Part 2 of my interview with Carling Talcott, in which a professional ballet dancer and an adult ballet beginner discuss eating disorders and recovery.
I think eating disorders are not problems in themselves. They’re symptoms of deeper issues involving insecurity and low self-esteem and some sort of personality that’s more sensitive and predisposed to be singleminded.
Yeah. I’ve always had big confidence issues in ballet and in life. I still do. It’s something I try to work on all the time.
I always saw my younger sister as the pretty one. She has tan skin and blue eyes and boobs – pretty bodacious! I had braces and a bad haircut. I never got into makeup or clothes. Part of the reason was like, why bother? So that was a recipe for disaster.
So in a lot of cases it makes sense that anorexia or bulimia results from deeper underlying issues in yourself and in your head.
Yes, and you put all of your issues into an eating disorder to try and think that will make it okay.
Yeah.There’s all sorts of different ways to deal with the issues you have – I could have become a heroin addict or overeaten or just dealt with it. For me, and it sounds like for you too, anorexia was an easy way to find some control over something.
And if you’re goal-oriented that’s great, because you have numbers that will tell you what you need to do. It’s a very black and white indication of the progress you’re making. You can have a day where you hate everything about yourself, but at least you did this one thing right.
I am so awful and deficient in every area of my life, but at least I am disciplined about my eating.
Yes. I am better at this than anybody else because I am walking skeleton. I am good at this, and I have proof!
And sometimes it’s almost … maybe not easier, but safer to stay sick.
There was a point where it was like, I’m just eating and eating, and no one says I look better. I feel like crap, so why should I give up something that I enjoy controlling when it doesn’t make me feel good.
And then when I gained some weight, I would think my left pinky looks too big or something crazy. And other people say I look better, but I don’t feel good.
I feel like the media is constantly telling you how you need to live your life and what you can and cannot do. Don’t eat this, eat that. Exercise this much, but do this exercise, not that other one! And if you don’t do these things, you are doing your body a disservice and it’s your fault.
But also, you must totally be loving that goji berry kale wheatgrass smoothie you’re having instead of a normal meal, if not you’re doing it wrong.
But at the same time there are all these things about body acceptance. And it’s like, which am I supposed to pick? Am I supposed to not eat bagels for a month and only eat lettuce, or am I supposed to pick the side that’s like, accept your body, you are beautiful! There’s all this conflicting information.
It’s like, love your body as you are because it’s healthy! But no, you need to have a flat stomach and abs because that’s healthy!
And it’s like sleep more, or sleep less, or sleep differently! I can’t win! I sleep too much and too little, I eat too much and too little. I am beautiful, but also not really. It’s really screwed up.
And in ballet especially. It’s difficult for people to talk about eating disorders and body image problems. And when it is talked about, it’s treated as if it was an issue in the ballet world, but it’s not anymore. But you know what, it is. It’s totally an issue because it’s a human issue. And a lot of these perfectionist humans go into ballet.
Photo by: David Amzallag.
I’m sure you’d agree that there are many dancers who are perfectly healthy, well-adjusted people. But at the same time the ballet-anorexia stereotype comes from somewhere. It’s a field where most professionals and serious pre-professionals are perfectionists. And if part of success in ballet depends on aesthetic, you know, being slim, having great lines, some of these perfectionists are going to do whatever it takes to achieve that.
Yeah. And my generation and the one above me grew up idolizing the people who popularized the very thin ballet aesthetic.
Maybe that’s changing. It would be great if the next generation have a different group look up to. But that doesn’t change how the current generation thinks. The dancers I looked up to were the very thin, very willowy types, like Suzanne Farrell.
The Balanchine-era dancers.
Yeah. It’s very hard to change a generation’s thinking. Especially in ballet, which is full of tradition and idols and mentors.
I feel like no one is really going to come out and say the Balanchine body is unrealistic.
No! You read Gelsey Kirkland’s book, and realise that she had a lot of help from a lot of crappy sources, like cocaine. No one’s going to come out to say that yes, she looked like this, but she was also on drugs and really unhealthy. She’s lucky to be alive.
No one’s going to come out and say that half these ballerinas were crazy! They were beautiful, but they were nuts! The 70s and 80s were not the healthiest period for America!
I think we can laud his contributions to dance but at the same time recognize the fact that his physical aesthetic is not realistic, unless you’re genetically predisposed to it.
The sad thing is that I feel like Balanchine was a nice guy with good intentions. I don’t think he realised how much he would affect years and years of dancers to come. It’s true – he affected the whole look of ballet and ballerinas and future generations who looked up to them.
This art form is so obsessed with perfection, but no one can define perfect. There is no black and white achievement – even if you get to the top, you’re still not the best one. You’re constantly striving for something for something that doesn’t exist and can never exist. You throw in all this history that dancers are passionate about, and it’s full of relatively unattainable idols that we consider to be great, and that is a recipe for mental disaster.
And the time when you’re doing ballet is when you’re figuring out who you are as a person and you’re going through changes. So you try all these crazy things, which can end up becoming eating disorders or maybe you’re overstraining the tops of your feet to make them look good. It all adds up. You do it at an impressionable age, it’s a very short career with no possibility of being perfect and very little possibility of being great. You can be good, but to be great – so few people get that.
And ballet is a profession where hard work is encouraged, where it’s good or necessary to work as hard as you can and push yourself as much as possible, past any physical or mental exhaustion. Ballet and society in general glorifies that. But the reality is that it’s not particularly healthy to be dancing on, say, a broken ankle or inflamed joints.
