick like, well, feet—but bony and too-pliable, more like hands (no thumb, though; they look human).  I solved this issue—once it was diagnosed—by wearing pointe shoes to dance whenever I could.  (Not a hardship; pointe shoes were required at all times in the ballet companies I danced with.)  Pointe shoes have hard boxes and kept my feet nicely—bound is the only word for it.  Regular shoes also work, as do sneakers, but regular ballet slippers lack support.  When I was in my very young, pre-pointe shoes days, my little feet were padded enough for none of this to bother me.  Later, I was prone to stress fractures.

So, for today’s class I bring a pair of pointe shoes with the shank torn out.  They still look like pointe shoes, but the sole is soft so I couldn’t dance on pointe even if I wanted to.  I worry about what the other moms will think.  Am I showing off? Being a “little trina?”  No.  This is about physical maintenance and longevity.  I won’t wear down the bones in my feet just to avoid coming off like a princess.   Aren’t we all too old for such judgments anyway?  I put on the shoes.  Tie the ribbons (which I must have sewn on about sixteen years ago.)  It feels good.  The shoes say, We’ve got ya old girl.  Go ahead and dance.   I say, I remember you guys, and catch a glimpse of my feet in the mirror, a gleaming flash of pink.  I flex and point my right foot just a little and it feels like ballet—in a good way.

Some of the other women do make comments: Wow, you’re brave, and the like.  I feel a desperate need to explain—you don’t understand: it hurts less like this—really! But I don’t need to bother.  It’s a very live and let live crowd.  If living means reliving a long-retired version of yourself, so be it.

The knee pain isn’t so bad this time.  From the start I remember not to care how turned-out I am, to focus on enjoying the music, being as indulgent as I want in terms of épaulement (defined in Part 2), milking those lush crescendos.  The class goes longer today, I’m told.  We’ll be doing more turns and bigger jumps in the center.  I’m wary of the latter.  The idea of leaping, given my knee issue, is one reason I ruled out dancing again up until now.  But after the adagio, I’m up for the waltzing pirouettes, adrenaline providing a nice analgesic.  Grande Allegro (big jumps and leaps) is next.  I go for it.   Soon I’m doing it: a real grande jeté!  If I squint at myself in the mirror, or better yet, don’t look at all, I can imagine sailing through the air, just as if nothing’s changed.

But when it’s time to try the combination on the left side, I grow sober.  Sense comes into play, overriding Ibuprofen.  No, we won’t go this direction, won’t do something as foolhardy as a big leap landing on my left leg—home to my long-suffering left knee.  I mark the combination, skip the steps but join in for épaulement.  I’m taking a bold step, dancing again like this, but I know my limits.  Most of them, anyway.