I was at a modern dance performance the other night. Talented young girls from a nearby dance conservatory. I marveled. There was a range of ages and ability levels and body types. All beautiful. From the lean and graceful ballet-types to the curvy and sturdy athletic types to the more gawky and awkward types, striving to be more comfortable and graceful in their bodies. Well, that’s it isn’t it? We’re all striving to be more comfortable and graceful in our bodies aren’t we? What those girls don’t know and can’t appreciate yet is how beautiful they are. Every single one of them.
My heart was with them. I feel. I remember. The 10,000 hours of grinding and repetitive technique classes and rehearsals. The thrill of getting singled out for a solo. The devastation of not getting singled out for a solo. The excitement and anxiety of the weeks leading up to the performance. The costumes. The makeup. The theater. The lights. The audience. Practicing. Worrying. Not eating. Because that extra pound lost would make a psychological difference in how I felt about myself. In the costume, on stage, in my body.
Chatting before the performance with a mom in the audience, the conversation turned to anorexia. Of course. Girls and dance. What else would we talk about? A girl, not one of the dancers but she is in the circle of high-achieving New York metropolitan families who appear to have it all, is struggling with anorexia. Her mother was a dancer. Aha! Familiar territory. I wanted to pounce, to rush in and solve the problem. The mother must have eating issues. How could it not wreak havoc on her daughter and the whole family? I felt for the girl, the mother, the family. I don’t know them. I hope they are getting help. Because…
Anorexia can be deadly.
So much of it is shrouded in shame and secrecy. It starts innocuously enough. You notice that if you eat less and lose weight that your breasts and hips get smaller. That’s a relief because you’re not really sure you want breasts and hips and a butt anyway. Besides, you have to watch out for men, because they only want one thing. Much better to get those curves under control. Besides, you start getting compliments, maybe even from your mom, about how good you look. Then, maybe you start exercising more. Dancing, running, sports. Now you’ve lost weight and added muscle. Looking good girl! Besides, if you work out every day, you can burn off more calories. Yes! Then, you start getting off on feeling hungry. Feeling hungry means you haven’t overeaten. In fact you’ve probably lost more weight. All good, right? Well, now you’re in dangerous territory. You enjoy being hungry and don’t want to eat. Your dysmorphia intensifies. You look in the mirror and like how thin you are, with no awareness that having your ribs show is not attractive. And you want to be even more thin. And even more hungry. It is a vicious and dangerous, sometimes deadly cycle.
The family panics and wants you to eat, but that is terrifying to you. The absolute worst possible disaster to befall a girl with anorexia is to gain weight. It is very difficult to treat. Recent research is showing that rigid anorexic behavior is linked to increased activation in the area of the brain that controls habit and is tied to anxiety. Her brain is stuck in a groove that doesn’t respond to medication or therapy and is prone to relapse. The girl has to replace her habitual patterns around food with something else. Her family needs to help by changing familial patterns. It is tremendously complicated. And difficult.
And the sadness of it is that these girls do not realize how beautiful they are. In their world, there is pressure to look good, pressure to succeed, pressure to appear to have it all together. Everyone else seems to have it figured out. But the secret truth is that no one has it figured out. It takes years to gain perspective and experience – resilience – to appreciate you.
You are beautiful.
There is increasing awareness of eating issues. Mybodyscreening.org has a 3 minute quiz to screen for whether or not you may benefit from clinical help related to an eating disorder. My teen self would not have passed. The enjoyment of food and the fear of gaining weight remain an on-going conversation that goes on in my mind and makes me sympathize with the thinking that one never fully recovers from an eating disorder. It hovers in the background.
So, beautiful girls, here is my wish.
May you feel strong and be healthy. May you move with grace and ease. May you stand tall and enjoy your breasts and hips and butt. May you taste food with pleasure. May you dance with confidence and enjoy the exhilaration of moving to music. May you know that you are not alone. May you know that you are beautiful.
Image: La Danse (I), by Henri Matisse