Tag Archives: Anorexic

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.”

 

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.

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.