If you’re someone who reads lots about eating disorders, you’ve probably already seen this article by Maree Burns floating around recently. For those who aren’t enmeshed in the world of post-structuralist and feminist critiques of eating disorders, you may want to try to read it anyway. It’s a little long and at times jargon-y, but it’s also fascinating and makes important points about the hierarchies we set up around eating disorders. Similar to Burns, I will not be using this post to posit anything about the actual nature of eating disorders, but rather about how they’re constructed in the common conscience of Western society.
There are many points in Burns’ article that I’ve spent time grappling with: the fact that anorexia is both held up as perfect control and derided as sickness and disgusting, the way anorexia and bulimia can be mapped onto the virgin/whore dichotomy, and the tendency to view anorexia as the ideal eating disorder. There is an hierarchy of eating disorders, one that is held up by nearly everyone. Anorexia is considered cleaner, more respectable. Many people even view many of its characteristics as positive, but simply taken too far. On the other hand, bulimia is considered disgusting, animalistic, and out of control.
Burns looks at this hierarchy from the perspective of post-structuralism. I’d like to take a different perspective that I think can illuminate some other elements of the hierarchy and the ways that eating disorders make a certain kind of sense. Spirituality is something that Burns does not touch on at all in her article, despite the fact that moral language runs rampant in descriptions of eating disorders, and in the past eating disorders often happened in religious contexts.
Throughout her article, Burns draws on the Western concepts of dualism. She looks at it particularly from a feminist lens, in which female is associate with body/disorder/evil/animal, and male is associated with mind/rationality/control/order. However there is a slightly different version of this dualism that may actually shed more light on eating disorders, which is the body/soul split. Burns points out that society (including pop culture, psychological professionals, and those who actually have eating disorders) makes negative judgments of only certain elements of eating disorders. This includes the behaviors of bulimia (especially purging) and the skeletal body of someone with anorexia.
She posits that these are different types of judgment: the judgment of bulimia is about actions that don’t fit into the appropriate feminine mold, while the judgment of anorexia is about a body that makes a mockery of the thin ideal. She looks to how each of these “negatives” deviates from acceptable feminine roles and how that deviation results in judgment. In contrast, the behaviors that make up anorexia (self-denial and self-control) are often viewed positively as movements from feminine (bodily) to masculine (rational).
However there is another way to interpret the negative judgments we cast on those with eating disorders and the ambiguous position of anorexia in society. We can find a clue in the religious language used by starving saints in past centuries and co-opted by some people with anorexia today (including myself). Oftentimes this language circulates around dismissing the body completely and moving into a fully spiritual realm. The prioritizing of the next world over this one still holds sway in Western culture (despite frequent cries about our society falling into horrible materialism).
These criticisms of eating disorders reveal that bodies, particularly bodies that remind us that we are animal, mortal, and fallible, are what receives criticism. Negative judgments of bulimia often center around the corruptness of the body and through the body, the individual. The body is seen as the ruler in this situation, but the focus on the body is often given a moral meaning. People with bulimia binge, however the binging on food is often extended into other realms: they’re posited to be kleptomaniacs, sex addicts, or out of control. Most of these assumptions focus on impurity and the fact that binging and purging “taints” the individual. I’ve often heard them referred to as “failed anorexics”. This means that they have failed at the purity that those with anorexia achieve because they allow their body and its needs to overtake them. The obsession with “how much did you eat” and “how did you throw it up” reveal society’s dark obsession with the animalistic elements of bulimia and how it affects the body, rather than an interest in the inner lives of those with bulimia.
Burns suggests that the negative judgments of bulimia are made in contrast to the self-control (often interpreted as rationality) of anorexia. She says: “Self-starving is also paradoxically privileged as a signifier of those qualities that have historically been associated with ‘masculinity’, such as self-control, persistence, transcendence of the (labile feminine) body, and strength” However I would argue that this type of self-control is often associated with spirituality rather than any kind of rationality, as she suggests. People recognize the irrationality of anorexia in the context of the material world. However starvation, asceticism, and self-denial have a long history in the religious tradition of transcending this whole plane of existence.
