I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Ballet

You Are Beautiful

1024px-La_danse_(I)_by_Matisse

Beautiful Girls

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

My name is Sally and I weigh 123.4 pounds.

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Addicted to the Scale?

I weigh myself on Monday mornings.  I am the first person up.  I tip-toe into the bathroom.  (I still move like a dancer.)  I turn on the shower so that the water gets really hot.  (I love getting lost in the shower with hot water surrounding me.)  I pee. (It’s important that all possible fluids be eliminated.)  I strip naked.  (It’s important to not be weighed down by any clothing…my threadbare pajamas must weigh at least a pound!)  I pull out the scale from its somewhat unobtrusive and hidden location.  (I don’t want my daughter to get the scale addiction.)  I step on it.  I hold my breath.  The digital numbers flicker back and forth before settling into this week’s verdict.  Aha!  Under 125 pounds.  My current magic boundary.  I weigh as little as I’ve weighed since I was married 19 years ago.  I feel ridiculously proud and virtuous about this dubious achievement.  What a way to kick off the week.

My mother’s scale was in their walk-in closet – a small, dark, private room that always fascinated me.  My mother’s clothes on one side and my father’s clothes on the other side.  Hidden treasure boxes of old jewelry, old photos and other mementos on the shelving high up.  This was where the Christmas presents were stashed away.  She was not particularly modest.  Dressing, undressing, bathing with doors open.  I liked to sneak in when no one was there.  Trying on her clothes.  Trying on her shoes.  Curious about her bras and under-garments.  Examining the old jewelry, wondering if any of it fit me.  Wondering about what I would be like when these grown up womanly items did fit me.  She weighed herself every morning, naked.  I did too.

At 10, I already weighed over 100 pounds and was “pleasantly plump.”  (My father’s words.  He used the same phrase for the Rubenesque nudes in the art he loved so much.)  He loved ice cream and we had it every night.  Usually Baskin & Robbins French Vanilla.  Or Peppermint – my favorite flavor.  He carefully measured out a precise serving.  No over indulgence allowed.  Or we had 2 cookies, usually Oreos or Fig Newtons.  My mother had none.

In Paris, during our one truly extravagant family vacation before high school, my father and I sampled chocolate mousse at every restaurant.  That trip was where I developed my taste for intensely dark chocolate and strong coffee.  In Florence, the men wouldn’t stop touching me.  It was an early taste, at 13, of sexually aggressive unwanted male attention to my “pleasantly plump” curves.

Entering high school where boys and girls began to do more than eye each other with curiosity from afar, I became sure that “pleasantly plump” was not what I wanted to be.  Ambivalent about my curves and their impact on men and confused that “Pleasantly plump” became “Better not eat that, you’ll get fat,” I found myself in the mirror-lined ballet studio.  In a leotard.   About 15 pounds heavier than the ethereal tall, thin, breastless ballerinas I began to admire.  Having reached puberty at 11 with a mesomorph’s solid and strong body, there was no way I was going to transform into an ectomorph.  But I could try.  And so I did.  I upped my weekly dance class to twice, 3x, 4x, every day except Sunday.  When that wasn’t enough, I started taking two classes daily.  I learned the calorie counts of every food item and began to mete out allowable calories obsessively.  About 1,500 calories.  (For someone dancing 4 hours a day, 1,500 calories was starvation.)  Starving yourself is impossible to sustain.  So I would swing in the other direction and binge on large quantities of food.  Alone.  In secret.  I couldn’t eat normally in public.  Terrified of getting fat.  Terrified to be thought of as beautiful and desirable.  When I binged, I felt bad.  Guilty.  Ashamed.  Embarrassed.  Fat.  I had to punish myself.  So I would run.  Take another dance class.  Eat even less the next day.  I tried the-vomiting-thing a few times.  It really disturbed me on so many levels.  It was gross.  And I didn’t want to admit I had a problem.  Avoiding vomiting helped me remain in denial that I had an eating disorder.  Maybe other ballerinas did it, but not me.  Instead I figured out how to keep my eating swings tightly controlled in my disciplined way.

