“You must be a dancer.”
“Are you a ballerina?”
“You’re so tiny I could just pick you up!”
Those words stayed with me for years, and I remember them every time I look in the mirror. These were things frequently told to me while I was at my “smallest” size and weight- when I felt I took up the least physical space, and numbers on a scale and a clothing tag reflected that.
The pictures in this post were taken this past weekend as my own artistic way of reflecting upon National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and what recovery has meant to me. This is my body- it is a body not fully recovered, but no longer in pieces. It is the body I inhabit today, after years spent negotiating my relationship with my female figure and with this life. At 24 years old, I have mostly maintained my “weight-restored” set point. I still struggle, I still survive, and often I even thrive. But I carry the weight of years gone by and pain witnessed deep in my bones. It doesn’t leave.
So often, I want to turn my back and retreat somewhere still deeper inside myself where I can pretend that burdens don’t exist- that we don’t all carry painful stories that weigh upon our souls. I find myself desperately wanting to empty myself of that encumbering weight, to abandon it through any means necessary. I strive to be minimalist, to leave no trace; I wish to do no harm, be no one’s burden. And to never, ever be full- that old, poisonous rule still haunts me. Because to be full once meant to become a human container- to feel, and quite simply “to be” too much. Eating just felt like too much. I challenge these feelings and cognitions every day. It’s okay to take up space; it’s okay to be here. Everyone has a right to show up.
Today, I find thinking about that time to be deeply disturbing: Simply because I was “small” and appeared to fit a specific societal standard of beauty, people mistook me for being one of the strongest, most athletic kinds of performers; in reality my body was essentially falling to pieces as I slowly starved to death. My bones had grown brittle from lack of calcium, and I needed iron infusions to replenish my low blood counts. I was nowhere near capable of performing pirouettes or grand jetes. I developed a heart murmur from the stress on my heart that came with losing large amounts of weight and the purging that followed most meals, when I bothered to eat at all. And after enough time caught in a cycle of purging and restricting food, eating had grown to hurt so much that I often rationalized away my need to eat: “Why do something that causes you real, physical pain?” I would ask myself. (I later learned that painful sensation was the process of my stomach shrinking)
But so long as I was still visually thin, young, female, white, and able-bodied- in other words, in possession of qualities the patriarchy has conditioned us to believe to be some sort of gold standard- I was both implicitly and explicitly praised by society and encouraged to maintain that very specific body type. Because any deviation from that standard is, through those patriarchal standards, implicated to be “less than”- and those toxic constructs continue to be reinforced through so many things we consume in our culture today. After all, our society usually teaches us that athletes and performers are the opposite of “less than”. They are the idols we aspire towards, they exist as our cultural symbols. So when society told me I looked like a ballerina, they were- perhaps unknowingly- praising my dying body.
I was objectified and praised for fitting into a box that created so much pressure for me to stay caught in my sick cycle, to keep hurting myself. Because if I tried to stop out of my own volition, what would the societal implication have been? My disorder always felt like a double-edged sword I had no choice but to fall down upon; my shame ran deep into my core. Eventually, it became a serious fight to survive.
By the time loved ones and medical professionals actually began to ask questions, I had become a master of deception. I was indeed performing; just not as a ballerina. I had learned to manipulate, to hide my eating, hide my purging, make up an excuse for every behavior. My disordered eating had taken over my life, my sense of morality and identity. And my disordered behaviors did affect my real performing art of choice: singing. As I continued to shed more pounds I also lost critical muscle mass, and I developed vocal dysphonia; my voice changed, and it constantly hurt to speak. As my eating disorder ate away at my voice, I felt my sense of agency slipping away with it.
The more harm I inflicted upon my body, the more “scars” there were to heal. At my worst, I found myself scared to eat in public and, more often than not, scared to be around food at all. In my mind, almost no food was “allowed”; it was all “bad”. I felt so uncomfortable and trapped in my own skin, in my own body. I had entered a life-threatening starvation mode that depleted me of all energy, warmth, and joy. But the pain ran so much deeper than that. At the end of the day, my “disorder” was never just about how many calories I ate in a day, or if I was on the right diet and if I was being a good vegan, or even if my body conformed to social standard into which I never felt I could fit- unlike a seemingly benign dress size. It was about so much more than that.
My eating disorder had grown out of all the pain and emotions I had cast aside- the feelings I had been carrying with me for years and years and been too afraid to touch. My “disorder” was my dad dying- it was my lost friends, it was growing up as a sick kid with a disease no one could label. It was grieving over and over again and the universal emotions of loss and loneliness; it was feeling misunderstood and out of control; it was struggling to cope with all of it. Because those feelings can become so unbearably heavy if we neglect to carry them with the dignity they deserve. And sometimes we throw them into a metaphoric basket and label it “weight”.
Emotions, the pain of the past and present- they can feel like such burdens. But we can’t allow ourselves to confuse their complex nature with physical weight and space, those things which we agree to quantify with more measurable numbers and statistics. We must accept that so often, we can’t see the burdens carried by those around us at first glance, if at all. Some things just run too deep. But we will all inevitably have our own baskets with their own unique labels, our own burdens to carry. And we are never, ever able to be encompassed through metric means and diagnostic criteria alone that can merely skim the surface of the human lifespan- of our unique human essence. I believe we would do well to remember this when considering every individual’s body and outer presentation.
I wish to make it abundantly clear at this point that eating disorders are not a choice- they are real and serious illnesses. But to an extent, we do have the option to choose recovery through our own self-determination and strength. And finding the road to recovery is different for everyone.
Recovery means doing your best to show up for yourself, if no one else, every single day- it means challenging even the smallest of things as you work to hold the good with the bad. It is frequently painful and raw, and it requires honesty. To choose recovery is to choose one of the most complicated, confusing, and scary paths one can take- that may also lead to great freedom. Recovery is healing, and it’s an ongoing process. I believe with all my heart that healing is possible. And I’m so glad, because our world has a lot of healing to do.
I’m starting with working on healing myself. How about you?
Lots of Love,
- National Eating Disorders Association
- NEDA screening tool
- Toll-free National Eating Disorders Helpline: 800-931-2237, available Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.- 9 p.m., Fri., 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. EST
- 24/7 Crisis Support via text: send NEDA to 741741