Hey friends! Thanks for the feedback on my camping adventure. Excited to share another soon!
I’m currently digging into some calculus studies, but I’ve spent the last twenty minutes in such deep appreciation of tonight’s Green Recovery post. This one comes from a reader and friend who spent most of her young life as a professional dancer. I’m sure that I have many dancers in my audience right now, and I’m sure that many of them will relate to the unique challenges that come from having one’s body scrutinized as acutely as dancers do.
As a ballet lover, I experience wonderment and joy at the way dance can showcase and elevate the human body. I realize, though, that the beauty I apprehend as a dance lover often comes at a terrible price for those who are dancing. I hope that you’ll all take the time to read this dancer’s harrowing story of obsession and eventual release. I also hope that you’ll offer her some appreciative and supportive words, if you’re so inclined. Please welcome a brave, longtime CR reader who has asked to remain anonymous: I hope she realizes how much this post means to me, and I hope she’ll read it in a few years from the vantage point of an even fuller and deeper recovery.
I was a professional dancer for 5 years, and toured across the globe 4 times. My life was about dance and not much else: it was my sole passion, and I was training vigorously six out of seven days a week. Even on my break day, I’d still fit in a workout. I didn’t have the concept of taking a ‘rest day’ for my body to recover, and furthermore, healthy eating was a mere afterthought; my meals often consisted of not much more than a bowl of meat and white rice. I didn’t think much of it. Things went smoothly for the most part, as my focus and aspirations were clear: my career as a dancer.
Fast forward to my 3rd year: we just got a new dance teacher from Asia, a very strict woman who began training us even harder than we had been before. Amidst learning new things and improving, it was suddenly and quite openly brought to our attention that we should all lose some weight if we wanted to look even better on stage. Despite already being slender, we trusted her and decided that this was a good proposal. We all jumped on board–who didn’t want to look thinner and better on stage? Nobody taught us anything about nutrition, and I’m not quite sure the teacher really knew much about it, either–at least, nothing that I now would deem correct. I had as much knowledge (or lack thereof) about nutrition as your average teenager–I knew fruits and vegetables were ‘good for you,’ but that might have been it. As a disastrous result, it was left up to us to determine exactly how we’d go about losing the weight.
And that was that. We all blindly dove head first into the dark abyss, so very naive of what it would all entail.
We had our first weigh-in after a sweaty rehearsal that evening, and we wrote down our results onto a little chart. The teacher used a mathematical formula for each person’s weight ‘goal,’ which was calculated solely using the person’s height. This formula alerted me that I had 11 pounds to lose before reaching my optimum weight; and though 11 pounds seemed like a lot to me, a warped sense of motivation had me conclude that I just had to reach that goal or I’d die trying.
I soon began a lifestyle that consisted of eating-as-little-as-possible-without-fainting, on top of training-as-much-as-possible…without-fainting. Doing this gave me a terribly false sense of accomplishment. Each morning I’d pack my daily "meals" in a canvas tote bag to bring to the training building, and my weekly grocery trips consisted solely of things labeled low-calorie, low-fat, fat-free, 100-calorie. Beef jerky, low in calories and high in protein, became a staple for many of us–nobody knew about the effects of high sodium content, excess of animal-derived protein, or how meat harmed our bodies in general. But come to think of it, we may not have cared had someone alerted us, because all we cared about was losing weight, and if it did come with hefty, irreversible price tags related to poor health, so be it. My period soon stopped, as did many others’, but many took it as a good sign. Surely we were working in the right direction–it’s what we heard happened with all the really famous female dancers. We were young and active, and most importantly, thin, so none of this mattered…right?
Slowly but surely, we became increasingly obsessive about our weight and numbers, and each time as we stepped on the scale we prayed for the number to be lower than before, even by just .1kg. Towards the beginning of my ‘weight loss journey,’ I had successfully lost a few pounds and was praised by the teacher in front of the class. It sickens me today to think about how proud of myself I was at that moment; prouder than I would’ve been had it been from the result of something actually meaningful and positive. Soon it seemed that nothing mattered more than the blinking number that showed up after the beep on that little plastic black scale. Each of us grew wearier but were still determined…we were losing sight of anything else. Our mentalities were warped. One sunny afternoon while on tour in California, we felt a sense of accomplishment and pride when we decided that as a team, we’d all skip lunch together.
The hosting parties of each city would always provide a lot of delicious food for us. This resulted in our being watched like a hawk by our teacher who was trying to ‘help’ us, because some people were starting to ‘succumb’ to foods that were deemed off-limits. One day at breakfast in Hawai’i as I hesitantly reached for a macadamia cookie, I was ‘caught’ and scolded that I should "know better.” I felt terribly guilty and ashamed. That was the same day that I later broke down and cried during the middle of rehearsals due to an overwhelming amount of stress in general. I’d never been so incapable of controlling my emotions and was left feeling even worse, not to mention shocked–at the kind of person I’d become.