Over the course of that year, I became incredibly strong and incredibly thin.  I liked being thin.  I liked hitting weight-loss goal after goal.  Clothes looked good on me.  I liked the breastless version of myself that I saw in the ballet studio mirrors.  I liked being hungry.  It made me feel alert and better than the other girls.  I could resist food.  (Except when I couldn’t.  But I kept that to myself, hidden.)  My weight got down to about 100 pounds.  My parents never said anything.  Did they not notice that their pleasantly plump daughter was now breastless and bony?  It was dear, honest Emily, with the scale dipping to 98 pounds, who exclaimed, with true alarm, that she could see my ribs!  I liked that my ribs were showing, but it jarred me enough to reconsider this aesthetic when she expressed such alarm.  100 pounds became my magic boundary.  The low boundary.  If I didn’t drop below 100 pounds and I didn’t make myself throw up, then I didn’t have an eating disorder.  I carefully put on a few pounds.

By the end of high school I was a healthier weight and had given up ballet.  Off I went to college where I easily gained the Freshman 15.  And hated myself for it.  To punish myself, I returned to ballet and 100 pounds.  It felt good to be in control and thin again!  But I was so unhappy.  Through therapy and time, I learned how much food I could eat and how much exercise I needed to maintain a more normal weight.  Love and my marriage helped.  I was busy and happy.  I was so busy and so happy that I threw away my scale.  Hooray!  I was done with eating issues.  Besides, I wanted to set a good example for my daughter.  I so wanted to have a healthy relationship with food and to model normal eating behavior for her.  But she knows me.  I measure everything.  I don’t allow myself dessert except for maybe a yogurt or some very dark chocolate.  I control my portions so carefully that I can neither tolerate sharing my food (it’s my allowance of food not yours) nor do I have room for any serendipitous treat offered to me (I ate my allowance already).  I can’t just stop when I’m full.  Because I don’t know when I’m full.  I’m too obsessed with weighing what is the right thing to eat; what is the right amount to eat.  I am too busy thinking to feel.

There was an easier time with my eating during courtship and early marriage where we ate out, we cooked in, we enjoyed food together.   And then my 40’s happened.  What isn’t discussed about disordered eating (to my knowledge) is that it COMES BACK!  Just when you think you’ve got the eating thing figured out, its ugliness reemerges when you’re looking at middle age staring back at you in the mirror.   If I could just lose 5 pounds, 10 pounds, 15 pounds, I will look younger, feel better, sleep more soundly, defy death.  When my age creeped over 40 and my weight creeped over 140, I went into action.  Back to the ballet studio, I bought a scale.  I got thin and strong again.

Of course it is different as a more experienced adult.  I don’t swing between extremes the way I used to.  A calmer yoga practice has replaced an obsessive pursuit of ballet.  I don’t punish myself.  I do enjoy food.  But my enjoyment of food remains controlled.  The anxiety hovers under the surface.  Intellectually, I know five pounds doesn’t make a difference in who I am.  Intellectually, I know maintaining that magic boundary on the scales is not what makes me happy.  Now I can laugh at how ridiculous it all is, while acknowledging its presence.  It’s part of who I am.  Stepping naked onto the scale every Monday morning, I am aware that I let the scale’s verdict influence my self-esteem.  Stepping naked onto the scale every Monday morning, I remind myself to breathe, to be grateful for my strong body, to enjoy my chocolate, and to not let the scale’s verdict influence my self-esteem.

Rejected!

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Resilience (Part 2)

“Fuck You New York Times” was my first reaction.

“I’m not a good writer after all.  I can’t do it.  I quit!”  was my second reaction.

Whoa!  What?  Both reactions require me to be angry, depressed, hiding away licking my wounds in victim-y self-pity.  Swinging between the extreme undemonstrativeness of my father where everything I did got a “fair” assessment and the blind adoration of my mother where I could do no wrong, I am an odd mixture of hubris and anxiety that I am a failure.  Any success I have is dubious, because I am a fraud and have everyone fooled.

The experience of submitting my essay – in actuality – differed from the experience in my mind.  In my mind, the New York Times enthusiastically accepted my submission within 24 hours, eager to publish it immediately.  That Sunday!  I was planning the announcement to my community of friends, family, colleagues, and maybe a few frenemies.  (Hah!  See!  I showed you!)  I was the undiscovered great essayist they’ve been waiting for.  I would become famous and admired for my honest and beautifully written personal remembrances.  I would get a book deal!  True, I would have to confront going public with my stories, most frighteningly to my parents.  But I was ready.  If not now, when?  It was time.  How dare they reject my submission?  I had already planned out my future – all based on their acceptance!  Fuck the New York Times.  I must be a failure and a fraud after all.