Something that I’ve posited for quite some time is that the end goal of anorexia is to become pure spirit, to no longer be held up by worldly, finite things.This is why anorexia is often held above bulimia. However the reality is that people with anorexia do have bodies and their actions do impact their bodies. When their bodies begin to appear abnormal, we’re reminded again that they are human, finite, and mortal and that their bodies are falling apart. We are reminded of death (see: focus on the “skeletal” nature of the anorexic figure). And especially as Western societies move closer to secularism, this reminder of death is viewed as disgusting and disturbing, garnering criticism. The combination of heavenly motivation with dying body creates the mixed reaction of most individuals.
This additionally explains the feminine coding of anorexia. It falls in line with the tradition of women who fade away into martyrdom and make their femininity acceptable by rejecting their bodies unequivocally. It is part of the “pure” woman, the history of women as keepers of the spiritual well-being of their families, of women as more moral and in touch with religion than men. Part of the push/pull response to anorexia is the fact that the very deadliness and extremity of it is considered admirable by some. Not everyone can do it: it refuses to accept human limitations and so in some ways appears almost supernatural. The extreme refusal of finitude almost appears to be a martyrdom, especially for those who are trapped within the eating disorder. There’s even a kind of cultish interest in the fact that many people with anorexia suffer from ammenorrhea. Their bodies no longer even produce blood, one of the most obvious markers of human finitude.
On the flip side, bulimia reminds us of our more animal side. We think of the behaviors not as outstanding or amazing, but as mundane and slightly disgusting. We associate overeating with animals, with bodies, and we view vomit as wholly animal (because bodily fluids are gross ya know?). It’s very easy to view the dichotomy between bulimia and anorexia as a struggle between our lower natures and our higher spiritual calling.
And of course if we are considering female morality and spirituality, sex must be play a role. The connections between food and sexuality have already been identified, particularly in Burns’ article. Abstinence is a largely spiritually driven quest. Few secular people feel the need to be abstinent for moral reasons (of course there are some, but it’s not nearly as common as within religious circles). The drift of the spiritual meaning of sexuality into food also colors our conceptions of eating disorders. Just as the body is dirtied and corrupted by inappropriate or out of context sex, so it is by inappropriate or out of context food: a binge. An important part of this connection is the way that sexuality is used to dehumanize, animalize, and objectify women. When we use phrases like “orgies of eating” to describe a binge, we sexualize not only the food, but also the individual participating, and through that sexualization we objectify. It portrays people with bulimia as less human, as more animal. The objectification of women through hypersexualization plays directly into the ways that anorexia (anti-sexual) is viewed as humanizing, pure, and spiritual while bulimia is viewed as animalistic: those who engage in it are objectified just as others who are hypersexualized are.
While the role of male/female dichotomies plays an important role in eating disorders, we should also consider the dichotomy of worldly/heavenly and how that can explain some of the behaviors and attitudes we have towards eating disorders. The history of eating disorders (particularly the long history of female saints starving themselves to death) is a good place to start in this perspective.
There’s a scene in The Perks of Being a Wallflower in which Charlie and his friends are driving their truck through a tunnel. They stand up in the back while their favorite song plays on the radio. Charlie says “In that moment, I swear we were infinite”.
Sometimes, when I’m walking down an empty street at night and the wind is warm and my skirt is swirling around my legs, I wonder if I am infinite. Unnameable feelings rise in my throat, as if my self were too big for my body and might burst out somehow. As if I could walk to heaven if I just pointed myself in a direction and started going. As if I might be able to see the whole world if I climbed high enough.
In the first season of the rebooted Dr. Who, Rose Tyler looks into the heart of the TARDIS and becomes infinite: she knows everything. Unfortunately, she simply can’t contain it: if it remains inside her it will kill her. No human being can process that much information.
More often than not, I feel like Rose, burning up from the inside with all the bits and pieces that flit through my mind. I jump from one task to the next, my brain racing with answers and analyses and concepts that don’t quite process fully.
I wonder whether I can ever hold on to the infinity, or whether my body will burn up. I want to breathe in the whole world through the pure taste of summer. God smells like lilacs and lily of the valley. The angel choirs are singing 90’s music. In heaven, I dance like Baby from Dirty Dancing.
But my body doesn’t move like that and lilacs die in a week and the 90’s are over. Every night when I fall asleep I remember that I am finite. Sometimes I pretend I can subsist on air to convince myself that I’m god-like enough to hold onto the joy of nights that sing and smirk and dance. Sometimes my whole body deflates and I collapse into myself when the hot air I puff myself full of gives out.
How could I not be melancholy when I have glimpsed perfection and fallen away?
