Earlier this Spring one of my friend’s teenage daughter was hospitalized for anorexia. I do not know this family well, but I do know she comes from a good family, she is a smart girl, and she has plans to attend college this Fall. Her parents are doing everything that they know how to help their daughter to find her center and her wings so she may rise again. Hopeful for her and her family, and all the other families out there struggling through this challenge.
As with most situations, there is a process of walking your child through difficult news. What does this mean ? Why did this happen ? How does it make you feel ? And as every mother of a teenage daughter knows, body image and weight is a delicate but critical topic.Amelia and I talked about this family’s situation for a few minutes at our kitchen island that day. I had just gotten home from work so my listening ears were numb but still available to her, always available to her. I have found both personally and as a women’s health care provider that teenage girls tend to have somewhat of a dark curiosity with eating disorders. Amelia shared a little bit about her feelings of the external pressures for girls to “look” a certain way to be considered desirable or acceptable not only by boys but also by their own girl friends. We talked about the importance of self esteem, the value of the whole person, the beauty from within, and that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. This is not the first time we have talked about these issues and in fact these discussions have been woven into our every day life since the start. I have tried to be aware of what messages I send Amelia about my own body and my own eating habits in the hopes that she will learn a healthy way of viewing her own self. It is tricky isn’t it?
It was not that way for me when I was young. My life started out differently than Amelia’s in countless ways consequently leading me down some dark paths when it came to body image and eating disorders. By the age of 7, I stood in first position at the barre with a group of other girls my age. Low bun, black leo, pink tights and nude leather ballet slippers. The rickety turn table played along as we began to learn the fundamentals of classical ballet. Intimidating at first but over time I began to take pleasure in the sense of control I felt over my body in the ballet studio. Big windows, a light filled room, old wood floors and the notes of Chopin providing the melody. This was a place of power and peace, a safe place to express my tender self. I appreciated the structure, the self discipline ballet demanded, the growing ability to align my body in a way to create beautiful angles with the tilt of my head and turn of my torso.
As the years went by dance became my identity. While most of my friends played on green fields, I was in the ballet studio. I did play on the 6th grade girls basketball team but decided it was no fun to have my classmates snicker at me when ever I went to the basket for a lay up because of the way I automatically pointed my toes every time I jumped into the air. That’s ok, I got over it ! By middle school however, I could no longer keep up with the girls who played sports; my gym was the ballet studio.
It was not long before I was taking class 5 days per week and the majority of summer break was spent at ballet camps, one of which was in Walla Walla at Whitman College. In addition to classical ballet we were exposed to character, modern, and jazz at ballet camp. I loved learning the steps to Chorus Line complete with a top hat and cane. And to this day I still remember every step to the Dance of the Four Swans from Swan Lake. All you have to do is start the music and I am back, arms crossed with my head turn and in position for the first note of Tchaikovsky. Pure Magic.
The summer before my freshman year in high school I auditioned for Pacific Northwest Ballet summer school and was excepted to their 6 week summer intensive. An accomplishment for the young girl who lived where the local ballet school was mediocre at best. It quickly became apparent to me at age 14 that I was no longer in Kansas … so to speak. Pacific Northwest Ballet had a stellar reputation for a reason. The “barre” had been risen. You could just feel it in the air as you walked the halls. Serious shit. This is when dance became real. This is when it was no longer enough to know the positions or memorize the sequence of steps. This is when everything about my body, including the size of my breasts, the width of my torso, the length of my legs and the arch of my foot would make or break my future as a ballerina. And consequently, this was also the same time that I became conscious of the definition of an eating disorder.
I clearly remember one summer evening watching a segment on 60 minutes about the rise of anorexia and bulimia in young girls in the United States. I had never really heard anyone come out and speak about it let alone see a report on the television. Although 60 minutes was trying to increase awareness and prevention, I translated their message as as an opportunity to try something new in an effort to stay thin and stay dancing. I had already implemented strategies like wrapping my body in saran wrap while I slept to sweat off water weight and never went to bed without completing one hundred 100 sit ups first. However, I had never employed severe restriction of calories or purging as a way to stay lean. It makes me cringe to write about this now and so sad for my young self that this is what I thought would help me to achieve dreams of the soft white tutu, the satin toe shoes and ultimately approval in the spot light.
Eating became a game if you will. A mind game. And when I felt I had not followed my own rules, I would purge. Sometimes it was the cookie dough that I new I should not have eaten and sometimes it was too much pasta at dinner. And one time it was my entire Thanksgiving dinner. Sick. Wrong. But this was how I survived. This was my new reality. It worked. My 14 year old body remained that of a 10 year old. Perfect for a classical ballerina.