Exactly. And if you do it with a smile on your face and don’t complain, ever better.
I don’t think the culture of ballet will change drastically. Not soon.
I would prefer that people were upfront about this kind of stuff instead of saying that it’s not an issue anymore. That’s not true when half the people in your company are teenage girls. Eating disorders are problem everywhere in this modern world. So of course it’s a problem in ballet.
Yes. I’m just an observer to the professional ballet world, but my sense is that it’s true not everyone has an eating disorder, but there’s still a fair amount of disordered eating.
Yeah. There are weird relationships with weight, with food, with clothing. Like you say, it’s not an eating disorder, but it’s not normal eating either. I may the only one in my company’s recent history to have had a full-blown eating disorder, but I can tell you that I’m not the only one with disordered eating. And I don’t think that’s any better. Maybe I won’t have dessert, or I won’t eat bread for a week – and then that is how it snowballs.
As a dancer you have to make sure you’re healthy, putting the right stuff in your body and not eat burgers and fries and ice cream for every meal. You do have to care about what you eat even if you’re burning it off anyway. But at the same time you have to not be obsessed about it. It’s a fine line.
And when you think about it, it’s pretty self-defeating to be eating so little. You do it because you think it will make you better somehow, like a better dancer. But you’re not going to be able to dance to your full potential if you’re malnourished.
If you’re starving yourself you’re not going to be able to come close to that non-existent definition of perfection. It’s this hamster wheel of wanting look this way, but the method of doing it – starving yourself – means you can’t do your job to the best of your ability. It’s a sad irony.
Yeah, it’s a shame that some dancers or athletes feel that they can’t eat certain things like donuts once in a while, when their peers who don’t exercise as nearly as much and look perfectly normal and healthy can.
Probably more than a normal person they totally could have a donut and it will be fine! I tell you, it will be fine!
It’s such a strange disorder to explain when you’re in it.
But you’re not rational when you’re in it. Malnourishment strips you of a lot of rationality.
Yeah, your brain’s not really working. I was a mess. Anything can make you sad or really happy, and you’re so hungry.
And it was exhausting when you’re tired already to have to go in public, to an event or out with friends, and pretend you’re fine when you haven’t eaten a proper meal in weeks. You have to make sure you look normal, and put a smile on your face and pretend to be happy and energetic.
Carling Talcott in Balanchine’s Seranade.
Photo by: David Amzallag.
Ballet class was actually really helpful for me. I had to see people and put on my normal face, but it was good to stop hiding at home, get out of my head and interact with people for one hour a week, which was a manageable amount of time.
Ballet was a routine I knew. You do the same exercises everyday. I had to think about it while I was doing it, but I didn’t have to think about my other problems. It was a physical hour and a half where I had to deal with just this one thing. I was told what to do, had to try to do it and didn’t have to deal with food or thinking about food.
There was the music, and teachers and exercises. It was not confusing. It was everything I had been doing since I was 3. Whereas out in the real world, dealing with all of it … that I didn’t understand.
For me it was also a self-contained hour where I could channel my perfectionism into learning new things. You know, doing the exercises and trying to improve. You fall into an eating disorder because you think anorexia will fix your deficiencies, and when you’re recovering you’re trying to fix yourself but you don’t know how. Ballet was gave me tangibles I could fix about myself. And after that I could go home and not have to think about it.
Yeah, you can focus on fixing something. When you’re doing ballet, your body is your instrument, it’s a tool. It was really calming, but still gave me something to do.
It was quiet. I could be focused and serious but not have to pretend I was happy or deal with small talk. I could just listen to the teacher and the music and fix myself. It was a private thing for me, which was nice. It was my time.
It can be a terrible environment for an eating disorder – wearing very little clothing and staring at yourself in the mirror next to other people. But it can also be very comforting in recovery. It was the thing that I knew. It was safe.
It’s never changed, it hasn’t changed much over a few hundred years. Even now, if I have a bad day, when I’m in class it doesn’t matter. I can zone out from my real life and put all this work into my body and try to create something nice.
You dance for yourself, but also with respect to the art form. You take ballet class because you want to do well and get better and because you love it. And when you’re recovering from an eating disorder it’s good to find things like that which are positive.
I was very careful to make sure I didn’t start to hate ballet. I like to push myself but I can have a tendency to overdo it – I mean, I did push myself into starvation – and that would take the joy out of it. But I was taking a recreational class. I don’t think professional dancers have that luxury of taking it easy when the dancing gets wearisome.
Yeah, I think every dancer goes through that phase at some point. And when you do, you kind of step back and ask what is happening, because I miss loving it.
For dancers, ballet is not something you want to hate. It’s really hard to do ballet while you hate it. Ballet is too difficult as it is. When you’re dealing with something really hard and involves a lot of self-loathing, doing something that you love is a really nice thing. And at that point in my life it was very rare to let myself enjoy things.
Yeah, I felt really guilty about doing what I wanted to. I had to be disciplined all the time. Like I wasn’t good enough to enjoy life.
Yeah. Even though you are.
And I guess that’s what recovery is all about. Self-acceptance and loving yourself. That’s the crux of it.
Yeah, love yourself! The people who love you and care for you see you in the best way, and the ultimate goal is to see yourself in the same way. That’s the goal.
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Text by Min, Cloud & Victory.