This weekend was the fantabulous Skeptech, a conference about skepticism and technology. As per usual I had a great time and am currently quite exhausted (despite the fact that like a good little introvert I went home before midnight most nights). I have lots of Thoughts spinning around in my head from the weekend, but for now I’m going to focus on one interaction in particular. In the Twitter feed I got into a discussion with Kate Donovan and Tetyana about asexuality and eating disorders in response to a panel regarding bias and science. Without really thinking, I mentioned that I was afraid my ED would turn out to be the real reason that I haven’t felt sexual in quite some time, and it grew into a conversation about why that would be a bad thing.
The topic was a bit too large for Twitter, so I’ve been pondering it a bit further and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of fearing that I’m relying too heavily on my own privilege, and an internalization of many of the myths about sexual identity and the process of finding one’s sexual identity. I am tentatively taking on the label of “asexual” but I’m terrified that at some point in the future I will feel a wave of sexual attraction and it will turn out that I’ve been lying to everyone and that the real reasons I feel this way are medication, my eating disorder, and depression. Here’s why that seems so scary.
One of the things I worry about is taking the name and label of an oppressed group if I have not truly experienced the oppression that they live. It’s somewhat akin to a white person claiming that they’re racially oppressed. It’s an offensive concept at best, and at worst it muddies and obscures the real struggles that people of color experience, delegitimizing their words and stories and thus making it harder for them to make changes to improve their situation. While asexuality isn’t quite on the same spectrum, I am afraid that I will be claiming their oppression when I’ve existed in privilege. If I say that I’ve had those experiences, that I am oppressed in the same ways they are, but it turns out that I’m really allosexual, straight, cis, monogamous…how hard will it be for others to take the worries of the ace community seriously? I’m also afraid of calling on the resources that have been put together for asexual people because I’m worried I’ll be taking something from those who actually need it.
I believe that these are important fears to have, especially for someone who is as privileged as I am. It’s important to think about whether your future actions and identifications could have harmful repercussions for an oppressed group. I don’t want the ace community to be taken less seriously because I casually started identifying as ace and then nonchalantly went back to allosexual. Aces are already criticized for identifying as queer because they aren’t oppressed enough, because they are supposedly all white, cis, het girls who have privilege shooting out of their asses. I don’t want to contribute to this stereotype. These are important things to consider when thinking about whether to take on a certain identity or not. I don’t want to be the ace whose asexuality is actually a disease, the person that others can point to whenever someone else says “I am ace” as a way to remind them “but what if you’re really not”.
But there is a whole other level of worry that comes on a personal level which is fully wrapped up in the expectations that society has for a woman to be available constantly, for women to make perfect choices, and for sexuality to be a linear progression. If my “asexuality” were actually just a result of my eating disorder, I would actually just be a broken straight person, someone who wants to be able to have sex but isn’t interested because of trauma/disease/stupidity. It’s scary enough if I am asexual to look at the past 10 years of my dating life and think that I’ve spent all that time chasing after the wrong things. It’s even worse if I was just horribly broken and made choices that hurt myself because I am so disordered that I can’t find healthy relationships and wouldn’t even pursue something that would end up being good for me. It’s too cliche to be a girl with an eating disorder who can’t have sex because she’s too self-conscious.
There is a large part of me that is feeling imposter syndrome around this. It’s not necessarily that I think being ace is preferable to being allosexual, but rather that actually finding out who I am feels too good to be true. This can’t be right, I’m too screwed up, I’m too lost, I’m too confused to actually have found some small piece of identity that is truly me. I have spent so much of my life with no identity but my eating disorder that accepting something else as an integral part of me feels wrong in many ways. I suspect that others who are in the process of recovery feel this way when they start to find good things.
Partially it’s that I’m convinced I’ll never know who I am, partially it’s that if something is going to replace the eating disorder in any way it needs to be quite strong, and partially it’s a fear: what if I try to find something that’s really me and it turns out it’s just the eating disorder in disguise? What if every part of me is just my eating disorder in disguise? What if I can’t even trust something as basic as my sexual impulses? This is deeply tied to the mental illness. I’ve been told so many times that I can’t trust things like my hunger cues, or my desires, or the voices in my head. This one must be wrong too, especially if it’s something so out of the ordinary as asexuality. I think it can be really damaging to teach people as part of their recovery that they have to stop listening to things that feel perfectly real and important.
