Category Archives: Eating Disorder Recovery

“Pretty” is the Wrong Question

imagesCASDTSYLWhen I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.

In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.

Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.

In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.

In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me,  by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.

Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.

In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.

Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.

What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.

I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”

This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.

I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,

“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”

Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.

Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.

As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.

It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like.  I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”

Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”

I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.

Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:

  • Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
  • Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
  • Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
  • If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
  • If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
  • Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.
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Lady Gaga: Eating Disorder Aftermath in the Spotlight

When I first heard about Lady Gaga, it was from my daughter, who kept singing Bad Romance and Alejandro and Edge of Glory, making me play the radio stations that played these songs until I have to say I was fairly addicted to them myself.  The girl is talented.

Next, I began to see photographs of Lady Gaga all over the place, particularly the supermarket and the waiting area at the Counseling Center where I worked, where People Magazine was an absolute staple.  Her crazy outfits and makeup didn’t faze me, seeing as I grew up in the heyday of Boy George, Grace Jones, Robert Smith, Cyndi Lauper and, yeah, everyone in the eighties.  What I found alarming about Lady’s photographs were how skinny she was.

Maybe she doesn’t look terrifyingly thin to you in the above photograph.  But consider that she’s five feet one inch tall, and proportionately looks like a 6 foot supermodel.  If you look this thin in photographs and you’re this short, you’re really skinny, often by unnatural means.  I know this from experience.  Here I am at 18.  I was struggling with a form of anorexia at the time.  I look too thin, in my opinion, but I was somehow not considered emaciated.  (I’m just two inches taller than Gaga.)

Given my own experience in the ballet world, where skinny was the norm and people got there any way they could, given my own eating disordered past, any time I see photographs of extremely thin models and celebrities, I can’t help wondering: is that starved-looking girl okay?  Is she just naturally like that because she’s six feet tall and seventeen?  Or is she struggling?  Does she slave for hours on the elliptical or the treadmill?  Does she limit her caloric intake to harrowingly low numbers?  Does she rely on illegal drugs to keep her body humming away while failing to notice the need for food?

Lady Gaga is young, so I didn’t jump to any conclusions right away, though of course I suspected there was something going on.  Pop stars have access to cocaine, which keeps you rail thin and hyped up (and on a crash course for, well, crashing).  Young pop stars have youth—which is always great for weight maintenance–possibly good genes–good jeans too, for that matter.  But seeing as Gaga was a rich, successful celebrity, I wasn’t especially worried about her.

Then she disappears and gains twenty-five pounds which I have to say, probably brings her into the range of healthy.  (Yes, it’s true.  It may look smashing in a bikini, but being seriously underweight, as physicians will attest, puts your health at risk.)

Be that as it may, the media was abuzz with reports of Lady Gaga “ballooning,” the tabloids temporarily relegating Kate Middleton’s posing nude and/or sporting an alleged “baby bump” to the second page.

I know, when celebrities gain or lose weight, it’s always big news, because we’re all weight obsessed and starstruck.  We love to know that stars are human just like the rest of us, but at the same time there’s this special American brand of schadenfreude, this glee when misfortune befalls the outrageously fortunate.  In any case, I must state for the record that this:

is not a photograph of a fat person.  I’ll own, it is a picture of a woman in a really silly outfit photographed from a less-than-flattering angle.  But fat?  Really now.

In interviews, Gaga confessed: she has struggled all her life with eating disorders.  Lamenting the caloric bonanza of the food at her father’s restaurant, Gaga confessed that she stays out of New York to avoid the place, claiming she needs to be where she can “drink green juice,” safe from temptation.  Gaga, whose album, Born This Way, celebrates individuality and loving oneself, warts and all, is clearly not one of those very rare souls who is an effortless size double zero.  Still, until the much touted twenty-five came on, she’d appeared in public to be just that size.

As Huffington Post blogger, Michelle Konstantinovsky puts it:

“Mixed messages much? While I wholeheartedly appreciate the rare transparency, I can’t help but wish the “eat less, exercise more” ideal had never been blasted out to so many undeniably impressionable fans. Moreover, I wish Gaga had never subjected herself to fitting a narrow, predetermined pop star mold if she truly hadn’t been born that way.”

The mixed messages continue.  On one hand, Gaga says she’s not a bit bothered by the “extra” weight; referring to the curves she says her boyfriend prefers.  On the other hand, says she’s dieting hard to lose it.

But I don’t blame her for saying one thing and doing another.  I do not fault a young, way-too-famous 26 year old, maybe-or-maybe-not-ex-bulimic for being confused about the meaning of food, size and hunger in her life.  I give this girl a break.  And hope she gets some gentle, supportive help from an eating disorders specialist soon.  The good news is that Lady Gaga has begun The Body Revolution, a campaign on her website inviting fans to share their body struggles in the interest of healing.  Let’s hope it helps.

