Category Archives: Eating Disorder Recovery

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 1

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting my return to ballet class.

Sunday: The Night Before.

You’re a forty-five year old suburban mom, writer and therapist.  Put down those pointe shoes at once!!!

This is just one of the thoughts racing through my mind as I embark on this madcap misadventure.   At a dinner party last night, over our third glass of shiraz, my friend—also an ex- dancer—happened to mention that she’d started taking ballet class on Monday mornings.  Adults only, low-key, no pressure, just an hour, and did I want to join her?

Snapshot of long ago: 1984 Performing Arts High School. I was 18.

Are you kidding me?   I said.   She laughed.  She can laugh.  She was a modern dancer back in the day, not a ballet dancer like I was.  (Two entirely different mentalities.  They were healthier, less extreme in the way they treated their bodies.  Never smoked, ate alfalfa sprouts and granola … yes, ate.  Not us.)  Not to mention that my friend lost weight when she stopped dancing, “I guess because I wasn’t carrying all that extra muscle anymore.”  When I stopped dancing (which actually coincided with quitting smoking and getting pregnant) my real-woman body emerged faster than you could say frappucino.

So, more than the fear of knee pain or reactivating the dormant stress fractures in my metatarsals, more than the anticipated embarrassment at how my technique has drained away over the years,  I cringe at the thought of putting on tights and facing the mirror again.   Sure, I look in the full length mirror in my bedroom every day, with the harsh self-scrutiny of an ex-ballet dancer.  I break my body down part by part, staring down the rounded regions, willing them away, just as I used to when I was a dancer (old habits die hard).  But the difference between now and then is that I can put on my jeans, zip them up (tight or not) and walk away from the mirror for the rest of the day.  If I gain three pounds or even five, no one is going to take a role away from me or send me to the back line of the corps de ballet.  I won’t have to put on a white Lycra unitard and stand on a stage before five hundred people.  I’ll go to a PTA meeting, drive my kids to tennis, swing by Shop-rite on the way home.  And no one will notice my thighs.  Not even my husband, who is appreciative of my body in all its minor fluctuations.

Frankly, as bodies go, mine is pretty good for its age and station.  In the real world, I’m thin.  Reasonably fit and lean for a suburban mom.  But not for ballet.  Once, at a time when I was dancing, weighing ten pounds less than I do today, I was called into the office and given a weight warning—told gently that I “was not looking my best,” which I knew was code for lose weight or else.  So I know that for a ballet dancer, especially a ballet dancer from the 1980s and 1990s, I’m chunky.  Really.  If you know what Natalie Portman, an already-thin young actress went through, how she starved herself, for her role in Black Swan, you’ll have an inkling of what’s involved in maintaining a ballet dancer’s physique.  I once starved myself, chain smoked to avoid eating, threw up what little I did eat, all for that physique.  I was shortish (still am) with real live boobs (read: localized fat), so it was harder.  Even if I was thin, I would look bulky on stage compared to the other girls.    Learning to live with and respect my body was a long time coming.  (Part of me is wondering: Will I mess that up if I start dancing again?)

But the more I thought about my friend’s suggestion (draining glass number three of Shiraz), the more I decided taking a ballet class was something I had to do.  As an experiment, a study in what I can take.   But more than that.  The truth is that I miss it.  I yearn for the pleasure of physicalizing some of the most incredible music ever composed.  Ballet is magical, transcendent, spiritual.  If you’ve ever done it seriously, Ballet is a religion complete with rituals, dress codes, dietary laws.  It’s a way of life that becomes part of your identity.  So when you quit, you feel as if you’ve left home and can’t go back.  Ballet is so demanding, the exercises so specific, that in no time, you’re too out of shape to do them anymore.   You no longer look like or feel like you.  You move on, learn to love other things, but you never lose the sense that you’ve left a piece of yourself behind.  So I am going back.

It will hurt in more ways than one, but I’m doing it.  Full disclosure: my incentive was to have something new to write about.  Something that was deep and personal that wasn’t in the past.  Because I know this will be raw and emotional and the curious therapist and writer in me wants to document it as it’s happening.*

Tomorrow I start.  So tonight I am signing off and going to dig up some de-shanked pointe shoes and a leotard.  I will wear as much “junk” as I want (sweats, legwarmers, t-shirt, etc: hiding clothes).  I will not lift my leg above 45 degrees unless I want to.  If something hurts, I will stop.  But I’m going.

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The Body As Self: Weight Identity for a Young Ballet Dancer

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.