I’m also a rule follower, a big part of having an eating disorder. A perfectionist. Everything must be just so. I can’t make decisions until I explore every possible angle and even then I often can’t because there is no right or perfect answer. The idea that I might identify as something and then find out that it’s wrong is terrifying. I’ll have embarrassed myself, I’ll have gotten the WRONG ANSWER about something incredibly important. I won’t be doing things right, I’ll have screwed up. That would be the worst thing ever, even worse than that time in first grade I got time out that I still remember.
There’s also an element of internalized misunderstanding of how sexuality works. One of the things we’re taught is that you figure out what you are and then you be that thing. Usually you figure it out in high school or college: you “experiment” and then realize you’re gay/straight/bi/whatever. Then that’s your life. It’s fairly simple. You might make one mistake and date the wrong gender or try a poly relationship and realize it’s not for you, but then everything is figured out. This isn’t actually how sexuality works, in reality there’s some fluidity, there’s often a lot more confusion, you may think you’re one thing and then discover a new term or community that you think fits you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying on different sexual identities to see which one feels the most like you.
But I’ve internalized that you figure it out and then that’s it, anything else is wrong or improper or a LIE. You might be repressing part of yourself if you ever end up changing. You’re probably misleading your loved ones. You’ve probably destroyed at least one relationship asking for something, setting boundaries when you really didn’t need to, trying to be something that you’re not: there was no reason to ask for space to try something new if you aren’t going to identify that way FOREVER, and doing so was really quite selfish. At the very least you’re just a really screwed up person who’s flip floppy and shallow and attention seeking because there isn’t any other reason to change. Obviously none of this is true. We all get to ask for whatever we need when we need it, but the implications for my relationships if it turns out I’m allosexual are confusing and frightening.
I think one of the things that makes recovery from an eating disorder so difficult is trying to suss out which parts of your life are you and which belonged to the eating disorder. For some reason coming to the wrong conclusions (even if you can change your mind later) feels like the end of the world. It seems as if more of your life has been stolen from you, as if you’re doing recovery wrong, as if you’re just too stupid to realize that your whole life was the eating disorder.
This is one of the reasons that I wish labels were both more common and less important. Reality is that people probably have some core identity but that they have some fluidity. For some reason taking on a label has reached a level of importance that people view it as All That Defines You. Particularly if you come out or have a few relationships in the mold of that label, you’re never ever allowed to change. If identity labels were more like career labels or relationships, something that’s important but that you can grow out of, it might be less scary to try some things on as you, then realize that you’ve grown into something else. That fluidity is hugely important in reducing the shame that people feel when they realize they might not be what they thought they were. I think we all deserve the space to learn.
Recently my mood has been fairly low. I’m still trying to figure out why and how to make it better, but for the moment things are pretty stagnant and I’m really not sure what steps I can take to improve my mood. This is a place of intense frustration, and I know that many people can get to be in this situation: you may not be able to change your work or family situation, you may feel like your external situation is actually fairly positive overall, or you may have no idea what has triggered a depressive episode. There are often times when you can’t take positive actions to improve your depression.
Of course when that happens it tends to snowball on itself. If you don’t know how you’re going to improve your situation, there is an intense hopelessness that it will get better. You think about the future and you don’t know how or if it will ever change, and all you can imagine is the whole size of your whole future feeling the way you do now. That is an intensely icky feeling.
You start to feel bad, you think about feeling bad forever, and how you feel now gets worse. Then you think about feeling even worse forever and it gets even WORSE. Imagine this on loop for days and weeks at a time. This is what it’s like when you don’t know how to fix your depression.
Of course the whole crux of the problem is that you don’t know what to do to make yourself feel better. Here’s the secret though: I know what you have to do. A warning: this will not necessarily make right now feel better, but it will give you some relief from the circling, spiraling pain and might just give you enough time and space to breathe and figure out a good solution. So what is the solution? Mindfulness.
Are you all done giving me dirty looks now? Good. This seems trite. It seems woo woo. It seems ridiculous and not practical. When I was first introduced into mindfulness, I would fart in its general direction too. But that was before I heard this explanation of why mindfulness is useful. Mindfulness cannot make you feel better right now: that’s not its purpose. Mindfulness is about only letting your mind be in the present. While depression can often involve angst and anxiety about the past or the future, mindfulness is just existing and doing what you are doing.