Recovering from an eating disorder is so challenging.  When you are recovering from bulimia especially, when you are even at the stage of considering recovering from bulimia (the lingo is “I’m trying to stop,” or “I’m thinking about stopping”), you have no idea how to begin, unless you are in very good treatment.  You don’t understand food, you don’t understand what hunger is, you have to learn everything from the beginning.  The result is often weight gain.  Sometimes significant weight gain.  I say often, not always, because I can’t find the statistic, but I can’t think of a single case when this was not the result.  Food is scary, eating is scary, mirrors and scales are scary.  I was only able to recover when I looked in the mirror and said to myself: I would rather be overweight than bulimic.  Did I mean it?  Was it that simple?  More on that in another post, but I was on my way to being free.*

Whether you are anorexic, bulimic, or a tidy combination known in the therapy world as EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), the addiction to thinness—however elusive your idea of thinness is—and the coinciding dread of fat can be paralyzing.  You communicate mixed messages to yourself all day long.  Food is too good for me.  I’m too good for food. In addition, you have lost your connection to food, lost your sense of nurturing your body and virtually shut down your metabolism.  When you go from drinking only green juice, or in my case, consuming only apples and an occasional cup of popcorn, (throwing up anything over and above) to eating normally, you will get much fatter than you were before.  I put it in those terms because that is how eating disorder sufferers think.  This is your mindset: To have fat on my body is to be fat.

For me, challenging that way of thinking took three years of cognitive-behavioral therapy (which ultimately is how I overcame my illness).  But how dare the media inflict that same kind of language on the public, especially young girl fans of Lady Gaga.  And imagine–just imagine–what it must be like to live the journey of eating disorder recovery in the public eye.

Lady Gaga has been called a publicity hound (and worse).  To be fair, you probably wouldn’t wear a dress made of meat if getting attention weren’t your thing.  But she’s lived an eating disorder, and possibly, privately still lives it.  It’s a life of fear and ambivalence, no matter what the crowd sees on stage.   So even if she puts nearly nude photos of herself on her site post weight gain, publicly “embracing her curves,” she’s still got a struggle ahead.  Especially if she’s still dieting to get “her body back.”  (Which one is she embracing again?)

Here I am, by the way, after my own twenty-five pound weight gain (I’m far right, in the sunglasses).

Without those essential pounds I doubt I would have my children or my life.  Here’s to “ballooning.”

 

Body in Motion, The Spirit Soars

My past two posts have dealt with eating disorders in women over forty.   Well, here comes a refreshing change of pace …

The joy of a body is in what it can do.  That is why humans began dancing in the first place.  Their spirits were moved; their bodies followed suit.  A little musical accompaniment and there was no turning back.

People have asked me about the header image of this blog; some mistakenly think it’s a photograph of me when I was small.  It’s actually an image of my daughter in dance class at the age of about four and a half–on parents’ observation day.  I love all the photographs from that series, because they capture the true spirit of girls–happy with what their bodies are able to do, how great it feels to move and not how they look.  (Sure, one might check the mirror now and then to see how her chiffon skirt floats around when she spins, but she’s not scrutinizing herself.)  How I wish we could all capture that joy and preserve it all our lives.

My favorite part of that dance class, which I actually have on video (and am sharing below) is when the teacher had the girls skip in random circles.  They were told to make their own paths, just not to get so wild that they would prevent others from skipping freely.  Zoe is the little one in lavender featured.  (My husband did the filming.)

Bulimia Time

A few years ago I met a woman who lived at night.  She was a forty-something suburban mother, like myself, with a kind husband, a dog, and four beautiful children, aged thirteen to nineteen.*  As her seventeen year old daughter’s psychotherapist, I’d summoned her for a family session.   I wanted to discuss something that had come to my attention: this mother routinely stayed up all night and slept the day away.   She was not an insomniac; she was up working, mostly, on her computer.  I don’t remember what kind of work she did, but I do know it could have easily been done during the day, when her children were in school.  She could have met them at the school bus, spent the afternoon with them, joined the family for dinner and so on, engaging in normal family life and hours.  Instead, she stayed up while they slept, then slept for most of the hours her children were awake.   At a time when the daughter was developmentally programmed to separate from her mother, the girl was avoiding her peers, desperately seeking her mother’s company.  The daughter would even sneak out of school early, hoping to join her mother for one precious hour or two before Mom turned in.

The father, though a self-described patient man, was getting tired of being the sole parent on duty; the teenage boys were fighting and cutting school.  The teenage girls, my client in particular, were growing sullen and incommunicative.   It’s my fault, the mother said, tearily.  No one argued with her.