That night, my husband was tired of kids’ tennis duty and asked me to pick them up.  I passively aggressively agreed.  This was cutting into my time – it was my night to work late or sneak in a yoga class or just go home and have the house to myself to write.  Besides, I was out of sorts from receiving the rejection email – one month, precisely, from the day I had submitted it, as promised by their precise submission guidelines.  I grumbled out of the house and got into the car and turned on WNYC.  And was transfixed.  The Moth Radio Hour was on.  In my heightened awareness of writing and story-telling, what could have been better?  Josh Axelrad was telling his story of gambling.  His word choice was sophisticated and intricate, his timing and intonation were amazing, his story was riveting.  Wow.  Now that’s how to tell a story!  Fuck the New York Times.  I must be a failure and a fraud after all.

Now what?  Deep breath.  Pause.  Take a day, or a week, or a month, to consider my next steps.  I don’t have to react immediately or impulsively or emotionally.

What now, is that after 50 years of rejections and acceptances I can find a middle ground.   I am a good but new and inexperienced writer.  Maybe the rejection has nothing to do with me and my essay.  Maybe it just didn’t fit the direction they want to go with the column.  Maybe I should submit it somewhere else.  I can do that.  I don’t have to quit.  I can keep writing, keep practicing, honing my skills, getting my 10,000 hours in.

At 17, I was not so patient.  I had been obsessed with ballet.  For all of 2 or 3 years.  Dancing 4 hours a day, 6 days a week, I probably had about 4,000 hours in when I decided to audition for New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet.  Not a city kid, my mother and I took the train from D.C. to New York, where I was overwhelmed with the monolithic gray busyness of the city.  We took a taxi from Penn Station to Lincoln Center.  We found the dark and cramped administrative corridors in the bowels of Lincoln Center leading to the seemingly enormous mirror-lined dance studios of the school.  I was too nervous to remember much.  My mother had made the appointment, so I had a private audition not a cattle call.  I went into the locker room to change and then they brought me to the studio.  Two older women with Russian sounding accents were there.  Not unkind, they looked me over.  I pliéd and did a glissade.  And that was about it.  Perhaps they had me do a small combination in the center of the grand old studio.  That was enough for them to know that I was not what they were looking for.  I was not tall enough.  I was not ethereal enough.  I was not uniquely talented enough.  I didn’t have my 10,000 hours in.  They suggested that I go to a college with a strong dance program and explore other forms of dance that were not so exacting.  Excellent advice that I could not hear.  I was determined to be a ballet dancer at the most prestigious dance company I was aware of.  That was the future I had imagined in my mind.  They rejected me.  Closed off to other possibilities, I quit ballet.  Later, I quit college to return to ballet – but with similar results.  Bouncing between extremes, I never let myself enjoy being good enough – open to possibilities other than greatness at something ridiculously hard to achieve.

Now what?  What now is that I can practice resilience, mindfully choosing flexibility and optimism.  Rejection is not a tragedy.  It is an opportunity.  Your loss, New York Times.  (sigh, still angry)  I will practice my writing and find other venues to publish and to reach an audience.  Just as there are myriad other profoundly amazing dance companies and dancers (which, regretfully, I was not wise enough at the time to explore – sigh, still sad), so there are other ways to tell stories.

The Mirror in the Studio

The Ballet Studio

I returned to the ballet studio eight years ago at the age of 42 following a 17-year hiatus, and one year after dispatching my daughter into ballet class.  (She wisely extricated herself from the ballet world five years later when she was 12.)    My first plié felt like no time had passed.  Tears gently oozed with the familiar music as my body felt the emotion and the memory of my dancing. 

And then there was the mirror.  My familiar companion.  Judgment.

Not bad for 42.  Me in a leotard.  And a skirt to disguise the hips and belly.

But I could look better.  BE better.

I was sucked into the obsession.  Immediately. 