So remember all of that angst about the future that crops up when you cycle in your depression? Those things are not hurting you right now. They’re not even happening right now. If you can stop thinking about them and only exist in this moment, you’ll stop feeling all the crappy feelings of the past and all the potential crappy feelings of the future. That is a lot of crappy feelings that you don’t have to worry about until they actually happen. And the whole point of mindfulness is that if you can train your mind to exist in the present, you don’t have to take on all the suffering that is not really affecting you right now.
If you’re like me, that all sounds lovely except that you have no idea how to do it. Half of your problem is that you’re really bad at being mentally present, you can’t focus, you’re too tired. Never fear. There are concrete steps that you can take to be mindful. They aren’t easy, but they do at least give you a clear path forward.
The most important thing to remember about mindfulness is that it’s about being aware: observing, describing, and being present. That’s what it means to be present-to focus on your surroundings, your emotions, your thoughts, and your senses. Here are some basic steps you can start with. Initially, try one simple, small thing and do it mindfully. Try washing the dishes or driving home from work. While you’re doing it, just notice things: how the water feels, the song playing in your head, the smell of the soap. Once you’ve started to notice it, you can add words: describe it. It might be good to just start with these two steps, and you don’t need to go overboard: 10 minutes might be the most you can handle. Once you’ve started to get the hang of those steps, try participating. If you notice your thoughts or your concentration wandering while you do an activity, just take note and then gently bring your focus back to what you’re doing.
This is probably the hardest part of mindfulness: the idea is not to get annoyed or frustrated with yourself, but just to notice what you’re doing and change it. If you can approach mindfulness with the intent of being gentle with yourself, of recognizing that you’re a little fragile right now, it generally will go better.
If you don’t want to do this while you’re trying to get something done, or if you just want to have some time to seriously practice mindfulness, some good practices are focusing on breathing and body scans. Instead of focusing on a task you can just pay attention to your breathing, or you can start at your toes and focus on each part of your body individually. This is a little more concrete and a good place to start when you’re beginning mindfulness.
Of course throughout your day you can also take time to pull your thoughts back to what you’re doing, to notice your surroundings, to pay attention to your breath, or to stimulate your senses in some way. I particularly find that being aware of my body and being aware of being in my body are good ways to be mindful. As much as 15 minutes of these little things each day can really help to reset that spinning wheel of anxiety and fear that starts going in the midst of depression.
Obviously this needs to be done in conjunction with some problem solving and reflection about what’s really making things bad for you. You might need a change in meds, an adjustment at work, changes in relationships, or a variety of other problem-solving things to improve the situation. But a good way to wait things out when you can’t figure out what to change or to get through your day to day tasks without ruminating is to work on mindfulness.
Yesterday I went to the doctor for my annual check-up. I’m not a big fan of the doctor: you see your weight displayed prominently in front of you, you get naked and have things shoved up your lady bits, and of course, I always have to decide how much to disclose about my mental health. In recent years, I’ve stopped having much of a filter about my eating disorder. I’ll tell my doctor without hesitation. It doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s a nuisance to have to retake depression inventories and explain over and over what treatment I’m getting and that I have a team that’s kept it under control, but in the long run it’s easier than dancing around things.
So I jumped through the hoops that they asked of me and as I was laying back on the table with my body exposed for the doctor, she looked down and asked “Did you do these to yourself?”
It took me a moment to realize what she was talking about. The scars. They’re on my belly and my hips and my legs. I forget they’re there sometimes.
Unfortunately, it’s when I forget that I forget to cover them or explain them. And then they’re seen. And then I must tell the story.
There is nothing quite like being on your back mostly naked with your legs spread while explaining to someone that your self-harm is under control. “Stripped bare” hardly covers it.
But that’s the thing about bodies: they tell your stories even when you don’t want to. Having a physical presence in the world means that others can tell things about you that your mind would rather they not know. This to me is one of the struggles of coming to grips with my own body image.
Scars are stories. Every mark on my body came from something in my life: the scar where they cut me open when I was six, the stretch marks from losing and gaining weight in the midst of an eating disorder, the tattoo I got when I was just 18 and in love with beauty. Some of these stories are ones I chose to tell: when my bones stretched against my skin, it was my choice to tell the world that I wished to be smaller. The ink on my skin is my own story that I put there. Some of these are not the stories I wanted to tell: the scars from where I hurt myself were wishes to disappear, and now they are angry, loud marks that announce me to the world.
