Carling Talcott and I come from very different worlds. She’s an American living in Denmark, and I’m a Singaporean living in, well, Singapore. She’s a professional ballet dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, while I’m an adult ballet beginner who totters off to class once a week. But there are a couple of things we have in common, like a love of pizza and burgers, and being able to find humour in the mundane and the things we love, such as ballet.
There’s one other thing that we have in common – we’ve both had anorexia.
It’s an illness that affects each individual in very different yet similar ways. Anorexia was triggered in both of us by some inadvertent weight loss that incentivised us to continue it for health reasons, until we took it too far. It was what we put all our insecurities into, something that we could control when there were so many things we didn’t like and couldn’t fix about ourselves.
Carling fell into anorexia when she was about 15 and relapsed twice. Each relapse was triggered by a significant point in her ballet career, such as joining the Miami City Ballet’s winter program and starting her first job as a professional dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet. She tried to be the best dancer she possibly could, which unfortunately included becoming very thin and taking healthiness to an extreme. 10 years later, she’s feels like she’s conquered this illness for good.
I became anorexic about 5 years ago, when I was a law undergraduate in Melbourne, My idea of being a good, responsible student meant extreme discipline in all areas of my life, including in diet and exercise. My anorexia occurred in tandem with severe depression. I consider myself recovered and have never had a major relapse. That’s not to say I haven’t stumbled, especially when my depression creeps up on me.
In our 2 hour conversation, it emerged that there was one other thing we we had in common: a desire to be open and honest about our experiences. This is an illness that almost destroyed us, but it fighting in we’ve found ourselves in some way, and we hope by talking about it we can help others.
C&V SESSIONS WITH CARLING TALCOTT
How did you get started in ballet?
I started in one of those studios that did ballet, jazz tap and everything. Neither of my parents did ballet, they didn’t know much about it so it was kind of my own thing. We have 5 kids in our family so it was nice to have something that was mine; that I didn’t have to share.
What was your relationship like with ballet when you were younger?
It was perfect for my personality – very type A.
I had a good relationship with it. I was good at it. It was something I could focus on, something where I felt special. I tried a lot of other things like jazz, tap, baton twirling, and I did soccer for one semester but I spent most of my time at the side practising ballet. There were summer programs so I had something to do in the summer. If I didn’t have something to be nervous about, I would stress about ballet. In ballet there’s always something to worry about.
I like learning and ballet was a way to challenge myself. I was not built for it, I’m not Sylvie Guillem. I had to work hard for it.
That’s the thing about perfectionists! If I’m not being challenged in some way, I’m not having fun.
Yes! If I don’t feel like I’m learning, and growing and developing in some way then I’m bored. And I just don’t want to do it.
At the end of the day, I need to have some sense of accomplishment.
When you’re younger, ballet is everything. But now that I’m older, I have a life outside ballet. Maybe if I’m not being challenged in this production, I can look forward to class or the next production. Or I can come home and, say, spend an hour talking about Scientology and learning something.
In the corps, you have crappy parts were you stand there and do nothing and that sucks. But I’ve learnt to find the humour in those moments – ‘how lame is this, we’re standing here wearing English judge wigs on our head..’
Right. I think perfectionism is something that can be good or bad. People always think of it as a positive trait. But if you’re not aware that you have it and how to manage it, then it can be really destructive. Eating disorders are part of that negative side of perfectionism.
I always thought that it must sound so stupid to other people when they hear I’m not eating. Putting food in your mouth is a very basic thing. But a lot of people who have an eating disorder are super smart and super perfectionist. It takes so much willpower. I think about it now and –
You just don’t know how you did it!
Exactly! First of all, physically – like getting up in the morning and doing ballet and everything. But also… I didn’t eat pizza for 2 years! How did I not eat pizza? I love pizza! I couldn’t even smell pizza back then.
People think it’s about being thin. I used to, before I fell sick – and it’s not. It’s about so much more than that.
I think it’s very personal. My reason for not eating can be very different from yours and someone else’s. And that’s what’s so frustrating for people outside. You can’t make someone think differently. You can’t make someone fix themselves. It has to come from them.
I didn’t want to tell people why I was doing it. I couldn’t figure it out myself until years after.
My parents would tell me to just eat: “we want you to live.”
And I wanted to live too! I want to eat! This isn’t a suicide mission. I couldn’t make them understand.
Carling Talcott (left) is a professional dancer. I am not.
Nobody who is anorexic wants to be that way. You know you’re so sick and you can see how horrible you look, but you just don’t know how to get out of it. I remember having to get new clothes because I was too thin and just crying to my mum in the dressing room because I thought I looked like a freak.
Yeah! You’re tired. And I’m so pale already – I got even paler. I looked like death. Everyone was telling me I was so thin. And I was like, “I know!”
I wanted someone to realise that I don’t think weighing 45 kilos at my height is super hot. This isn’t a shallow or superficial disorder.
It may start there, but ultimately it has very little to do it how you look. But it’s so hard to articulate while you’re in it why you’re doing it.
And all you want is someone to understand but it feels like no one does.
