Thanks! It’s the Coping Mechanism

Artwork by Candace La

“You have ) made a loveliness of yr body through the moving of it, & the mirror is a false confidant. Evermore, to be as I am is an honor & a magic.

There’s something interesting that happens when we, we who are not necessarily naturally thin and we who carry our body mass in different ways and in different places than those who are naturally thin, begin to lose weight. Even as bones begin to jut out of skin, the response is almost universally the same.

“You look great!”

I had an eating disorder when I was in fifth grade. Today, evaluating the symptoms, it’s easy to see that’s what it was — starving myself, pacing up and down the stairs, weighing myself, repeating the process again and again until the number on the scale finally went down, down, why won’t it go down? With an eating disorder, lives are lived by numbers. How many calories have you eaten today? How many have you burned? How much did you weigh today? Yesterday? This morning? Tonight? What will you weigh tomorrow? It’s an obsession, and it’s a habit, and it’s something that I personally fall into quite easily when I’m stressed, because it’s also a means of control.

“What’s your secret? I wish I could lose weight like that.”

When I was a freshman in college, I probably weighed more than I ever had in my life. I had steadily gained that weight throughout my senior year of high school, and even though I played soccer competitively, an injury had hindered my ability to truly keep myself in the athletic shape I’d maintained years before. I was okay with it, and I was happy. This, too, was a great feat for someone who had once had an eating disorder. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and so the anxiety, the OCD, the body dysmorphia are much more important in diagnosis than the physical form. It’s easy for someone to gain weight. It’s much more difficult to look into a mirror and not see a distorted image looking back, one that you don’t exactly like, or even worse, don’t recognize. For someone who’s had an eating disorder, being okay with weight gain is a step in the right direction.

“You look so much better!”

Competitive ballroom dance, in the beginning, was never meant to be a means of weight loss. Isn’t that what contestants on Dancing With the Stars always tout? I joined my school’s ballroom team when I was a freshman in college, and I didn’t take it too seriously until I was pressured to. Perhaps unluckily, perhaps luckily, I had mentors throughout the early years of my ballroom career who told me that if I wasn’t obsessing over dance, if I wasn’t spending every waking hour thinking about it, spending money and time on it, then I wasn’t doing it right. Anxiety took over, as it is my autopilot. 

“Congratulations on the weight loss!”

I haven’t known a healthy relationship with dance since. I did start practicing for hours, every day. I went home the summer after my freshman year, and even in a rural small town, I found a studio and pushed myself every day. I bought a gym membership and danced in the back, in the yoga studio with a hardwood floor. Even when I studied abroad the next semester, my mind would never be at ease. I had to take lessons in France, which meant I had to find a French studio and a French teacher, and I did, and I continued to obsess. I watched competitions back home in the States, livestreams that I stayed up until dawn watching, and then it was back to studio after classes. I don’t even remember how much of Paris I actually explored. I knew the walls of my studio incredibly well. 

Before I knew it, I’d lost thirty pounds. 

After I’d arrived back in New York, a coach told me that I couldn’t afford to gain any weight.

“How did you do it?”

I tell people that I lost weight because of dance, and it’s true. Perhaps most people interpret that to mean that I was exercising so much, expending so much energy, because I was so passionate about dance and the weight just rolled right off, and wow, isn’t that something to admire? The truth is that dance simply replaced starvation as a coping mechanism, as an obsession, as a means of control. There is a danger to being pushed too far, and pressured too much, and rewarding the fruits of that labor. Maybe most people would never fault a dancer for being obsessed with dance. Maybe in the world of dance, there is no such thing as too passionate, too obsessed, too much weight lost. 

Maybe this can be a cautionary tale, though not the first of its kind. Dance is meant to be a form of art and expression. It is not meant to be a source of stress and distress. It should make you feel alive. Your body should only ever be defined in terms of what it can do and how it can perform. Aesthetics can be damned.

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