Many of us have stories that are announced without our consent, but there are some special difficulties when your body is betraying you in this way. A particularly difficult element of this is body dysphoria. If you feel that your body is reflecting a past that you no longer identify with, telling stories that are no longer your narrative, it can deeply undermine your sense of self, and can mislead others about who you are. It’s hard not to be defensive when you feel you have to explain your body away as something that isn’t true to who you are.
It is the constant struggle between your inner knowledge of self and the outer perception that others have, and the work you must do to reframe your story into bite-sized, palatable explanations. When the stories written on your body are socially unacceptable, you must go above and beyond to make yourself socially acceptable in those lies of omission, spinning of stories, and changes of subject that we learn to perfect.
But there’s also a fear to it: you never know when someone will ask you about yourself, ask you the hard questions. You never know when someone’s face will fall in the way you can’t explain, but you know means they’re writing you off. It’s the impossibility of keeping your secret, even when it’s your deepest, hardest secret, because other people can see it when they look at you. Imagine that: imagine another person being able to look at you and know about your hardest moments and your most difficult struggles. Imagine not being able to choose when to disclose information about yourself, but rather having to always be hiding against discovery.
These are not all my experiences. In the summer I have to watch what I wear. When I was skinnier I had to be careful to show that I was eating around new people. But most of my life I can live without wondering when I will be found out. There are those who have it much harder than I do. When your body tells a story that is personal, you are automatically put into a position of submission, and there are those whose bodies are screaming those stories.
I know that we tend to use what information we have to make judgments about a person, and often that information is immediate and visual. But as someone whose body is spreading lies about me, please don’t listen. I am not my scars. I am allowed to write my own story without anyone else’s perception of my body. I do not have to defend the way I see my body, nor do I owe anyone explanations of my body. But the dialectic is that my body always appears to others, no matter how badly I wish it not to. This, to me, is the challenge of creating positive body image.
There are people in my life who challenge me. They make me aware of the things that I once thought and that still creep into my mind. I look at them and I see the lies float past and my only defense is to remind myself “this person is my friend. They are wonderful. I love them. Every person I think these thoughts of is a friend, wonderful, loved. Each person I think these thoughts of has the rich individual experience that I do.” These people teach me about the inner lives of difference.
I have a friend who’s severely overweight. I don’t see him often, and in my mind he loses weight. I bring him closer to what I view as normal, closer to everyone else I know. The other day a picture of him popped up on Facebook and I felt a flash-flood of disgust before the shame set in. This is my friend. How dare I change his body to fit my expectations? How dare I ask myself who he is to be Other? How dare I feel disgust at him, someone who feels and thinks and exists in all the complex ways that I do? How dare I reduce him to his body, to the intimate ways that he feels the world and fills the spaces around him, ignoring how his neurons fill that body and his mind is so intimately tied with its senses and he is his body?
This is one of my challenges.
I have a friend who is trans*. Most days I don’t think about his sexuality or his gender. Most days it doesn’t matter because he is my wonderful, sweet, perfect friend. But every now and then I find myself wondering, my mind probing at what he’s like, asking what his name used to be (I’M SO SORRY), and I know I’ve crossed the line when I remember that his body and what his body looks like is so much less than the whole of him. It is such a miniscule piece, one that is so unimportant to our relationship that I can’t fathom why I would wonder about it. He is so much more. His stories, his perspective, his experience: they transcend my questions about his genitalia (and let’s be honest, I really shouldn’t have those questions anyway).
This is one of my challenges.
There are so many of these people, people who are complex and interesting, people who are my token people. I wish they were not my token people. I wish I knew more of them (this is not helped by the fact that I am antisocial). I wish I could understand their lives in a deeper way, and my challenge is that I have only one and I must fight against making them a token in my life. They challenge me every time I recognize them as more than an idea, more than their weight or their gender or their sex or their race. I know that they are more than that, and my training in this world has left me incapable of separating them from it. And so they challenge me.
I want to tell myself their stories. I want to be honest with myself when I see others like them and remind myself that they see the world each day through their own eyes, that they struggle and love and feel, that they wonder and feel hurt and imagine how I see them. I want to see them with full lives, with full minds, with full thoughts. And so my friends challenge me, and I thank them. They remind me that behind each pair of eyes, each face that I don’t understand, there are worlds I cannot imagine.