Yeah. It’s like you’re in this hole and someone is staring down at you from the top and telling you, “just climb out. Just put food in your mouth.”
Yes, exactly. Exactly.
And you don’t have a rope or a ladder or any tools to get out. I would love to get out, but I don’t know how!
You sort of think it could never happen to you. I was eating 1200, 1400 calories a day so I must be fine! I haven’t had my period in 6 months but I’m not clinically underweight so it’s okay!
Totally. I’m just super healthy and I exercise!
When I relapsed the two times before, I pretended I was fine. But by the third time in this nice merry go round of magic, I was fully aware of what I was doing to myself. That was worse, that moment of realisation. It was like, ah dammit.
I had to walk everywhere. And exercise all the time – just expand as much energy as possible.
Yes. No buses, no cabs. It’s a 30 minute walk to buy milk? I’ll do it!
The worst was Sundays because when I didn’t have class. Oh no, was I going to gain a whole bunch of weight in 24 hours? So I couldn’t enjoy Sundays. I would walk everywhere, or sleep in so I didn’t have to eat.
I had this thing where I would walk by cafes and oh gosh, it all smelt so good. But I’m not going to eat it because I have the willpower compared to all these other people eating.
It’s as if everyone else can eat normally and be fine, but you can’t. You are some exception that can only eat this little.
Yeah, like good for them. This weird arrogance of, good for you for eating, but no thank you, it’s not for me.
Did you count calories?
No, I would just eat really small portions. When I was a student at the Miami Ballet’s winter programme, I would have coffee and a boiled egg in the morning, carrots or granola bars during the day – enough food so I wouldn’t pass out. I would eat a huge frozen yoghurt for dinner and walk for an hour. It was terrible. You can’t function like that. I was so exhausted I would be in bed by 9.
I would play this messy game with myself of how much I had to eat to maintain this number, and how much less do I have to eat to lower it.
Say, if I did a variation twice today then maybe I could eat extra frozen yoghurt.
I counted calories, and it was like, apparently jogging burns this much, so that’s how much more I’m allowed to eat.
I would eat something and go do ballet or workout and then weigh myself. But the lower the number goes, the less and less you can eat.
It is really easy to get caught up in numbers. The numbers are like a tangible reassurance, but at the same time it’s never low enough. It’s never good enough.
Yeah. At one point I was weighing myself 3 or 4 times a day.
I found going out with people hard. I was afraid to eat, but I was also scared that if I didn’t eat in front of my friends they would judge me for not eating normally, when honestly nobody really cares about what you eat.
Yes! I was afraid that if I went to the canteen with a plate of food people would think, “oh this skinny person. She’s just putting on a show, she’s not going to eat anything today.”
I was worrying about what I was eating either way. It was this weird balance. Don’t eat too much! But maybe eat snacks!
But when you start eating, it takes so long for a noticeable amount of weight to stay on because your metabolism is restarting. It was exhausting having to eat so much!
I actually don’t remember having that issue. I gained weight pretty steadily, I think. My recovery plan had me eating 3 meals and 3 snacks everyday and my family told me I was eating a lot during that time. But I honestly don’t remember. I was just too tired and scared all the time, and I never felt full.
Because you’re starving and you don’t realise it! And then when you start eating, it’s like, “crap I was hungry! I have a few years of food to catch up on!”
After a few months of eating whatever I wanted whenever I wanted my body went the other way and I weighed more than I had before I fell ill. My nutritionist said this was very common, and it was because I had deprived myself for so long. She said it was natural for my body weight to go a bit up, but then it would figure itself out eventually. It was true.
I realised that even though I felt weird in my new body, no one cared. No one was going to go, “oh, she looks 2 pounds heavier today.” It was all in my head.
And then later when you get better, you can joke about it.
You were trying to recover while being employed full-time at the Royal Danish. Did you ever think of taking a break to focus on getting well?
Yes and no. Part of me wanted to hide in a hole, not leave my apartment and just eat and eat and eat and come back when I was fine. Another part of me was very defiant. I was not going to give people the satisfaction being the new girl who disappeared. And I would go nuts if I did nothing all day.
I was only allowed to do class until I got better. But it helped to be around people, to be in this beautiful building and feel like you’re part of the company.
So I force myself to come to class everyday. I would wear warmups, stay in the back and do what I needed to do to feel more invisible. When you’re sick you feel like everyone’s looking at you, even though the reality is that there are so many people in the room everyone’s got so many other things to focus on.
I was almost punishing myself for letting this happen. Even after I was allowed to attend rehearsals, my stomach was still uncomfortable from all this new food and I was tired. But since I did it to myself I had to suck it up and go through this.
Carling in Swan Lake.
Photo by: David Amzallag
So what helped you through that?
I had a friend at Royal Danish whom I would go out with after work, to museums and stuff. It was nice come to work and see him, and know that maybe afterwards we would do something cool. He made me feel normal. Not like this alien, breakable thing, even though I acted and looked a little weird. No one else was really doing that and it helped so much. He’s now one of my best friends.
It also helped to have distractions when I was having disordered thoughts. I would distract myself by watching a movie or something and wait for the thought to go away. Or if it was really bad I would call my parents or the nutritionist, or talk to my best friend.