After completing the 6 week summer intensives at PNB, I was invited to continue as part of their ballet school. One step closer to my goal. My home was about an hour north of Seattle, too far for my mom to drive me to and from ballet class on a daily basis. Instead of living at home, PNB helped us to make arrangements for me to live with a seasoned principle ballerina in the company, Deborah Hadley. She was in her early 30s and had two young boys of her own. Another young student named Celeste, also moved in to her home and became my new roommate. She was from a small town called Coupeville near the Naval base on the coast. It was an exciting and daunting opportunity for me. I remember feeling proud of myself and wanted this chance but at the same time the ache and pull I felt to remain at home and under my mom’s wing was unbearable. Keep swimming. Keep swimming.
One morning in ballet class, our instructor Ms. Fedine, lectured us about the importance of staying thin and that she had wondered what we had all had for breakfast that morning because we looked sluggish. She firmly stated ” A pound of lettuce is still a pound of lettuce and you girls can’t afford those pounds !” She proceeded to call out approximately 6 or 7 girls and asked them to step forward. I could feel where this conversation was going and terrified she would call out my name, but she didn’t. Ms. Fedine stood in front of us that day and shamed my classmates by ordering them to drop weight BEFORE the Nutcracker otherwise they would not be joining the rest of us on stage. I remember a huge sense of relief that I wasn’t called out. But also scared to death that it would be me next time.
With the change in my home arrangements I also had to find a new high school. Up until this point in my life I had been a public school kid. No longer. Now I was enrolled at Holy Names, an all girls Catholic day school on the North Edge of Capital Hill in Seattle. My mom had gone to a similar school for a few years when she was in high school and has ever since been a big supporter of single sex education. I don’t really remember much about how I felt about this decision to attend an all girls school other than the hard fact that I missed my buddies, my best friend Monti and my first love Danny. I also missed my old orange cat Mr. Peaches and the smell of my mom’s cooking. I felt alone.
At age 14 I took the city bus from the Greenlake area near 50th avenue to Holy Names on Capital Hill aka Homely Dames by the boys at O’Dea. After school I ran down a steep hill to catch the bus back to the Wallingford center, a historic building built in 1906, and the home of Pacific Northwest Ballet. With my cheek pressed against the cool glass I would gaze out the window taking in my new life, the people, the hustle of the city. I imagine my eyes must have been pretty big as I was use to a quite town where not a whole lot happened on a day to day basis. Exciting and a bit frightening. Ballet classes started promptly at 4pm Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings at 10am. About once or twice a month my mom would pick me up after my Saturday morning class and shuttle me home in her silver Porsche for remainder of the weekend.
I ached for my mom. Home sick. I remember sitting in class at Holy Names while the nun lectured on world history and wondered what my mom would be making for dinner that night even though I would not be at the table with her. In stark contrast, Debra made dinners that existed of steamed broccoli and broiled chicken. I still remember her sharing with Celeste and I how she stayed trim for dance. She never ate more than half of what was on her plate and drank the left over water from steamed broccoli for extra calorie free nourishment. Gross.
My body cooperated with this starvation plan for the first half of the year however in January my hormones forced through to the surface and changes started occurring to my body that felt out of my control. When I started by Freshman year I weighed in at 93 pounds, had no breasts to speak of and had not yet started my period. I still fit “their” idea of what a dancer should look like if she was going to have any chance of a career in the world of ballet. However as we know, time is unstoppable and my body was trying to follow the predetermined genetic code and evolve from a prepubescent girl into a woman. During school I remembered my pants began to feel tight causing me great panic. I did not really understand what was happening with my body. Why was my plan not working any more ? I amped up my purging routine which did not seem to make much of a difference. Out of control. And within a few months, Ms. Fedine called me down to her office. I had been right, it was my turn to be told my body was not good enough. I had to either lose weight or go home. I wanted desperately to go home. I toughed it out a few long months and performed at the end of the year recital with all the other PNB students, then returned home to Mt. Vernon. My body failed me.
Stepping away from dance was not easy, it was in fact very difficult and confusing. I felt as though I had lost my identity and did not know who I was any longer or who I was suppose to become. My mom tried to help me find a new creative outlet that summer. I remember she took me to a voice lesson, she thought this would help. But strangely, every time I tried to do what the instructor asked me to do, my voice would quiver and I had to fight back hot tears. Looking back, I was grieving. Being sent home from PNB because my body was not good enough to be a classical ballet dancer was beyond tough. I wish I could say that within a few months I was on the mend, no longer felt the need to purge, and languished in all the normal social activities of a teenage girl. However, this was not the case. Honestly, my eating disordered lingered through high school and for the first few years of college. It was probably about the time that Tim and I met the summer before our senior year at WWU when my life took a dramatic turn for the better.
I still continue to dance with my issues around accepting my body and my weight. And I know I am not alone. Having a teenage daughter has given me with the chance to revisit this complex issue and hopefully to get it right this time. When Amelia put down her ballet slippers and asked for soccer cleats I honestly was relieved. One last battle to contend with to keep my daughter safe from what I had gone through as a young girl. Over the years I have tried to instill in Amelia the importance of focusing on health not the number, loving herself for all that she is, and not the number. Life is too short, too precious to do anything but….