From the day I was born, the right side of my body was broken. I was marked from the womb by an eye that would never see, bright and baneful. The right eye. For most, the left is the sinister side, but my right took that title. I am right handed, and yet my right has always let me down. My arm never throws the way it should. My right ankle gives out unexpectedly. I begin a dance step on the right and my foot falls out from under me. Last year I fell and twisted my right ankle. It has been swollen ever since, leaving me always imbalanced.
My right is branded by an eye that exploded into shards when it should have grown into sight.
This morning I changed my skin. My symbols are different now. I walked into the tattoo parlor, clutching the paper with two long curves. I pointed to my right hip, the place I began cutting. The place I had tried to rip off the curse of my right side.
My right leg still has red scars like little caterpillars crawling up it, but I knew I needed to start at the beginning. They took my picture and pressed it against my skin, leaving a dark imprint. I lay back in the chair and breathed deeply. The needles pressed into my body, a sharp, digging, pulling sensation that left me gritting my teeth. But I had chosen this pain. I had chosen to write over the scars until my skin was fully formed. This pain was the inscription of my own will upon my body. I was writing over the broken right side I had been born with and changing the words I saw there.
This is mine. This is beautiful. This is right. I will protect this space. I am not broken when I choose my own signs.
She was sitting on his floor in her underpants and one of his old tshirts, her legs splayed unabashedly in front of her like a child. She was surrounded by mess of angry creation. Oil pastels had split in half under her pressing hands, and when she looked up at him, her hands innocently forward, they were coated in oily color. The page had bled purple on the floor and stood out harsh against her pale skin.
In contrast to the childish scene, her face looked old.
“I wish I could feel the colors” she said as her wrists dripped.
The shape of the world changes when the snow falls, my mother used to say. As we drove through the park near our house she’d call it a fairy world. I could see what she meant, with the snow clinging to each branch, outlining the dead in a delicate white. We used to build new worlds, my mother and I. We would pile snow high into magical forts, or create men and women out of the blankets of white. The shape of the world has changed again, and winter does not seem so beautiful anymore. My mother cannot speak anymore.
So for those people who don’t know me personally and have just stumbled upon this blog out of the internet wasteland, I have a completely new topic to introduce. I am a lindy hopper. I swing dance. I LOVE swing dancing. I’ve been starting to get engaged with some lindy blogs, and I want to share a bit of my feelings and thoughts about dance, since it’s also a part of who I am and something that I feel is important and should be shared.
So as I was reading some blog posts, I came across one that was about things that good lindy hoppers do/ways to get better at lindy. And one of those things was “Develop a unique voice and perspective on dance. You’ll need to figure out what this means to you. I can only promise that this is usually a difficult process. But hey, you’re looking for hard things to work on and making your own discoveries now, right?”
I have lots of thoughts and feelings about dancing and why it’s so important to me, but I want to make some of them more coherent, figure out my unique perspective on dance. So that’s the goal of this blog: why do I dance, why do I feel dancing is important, what does dancing mean to you, and how do I view my progress in dancing so far?
So the first thing that swing means to me is something that I absolutely did not understand at first, but is something that has come to mean the world to me. It’s something that I first started to experience with taiko, and since have found even more of in swing. Lindy hop lets me be big.
You might be giving me a funny look right now because that makes no sense. Justified. To explain: I spend a lot of my time trying to be small. Sometimes this is emotionally. I try not to bring up things that bother me. I try to mold myself to what other people want, what might please them. More often than not, it’s physical: as someone with an eating disorder, my life has been consumed by the concept of smaller for four years. It has been my goal, my overwhelming certainty that I need to take up less space in this world. I have nearly killed myself trying to be smaller.
You cannot dance without taking up space. You cannot follow without making your body solid in certain ways, with being willing to move into and out of space and fill spaces. Dance is the expression of self in space. To be a good dancer, you have to be willing to make your body an extension of your self, a part of your identity, and then use it to fill up space.
And it’s enjoyable. Taking up space with my self can make me smile. That is the hugest gift that dancing has given me, and I think that it’s one of the most important things that it does for many people. We rarely are encouraged or allowed to express joy or self with our bodies. We’re not really told to jump up and down with glee. Sexuality is fairly repressed in this country. Bodies are hardly celebrated, and are rarely viewed as an integral part of self (see my post about tattoos). So think about how revolutionary it is to get a bunch of people in a room together, tell them that their bodies are a form of art, and that they can be joyous while being big and beautiful and expressing themselves in a purely physical manner. And it’s not dirty. It’s not bad. It’s completely platonic for most people. Holy. Shit.