It’s such a public disorder but it’s so private at the same time. And sometimes it helped to not talk about it, but just talk to someone else about anything besides anorexia. About how my mum’s day was going. That way you don’t think about yourself, and that helps.
To get out of your head.
Yes, when I came here it really helped to be around so many people all the time, to be in a different culture and listen to this alien language that they speak, to talk to fellow foreigners and listening to all the company gossip. It was a nice distraction.
So it was sort of like having a blank slate, without all your baggage following you.
Yeah. I realised it was my best chance in life to start over. I didn’t have to be a type A perfectionist all the time anymore. Not eating and not making an effort to get better wasn’t going to help.
I think it’s such a rare thing to have such a fresh start in life. Some part of me realised that this was a chance to find out who I felt like being. No one had any preconceived idea of who I was. My parents were very far away so I could figure myself out without my crazy family around. I love my family, but it was nice to break away. I think it helped them too.
I could be creative, do fun stuff and live in a socialist Scandinavian country! It was a new notebook and I could write whatever I wanted.
I felt like I gave up so much of teenage life for ballet. Did I want to give up the rest of my life for an eating disorder? Denmark is a great place to get better, everyone’s more laid back and relaxed compared to say, New York where everything is go go go, and you have to be better and faster. Here you can take 3-day weekends, have a long lunch or leave work early to enjoy the sun because it rarely shows up up here. People literally bring chairs to the part of the side-walk where the sun is.
I saw so many people around my age enjoying life and work, and making mistakes but being okay with it. I wanted to try that. It was much better than shopping in the children’s department for pants.
How did you cope with weight gain?
When I recovered and I was allowed on stage and my body returned to a normal shape, costume fittings would change.
When they had to let my tutu out I would have this moment in my head, “oh my God! Oh my God!” That was the worst. You would have to sit there with these Danish tailors flitting over you, while inside you’re thinking, “holy crap, am I enormous?” while the other half of you is saying this is supposed to happen and this is normal.
Yeah. It’s just a constant battle in your head between the side that wants recovery and the disordered side.
Yeah, the side you’re used to is totally freaking out and the recovery side is like telling you to calm down because your old measurements are not a good thing.
And the first couple of times when someone says, “you look so much healthier!”
People say it to be nice, but something in your head is like, “okay, I look so much healthier – how much weight have I gained? How much fat? What if I keep getting healthier and then I’m a whale?”
It’s not true, your body will figure it out. But recovery was also difficult in that sense. I had to retrain my brain and teach it a new definition of healthy. Buying children’s size 12 clothes at my age and height was not healthy.
In this company they won’t put you onstage if you look too skinny. I realised I moved all the way across the world and I would rather dance then sit here and do and learn nothing.
It’s also unprofessional as a dancer to not do your job. And you can’t do your job if you’re tired and your hair is falling out and your body is growing hair to keep yourself warm.
Same. I was really tired, and cold and was thirsty all the time. My legs would cramp in the middle of the night and my bones were so achy. It took so much effort just to get out of a chair.
Yes! And sitting anywhere for too long was so uncomfortable because I was so lean, there were only bones. I couldn’t it in a theatre and see a movie – by the end I was super crampy. And I did loads of sit ups and my back was covered in bruises because there was no padding, there was nothing to protect my body.
You’re so weak and deprived that everything is an effort.
Yes. Life itself already requires so much energy, much less when you’re sick. Just everything – walking two blocks to the pharmacy felt like an eternity, talking to people, making the bed. Showering. And on top of that I had to do ballet and study and function like a human.
I would look at all my friends, and they all had various builds and I thought they all looked good at whatever weight and height they were. But I couldn’t apply that to myself. I had to be skinny. I couldn’t gain weight, that would make me horrible in some way.
Exactly. We have people of all kinds of heights and sizes in our company. I thought everyone was so beautiful, except me. You look at people and think: she has nice legs, or she has a nice face or a nice butt. But not me, all of my features suck. I hate it. I have to be perfect.
Yeah, no one looks ugly to me, but I am some exception who is defective in some way. It would be great if we could step out of our bodies for 30 seconds and see ourselves as others see us.
I remember thinking once, “if I am so mean to myself, I may as well be so mean to other people or treat myself the way I treat other people. What can’t I do that?”
Ideally, your self should be the easiest person to like, accept and feel good about because you know yourself. But it’s so much easier to be nice about other people. And that is so strange.
I was thinking that I would never tell my younger self the things I think about myself now, about how I’m not good enough and why. I’d just tell her that she’s awesome and things are going to be okay. I try to remind myself of that, but it’s not always easy.
Yeah. There are still things I don’t like about myself, like my arms or my butt. Or I just washed my skinny jeans and they’re a little tight and I feel like I’m having a fat day. Everybody has those days. But other people like all these things about me. My boyfriend likes them, and my parents think I’m beautiful. And it helps to think about it that way. That as much crap as you’re thinking about yourself, other people are thinking great things about you.
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Text, header graphic by Min, Cloud & Victory.
All photos of Carling by: David Amzallag.