  • Where should I stand at the barre to get the best view (of me)?
  • Do I look thinner today?
  • Am I thinner than her?
  • Is my stomach flat?
  • How high is my leg in developpé?
  • Is it higher than hers?
  • Is the teacher watching me?
  • Does HE like my dancing?

Wait, I am 42 and myopic.  I can barely see myself in the mirror!    And so went the next few years as I re-explored ballet from a new perspective.  Can I simply enjoy it without the ambition, without the judgment?  My muscle memory came back quickly.  I still struggled with double pirouettes and piqué turns to the left.  I still danced adagio sections in the center beautifully, maybe more beautifully with years of living coloring my dancing.  And I loved jumping!  Flying through the air.  Joy!  As I strained to revisit my ballerina dreams in this weekly Saturday adult class filled with other beautiful and accomplished “mature” dancers, I nursed agonizing muscle cramps every Saturday evening and my chronic stiff neck. 

I was obsessed.  I lost weight.  A new ballerina friend remarked enthusiastically a year later – “Oh! You have your ballet body back!”  My ballerina body.  Thin.  In pain.  Grasping at those double pirouettes.  Crying with joy at every plié and grand jeté.  Trying to explain to my husband why I did this every Saturday even though it led to excruciating night cramps where I yelped around on one leg.  I thought I loved it.  But my body told me otherwise.  I stopped.  Yes, it was different at 42 than at 14, but the memories stored in my body were still there and would not let me embody the joy of dance without the pain.

The Yoga Studio 

And then I walked into the yoga studio.  There were no mirrors, no judgment, no right and wrong.  I closed my eyes.  I breathed.  I felt my body.  I felt safe.  At peace (at least sometimes).  Don’t get me wrong.  I still judged myself.  I still compared myself to everyone.  Ha!  I can touch my head to my knee and she can’t!  Look at me doing headstand at the wall!  Uh oh, look at her doing headstand without the wall!  I slowly have begun to absorb the truth:  there is no perfect pose to achieve.  Gradually, there are more moments of peace and fewer moments of judgment.  Fewer moments of obsessive chasing after the perfect chaturanga … And, with my neck, I have sworn off headstand (for now).  But I am thrilled with handstand.  (Thank you Jill.  I hear your voice every time I go flying up through the air, heels over head, to become upside down.)

I was surprised when I saw the mirror in the new studio.  I felt betrayed.  How could you put a mirror in the yoga studio?  Intellectually, I get it.  The mirror is a good teaching tool.  It provides good feedback.  You’re not getting the shape of Trikonasana?  Let’s go over to the mirror and find it.  You can’t see your back body?  Let’s go over to the mirror and find it.  Angry at the mirror, I purposefully arrived early at classes so that I could find my own space, aggressively away from the mirror.  For me, the point of yoga was to feel the poses and my body in the poses and get away from “right” and “wrong.”  I love to close my eyes and remove the onslaught of visual stimuli and move inside.   Hide inside.

Proprioception is your ability to know where your body is in space.  It is a crucial “6th” sense and vitally important for balance and increasingly valuable as we get older.  Dancers have tremendous body discipline but can be reliant on the mirror for feedback.  When dancers move from the mirrored studio to the mirrorless stage, they can be disoriented, unable to perform if they are not performing for the mirror.  Yogis tune in to their bodies, developing nuanced body awareness, balance, strength and flexibility – learning to distinguish between up and down even when they are upside down and without a mirror. 

One amazing use of the mirror took place in a Feldenkrais workshop offered at Yoga Haven led by Kim Plumridge several years ago.  She gave us all a hand mirror and asked us to look at our faces.   Indeed, she commanded us to REALLY LOOK AT OUR FACES. 

  • Notice the asymmetry of each half of your face. 
  • What color are your eyes? 
  • What is the color and texture of your skin?
  • How deep are your dark circles? 
  • What happens when you smile?  Enjoy how you feel when you smile. 
  • Look into your own eyes and see your Self.  Honor your Self. 
  • Like what you see in the mirror. 

Astonishing!  The mirror transcends self-absorption and facilitates self-acceptance, allowing the heart and soul to shine out with love for me … and for you.  Perhaps it is time to open my eyes and make peace with the mirror in the studio, and my Self.  Namaste.

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