Later that year on tour, a large number of us got food poisoning. It was later speculated that it was from some bad soup we’d been served, but whatever the case, the majority of us became very, very ill. People were vomiting, had high fevers, diarrhea, severe headaches; it was one of the roughest times in memory from tour. Imagine having to perform in a 2.5 hour show during which you’re suffering from a terrible stomachache, yet you must dance your heart out and smile as genuinely as possible. We didn’t have a choice, though, the show must go on; we did not have enough backups for the number of people who were ill at the time. Amidst all of this, perhaps the most alarming, dark part of all was the notion that we secretly shared: that this was a "blessing in disguise," since it led to weight loss. It really was during this time that I finally reached my weight goal. However, it seemed that no matter how thin I actually was, I could still pinch bits of fat on my body and thus felt like I just wasn’t thin or good enough–I couldn’t look in the mirror without finding a hundred different things wrong with myself.
That summer after tour ended, I went home for a vacation and was hanging out my best friend, who was vegan. We were perusing the aisles of a downtown bookstore, and walked past the book ‘Skinny Bitch’ on the shelf, to which she casually pointed and said was a really good read about veganism. I wasn’t interested in veganism at the time; I held the uneducated, stubborn attitude that it was simply a cumbersome, restricting lifestyle only suitable for people who were over the top with animal rights and radical things of that nature. But I was sure interested in what the book had to say about weight loss, so I began flipping through the pages and was soon captivated by all of the information that was being shoved in my face. It was like a wake-up call–everything certainly did make a lot of sense, and so I jotted down some key points on an old receipt and tucked it into my pocket. I was left with the striking notion that even if you haven’t formerly cared about the cruelty that goes on in the meat industry, it’s impossible not to realize that those tortured, diseased bodies are what’s being served next to the fries on your dinner plate, and they aren’t doing any good for your body, either.
I began researching more and more, and was fascinated by everything I was learning about plant-based diets. My eyes were opened to this whole new way of eating, and I began by making simple changes. As a result, my mindset as a whole was changed: I gained a strong sense that food should be nourishment, rather than a sort of punishment/source of stress and anguish, and this seemingly simple thought helped me in more ways than I could have imagined.
Since then, I’ve regained my health as well as peace of mind. This long journey has taught me not just about food and nutrition, but about the need to take care of and love myself, things I’d neglected doing for far too long. Life really is a beautiful thing, and we’ve got to fill it with positivity and compassion not only towards others, but also ourselves. True, it’s easier said than done, but at the end of the day, when you’re able to sit down and realize that today, you laughed and loved and lived, rather than obsessively planned each moment around food and exercise, it’s a giant step in the right direction. There is hope; you have to believe, and strive towards positive goals, and never give up no matter what obstacles may come your way.
Also, count your blessings! I recently bought an apartment that I’ve really enjoyed furnishing and decorating (and using its kitchen!), catching up with old friends with whom I’ve lost touch over the years, picking up my passion of drawing again, and gone on many adventures in my favorite city (NYC!) with people who mean the world to me. None of these things would have been possible to enjoy if life were still revolving around disordered eating habits.
Something else a friend recently told me that has stuck with me, is the seemingly obvious notion that you don’t have to walk your path alone–those around you are more willing to help than you may think. I’d spent years building up wall after wall and blocking people out at a time when I actually needed them most, despite what I may have thought. Now, I’m picking up where I left off before this mess; I’m taking down those walls and finding myself once again.
So here’s to you, to me, to all of us; we hold the ability to brighten our own futures even if we’ve gone through darkness to get to where we are today.
We stopped the weight loss method of religiously weighing ourselves after two years, and since then I have tried to help many of my fellow dancers with what I’ve learned regarding healthy eating and body image.
Also, my dance teacher was truly trying to do what she thought was best for us. She’s a genuinely good person, despite what these actions regarding the dancers’ weight loss may suggest; please do not pass judgments.
After this was over, things within the dance company changed, and no other teacher has been focused in such a way regarding dancers’ weight loss.
What an incredible story. I wanted to add that this particular tale brought me back to a conversation I recently had with one of my clients, who is a ballet dancer. She confessed to me, “I so want to be happy with myself all the time.” I think she’s getting there, in the best and bravest of ways. But I can relate to her sentiment, which is one I’ve often shared, and it prompted some thought.
I think that some former ED sufferers develop an idealized—possibly unrealistic—idea of what constitutes happiness about one’s body. Anyone with a restrictive history will remember the unbelievable smugness and rush of validation (no matter how warped) that came with the pursuit of thinness, and hope to feel that level of intense pride once again. Perhaps it’s important to remember that, while it’s healthy and good to feel pride about one’s body, it’s also true that many women with healthy body image will confess readily that there are things they’d like to change: my own mother has often told me, “sure, there are things I’m critical of, like every woman, but I’m basically content.” I think of these words often, since few women I know have a more down-to-earth and positive relationship with their bodies than my mom does. She’s never prone to loathing and unnecessary criticism, but neither does she expect to feel 100% thrilled with every part of her figure at every moment. She’s realistic. She’s forgiving. She’s at peace.
Perhaps our need or desire to feel 100% happy with how we look at every single moment is in fact yet another perfectionist’s fallacy—yet another expression of the extremism that so often drives EDs. Perhaps reality is that we’re destined to always have some criticisms, but that a healthy mindset is defined by our ability to not become consumed with them. Perhaps we should spend less time hoping to be satisfied with everything about the way our bodies look, and more time celebrating the things we like most. And focus, too, on the non-physical qualities that make us special.
Some food for thought. I’d love to hear how you guys feel about this, and of course, I’m eager for your reactions to tonight’s story.