When I was fourteen years old, my ballet teacher pulled me aside after class one day and told me that I needed to lose some weight. I was about the same height I am now, five foot three, and I weighed around one hundred and ten pounds. While I was not ballerina thin, I certainly was not fat. I had a nice body, actually, a budding woman’s body, strong, with beautiful curves. But Ms. Allenby told me she wanted to consider me for bigger parts in the small company with which I danced, and that to do so, she needed me to be thinner. I don’t remember that “request” bothering me. I didn’t go home and cry; I didn’t feel humiliated or defeated. I was daunted by the woman’s body developing without my control, and I think I wanted–on some level, perhaps not consciously–to stop it. I didn’t really like my breasts or my round butt and curvy hips. I was mortified by my first period. I didn’t like maturing, so the part of the story that comes next makes perfect sense.
I went on a diet–counting calories, cutting out sweets, and planning my meals very carefully. The “request” came toward the end of the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year in high school. By the time school started, I had lost around ten pounds. It was exhilarating at first. Anorexia always is. By mid-fall I had lost almost twenty pounds. Ms. Allenby seemed pleased, and that pleased me. I got to dance some great parts–fun variations in the Nutcracker and Juliet in the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene choreographed by John Cranko. My budding breasts nearly disappeared and my period stopped; my development was arrested and I was relieved. I had a ballerina’s body–not that this picture shows it very well, but it’s the only one I can find.
Almost everyone knows about the many forms of lasting damage caused by anorexia and other eating disorders. I think for me the most pernicious result was how anorexia narrowed my definition of myself–encouraging me almost to erase myself. As a dancer, I equated my body with my whole being, and it reflected my value in a scary inverse proportion: the less I weighed, the more I was worth. The logic is mind-boggling: I’m worth more when I almost don’t exist at all. The book Competing with the Sylph: The Quest for the Perfect Dance Body sheds some light on this bizarre aspiration that I shared with so many young women. In my quest for near weightlessness, for a sylphlike body of air, I created an image of what my body should be. Forever. That was when I was fourteen. Thirty-one years later, I still struggle with this image of my body–from time to time I find myself at war with my own flesh.
A couple of things have happened recently to bring all of this mess back up. In September I started training to teach Pilates. Since then I’ve been working out a lot, and I’ve been a lot hungrier, which means I’m eating more–it’s really hard to do things like hang upside down in Pilates inversions if I’m not getting enough nutrition.
In January I turned forty-five, something I celebrated with a four day dessertapalooza, which paved the way to sequels in subsequent months. Then a few weeks ago I realized that I was tired of being afraid of food. I’m tired of worrying about how what I eat might kill me. Last summer I stopped eating gluten and dairy to control my asthma, which actually stays under control just fine as long as I take my Flonase. I got sick of being so restrictive, so I started eating things that had been off-limits–like croissants and ice cream. All of these things have led to some weight gain because my forty-five year old body does not metabolize food like it did when I was twenty-five (ah the joys of peri-menopause!). I have no idea how much weight I have gained as I have no scale, but I know that my body has changed. It has more flesh. A lot of this new flesh is muscle–my sister and I develop muscle very easily, probably because of our eastern European peasant genes. But some of it is not muscle. Some of it, in my recovering anorexic’s mind, is excess. Unnecessary flesh.
But my body–the ideal Platonic vision I created at fourteen–has no excess. I was driving home from Pilates the other day, and I realized that is why I am having trouble with the “extra” flesh on my stomach, thighs, and butt. I see that flesh as not part of my real body, the ballerina’s body aspiring for sylph-hood. There’s certainly no fat on that body. It is sleek, perfect. Anything else is not really me–it might be attached to me, but it is not me. The insanity of that notion struck me as I sat waiting for the light to change, thinking about how I didn’t like the way my thighs feel. In that moment, I wanted to cut off part of my body. Remove a chunk my flesh. Part of me. Jesus, that is fucked up.
I’m hardly unique in this horrifying desire. I hear my friends talk about their bodies in much the same way. They grab handfuls of flesh that they’ve identified as excess, the part that needs to be eliminated from their stomachs, thighs, butts, waists–everywhere that “excess” intrudes. One of my friends jokes (?) about “just getting it all sucked out.” Getting part of her body sucked out and thrown away as though it is trash. What makes a woman think that about her body? What makes anyone think such thoughts?
Of course I can’t answer that question for anyone else. But sitting in the car, wondering how to get rid of those bits of my body that don’t really belong to me, I figured it out for myself. And it pissed me off. When I stop and listen to the voice in my head telling me that there is too much flesh on my body, I hear the faint traces of a South African accent–it is an echo of my ballet teacher’s voice. I was sixteen years old and in the middle of rehearsal when she had me come over to where she sat. She reached out and grabbed the flesh of my inner thighs, saying, “If we could just get rid of this part….” So, yes, I understand the compulsion to just cut it off. I was eighteen years old and sitting in her office trying to explain why I didn’t want to dance anymore when Jean told me that I would be nothing but a fat, plain lady if I left ballet. I think some part of me has been trying to prove her wrong ever since. But the best way I can do that is to ignore the echo of her voice and to change the ideal image of my body to one that is strong and healthy, not frail and sylphlike.
In fact, that ideal body does not serve me well. When I am pared down, when there is no excess, I tend to be much sadder. I’m crankier and harder to be around. And I’m less healthy–my joints ache, my asthma flares up more readily, and I feel weaker. I’m tired and can’t concentrate, which makes most things harder to do.
That I can even see the difference now is progress. That I can also see my body with some measure of objectivity is also progress. Believe me, I know that there are lots of people who think I’m crazy, who must resent my complaints about my body because it is actually beautiful. More importantly, it is strong, well-muscled, and solid. Mine is a woman’s body, not that of some pre-pubescent teenager, all angles and limbs, or of a sylph, weightless and airy. In this body I have a lot of energy and much more focus for my teaching and my writing. My joints don’t hurt, and my asthma flares up far less often. This body, my body, made of flesh and bone and blood, serves me so well. Why would I want another?