I took in the creases beneath her pretty blue eyes, the familiar, slightly lopsided jaw, the tell-tale jowliness on one side of her face, but not the other.  Though my own eyes are brown, it was like looking into a mirror: this mother was either an active, or recently recovered, bulimic.

I too used to live in those hours, binging and purging the night away while the world slept.  I had no children then, but a job—at first dancing with a ballet company, later teaching at a girls’ school.  I’d live my daytime life, smiling, talking, functioning as called for, deferring my pain or stress to the wee hours when I could stuff them down with food and then expel them, flush them.  In place of the pain there would be this high.  This sense of being invincible, though at the same time, I believed I was living on borrowed time.  I ignored the near-constant heart palpitations, the sweats and shakes; I was used to them.  I’d been coping with life this way since high school.  Bulimia was like breathing.  The days were numb; the late nights were mine alone.

It took three years of cognitive behavioral therapy (which I began at the age of twenty-three) but at last I learned to live, eat and care for myself emotionally and physically.   I’ve been lucky.  Not only do I have a full relationship with my husband, I’ve had two easy pregnancies, where I relished the changes in my body.   When I look at my two wonderful kids, I sometimes shudder to think what it would be like be to manage an eating disorder and parenting responsibilities—how much of each other we’d be missing.

At the next family session, I asked to meet with my clients’ parents alone.  Again, the father complained about the mother’s hours, citing her absence for the daughter’s problems.  The mother wept: I don’t mean to be this way.   I leaned forward and smiled as gently as I could.  I don’t know whether or not she recognized it as a conspiratorial smile—the secret sisterhood of recovered bulimic mothers.  I knew the tears in my own eyes were glistening, though I knew better than to let them fall in session.

I said, “You’re still living on bulimia time, aren’t you?”

She was surprised but looked relieved, not offended.  She smiled despite her tears.  “Yes.”   No one, least of all her patient husband, had understood what that meant.  When we spoke privately, the mother explained that she had a wonderful individual therapist who specialized in eating disorders.  She’d recovered from the bulimia itself, she said, but she could not let go of the nighttime.   Since I was not her therapist I did not ask her why it was so hard to give up those hours.  For me it was the quiet and the peace, but mostly this strange sense that sleeping meant giving up—on something.  I can’t remember what.

Not long ago, I saw the mother out walking her dog in the sunshine, looking strong and content.  I was glad to see that she’d joined the daytime world as I had.

Sometimes the wee hours still call me.  Sometimes I still haunt when my family goes to bed.  I’m more likely to be writing, maybe surfing the internet, reading other people’s blogs, than eating, but still—I’m up.  I think of how easy it would be to go back there, not to the illness itself, but the schedule, the madness of the vigil, which I still don’t quite understand.  So I shut down my computer.  And force myself off to bed.

* I have changed a few details about the family structure for the sake of confidentiality.

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.

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 2

The First Class

at home in my current identity

I get there early to warm up, but mostly to buy black tights.  I could not find any at home, and though I’m planning to wear sweatpants over the tights, I still need tights—not for the look, but to hold everything in place.  I buy the tights and put them on over the only leotard I could find (black, of course).  Next I stand facing the full-wall mirror in the dressing room, as my formerly anorexic mind swings in out of nowhere to process the image.  Unacceptable, is what it comes up withWhich is how the then me would judge the now me.  How can you possibly expect to lift those legs?  I fight these thoughts; I know better but I have to fight hard.  Here is what my recovered, evolved mom-and-shrink mind counters with: So your legs are thicker than your unrealistic mental ideal?  Who gives a shit when there are people starving in the world?  People losing their children to gunfire and famine?  You are taking an adult ballet class on a Monday morning when other people are at work.  You didn’t get to preview your thighs before you came here because the cleaning lady was washing the mirror at home.   You have no right to kvetch.  About anything.   

Now in comes my friend, who reinforces how ridiculous I’m being.  What are you wearing tights for?  It turns out, not only is everyone in the class around my age, everyone is a mom I know, either from the pool, from my kids’ school or activities.  Everyone looks like themselves, not the twenty year old images of sylphlike perfection I used to compare myself to.   Yet everyone looks beautiful in a way they probably don’t realize.  They are self-accepting and grateful to be where we are, doing this Monday morning moms’ ballet class.  They glow with anticipation.  I forget all about my thighs and stretch, getting excited about the music.

The teacher—a man whose name I’d heard when I was dancing but whom I’ve never met until now—is a flexible sort.  He can teach professionals, little ones or even aging soccer moms, depending on who’s asking.  I speak to him in advance, warn him: I haven’t danced in … my left knee doesn’t really bend so well, I’ll have to take it easy.  He nods with a smile; we’re all in the same boat.   This is not an audition.