If you’re going to be a good swing dancer, you have to be willing to extend your movements, to raise your hands over your head, to show all of your body and make it appear bigger than it is, because if you want to compete you need to have a presence. That is the antithesis of what I’ve done for many years, and very much not something women are encouraged to do very often. It is SO POWERFUL in my mind, and is so often overlooked as one of the joys and beauties of lindy. It’s often discussed in the lindy scene that there are some sexist overtones with the lead/follow dynamic, but in my mind the expression of beauty and self through the body is so empowering to anyone who does it that it trumps anything else that might be going on (which is not to say we shouldn’t discuss the sexist bits).
In addition to this there’s another really important piece of dance that relates to my mental health. Honestly I think that swing is the perfect therapy for me, and that many of the thing I love about it have illustrated how to move forward in my life. Anyway. Whoosh. Yeah that’s the second thing. Whoosh. In case you haven’t noticed, my brain has its own vocabulary for lindy hop, and it might take some getting used to. Whoosh is about trust. Whoosh is the feeling that you get when you’re doing a really good swing out and your partner catches you and you hit that moment of movement that’s just…whoosh. You can’t stop yourself at this point. Your momentum is already going. It’s almost out of control. It’s almost a little scary if you don’t trust your partner to catch you or put you back where you started. It’s exhilarating. It’s exciting. And it doesn’t work without taking the plunge to prepare your body and then let it go.
Obviously you want to be in control of your body throughout the entire dance, but there are moments when you give yourself to the momentum of your body. I think this happens particularly often for followers, since a good follower will follow their momentum wherever it goes (still working on this). And that means that you have to be willing to prepare yourself (have your footwork right, have good balance), but then simply trust your body to end up in the right spot, to follow its momentum. In swingouts, it also means trusting your partner a great deal. It means that in many ways you give up control. While you still get to choose where and how you move your body, you let someone (or something) else tweak it or shape it or work with it. When you try to control too much your dancing is rigid and you can’t follow well at all. When you let go of some of your control and simply let your body react and trust that you have prepared well, you get whoosh. Which is REALLY FUN.
Another place where I’ve found whoosh is on roller coasters. You trust that everyone has done their prep right, that you’re safe, you put yourself in a scary situation, but when you let the fear happen and wash over you, you get the whoosh of fun and speed and movement.
The idea of letting go of control in order to succeed, in order to trust, in order to trust MY BODY of all things is CRAZY to me. It’s difficult. It’s terrifying. It’s hard to trust others, it’s hard to trust the world in general. But it’s a skill that’s necessary. It’s the kind of leap of faith that pisses me off in many situations (because I think faith is not rational and thus shouldn’t be trusted) but that is so necessary in relationships, and often when making difficult decisions in life. If I could make that same kind of leap of faith with my recovery, and fall into the whoosh of it instead of holding on to the control and the fear, I have no doubt that I would be healthy. I’m sure this is true of all sorts of bad habits that people have. We can learn a lot from the whoosh of swing. We can also learn a lot about relationships from it: sometimes you have to trust your partner.
Speaking of relationships, one of the other things I love about lindy is the dynamic of follower and leader and how if you’re going to be a good dancer (or so I’m told) it often has to be like a good relationship: it’s not one person speaking and the other listening. It’s each person listening to the other, and molding the shape of the momentum in the dance together. It’s about a suggestion, and then taking that suggestion and building on it. I’m loving learning how to do that. I spend a lot of time trying to be aware of the other person while also being aware of myself and expressing myself. It’s a lot to keep track of at once, but so is life. It’s good brain training.
This is getting to be a really long post, and I think these are my main points. I may come back to swing thoughts later on, but for now I’ll just leave you with some of my swing dancing goal:
1.Work on tandem Charleston. Learn how to distinguish a lead into that from a lead into a turn. Stop stepping on people’s feet.
2.Listen to more music. Get the feel of it back.
3.Work on my bal.
4.Ask more people to dance more of the time.
5.Start working exercise back into my routine (slowly. I promise mom, very slowly) so that I can keep up my stamina at dances.
6.Go to more classes for added practice.
7.Practice on my own: triple stepping through turns.
8.Take more solo dance classes. Overcome paranoia of mirrors at said classes. Overcome paranoia of people seeing me dance without a lead.