As in every ballet class, every level, everywhere, we begin with grand plies.  The music swells and I’m transported back home to myself.  The very, very last thing on my mind is what my body looks like.  I have little actual ballet technique left, only muscle memory, but how well my muscles remember.  When you’re a ballet child, you learn your tendus, frappés and petit battements; your feet and legs internalize the technique.   But the fun part is when your upper body—chest, head, shoulders and arms—learns to dance, really dance.  We call it épaulement (loosely translated: tilt of the shoulders) and port de bras (the carriage of the arms).  These are what you use to translate music into movement; it’s the one thing you never lose.  It’s what still feels wonderful.

My knee, on the other hand, not so much.  We all have battle wounds and mine is the left knee, my trick knee, which is chronologically the same age I am, but in terms of hard knocks, is more like seventy.  The original injury took place when I was nineteen years old.  It was the first day of my professional dance career.  I had just joined the corps of the Cincinnati New Orleans City Ballet (those companies merged briefly during the 1980s) under the executive direction of Ivan Nagy, a well known Hungarian danseur.  The director swept in halfway through company class to inspect his new crop of dancers.   During an exuberant across-the-floor waltz combination, I managed to catch his eye.  I was so young, so nervous, so desperate to make a splendid first impression that I paid more attention to performance and épaulement than to where my feet were in relationship to the floor.  Mid-combination, there was a big, split-leg temps de flèche (read: hitch kick) into which I threw myself with gusto.   I was smiling—a classic closed-lipped, raised-eyebrow ballet smile (look how easy this is!)—and sprang into the air, switching my  legs brilliantly.  Ivan saw me!  Smiled!  Victory!  Then I landed.  I went one way; my left kneecap seemed to go the other.  Following this, the rest of the corps began rehearsing Les Sylphides, I began a long course of physical therapy.

I was young, as I said.  I’d heal quickly.  I’d even perform in Les Sylphides.  But my knee, which had aged twenty years in one fateful moment, would never be the same again. Now it’s on the bulbous side, takes a wacky spiral track whenever I bend my leg.  And pain?  I’ll feel it in unsupportive shoes but as long as I stick to my Dansko clogs, the pain goes away.  Also, I run.  Slowly but consistently, three miles every day which, counter-intuitively, seems to strengthen the knee.  (Whenever I take a break from running, like when I had hernia surgery, my knee got worse.)  But ballet is another story.

Today, during the very first tendu combination, my knee goes ginch!  The teacher sees my eyebrows knit in pain.

“Lisa,” he says, “take the turn-out down a notch.”

Is he kidding?   Turn-out—the balletic state of being gloriously, naturally duck-toed—has always been my claim to fame.  If you’re not turned out, it’s not ballet.  This was drilled into my head for more than twenty years.

“But why now?” says the teacher.  “If it’s not a performance, not an audition, who cares about perfection?”

I let my toes come closer together, form a ninety degree “v” with my feet rather than my “usual” one-eighty line from toe to toe.  Then I dance, using the right muscles, but no straining.  Surprise!  Nothing hurts.  Though this is harder, oddly enough: to remember not to force anything.  But for the rest of the barre, I work as hard as I can not to work as hard as I can, though that does not come naturally.   Every time I space out and just enjoy the music and the muscle memory, I force, I wack, I ginch.  And ouch!  Easy, the teacher says, Easy.

Now we move the bars aside to dance.  Adagio: slow and sensual, allegro: small jumps; then pirouettes to a fun and “dancy” waltz.  Here, there’s nothing to hold onto, so I’m not forcing anything; I’m too busy trying to remember how not to fall down.  I hold a memory in my head of how ballet felt; I project the image in my mind onto my reflection in the mirror, which is managing admirably for an out of shape (for ballet) forty-five year old.  Miraculously, nothing, not even the knee, hurts badly enough for me to stop.  So I don’t stop.  I finish.  Victoriously, I thank the teacher, hug my friend and buy a ten class card.

At night I make sure to roll out the knots in my calves using a wooden device I bought for this purpose years ago at the health food store.  I ice my knee with my turbo-super-duper icepack from a medical supply store.  I fall asleep with the icepack on and wake up frostbitten, which has happened before, but once my knee thaws, it seems okay.  In the morning, and for two mornings after that, I wake up stiff and sore.  But I can still hear the music, still feel the dancing inside me, the way you have that flying, rocking sensation the day after you’ve been to an amusement park and braved the big rides.  I am glad I have a week to recover between classes.  But I can’t wait until Monday.