Ballet Mental Health Photo Sessions

Keeping It Real: On Eating Disorder Recovery

As an eating disorder survivor, I try to make a point of addressing the issue of eating disorders and recovery on C&V during Eating Disorder Awareness Week every year. I make the effort because I remember how lonely and difficult recovery is, and I know that the nature of ballet has meant that a fair number of dancers struggle with disordered eating. But this year, I didn’t want to do it. I got my act together enough to pitch an idea of a chat about recovery to my friend, Royal Danish Ballet dancer Carling, as we had previously talked about dealing with anorexia for this blog, but she had a bit too much on her plate.

I had some other vague ideas about what I could do, but I didn’t feel like putting them in action. It’s been more than half a decade since I fell into and decided to crawl out of anorexia, and I’ve felt like I’ve moved on. I’ve always been careful not to let my eating disorder define me, and now I feel like it’s so little of my identity. At an intimate gathering with my closest high school friends, I was explaining to them why certain events triggered PTSD in me, and I was reluctant to use the word ‘eating disorder’ – ‘Chinese New Year reminds of the the time I was sick,’ I told them.

The C&V headquarters: in my tiny office, wearing the Blood Sweat & Pirouettes tee.

My experience with anorexia isn’t something I’m ashamed of. I just felt that I’d moved on from it. Revisiting it seemed like repeating myself ad nauseum – how much more do I want to talk about it? How many people want to keep hearing about it?  

But isn’t that what being recovered is? Just a couple of years ago I felt like I would always have to deal with ‘this ED thing’ in some way for the rest of my life, and it was a pretty disheartening thought. Nowadays I’m reluctant to give it too much attention.

It also feels strange some times to be encouraging and positive about a post-ED life when I’m not always in an amazing place myself. I am not always happy with myself, my body, or what I’m doing with my life (‘what am I doing with my liiiiifeeeeee,’ is not an uncommon phrase meanders through my brain from time to time.) I don’t always feel like I am good enough, or disciplined enough, or smart enough – not productive enough, not brave enough, not fit enough, not confident enough, not pushing myself enough, not responsible enough, just not anything enough!

But isn’t that also what being recovered is? Being recovered doesn’t mean you’re free from the ongoing process of trying to accept yourself that the rest of the world has to deal with. Or 90% of the world at least, in my totally accurate scientific estimation.

Wearing the C&V Crane leotard and Rubiawear legwarmers.

In many ways, I’m still the same, with all my neuroses, perfectionistic tendencies, obsessiveness and penchant for catastrophizing…the list goes on: all the traits that made me susceptible to an eating disorder.

What’s changed? Not much. Well, I gained back all my pre-ED weight and I’m much healthier now, so there’s that! But what I did change was trying to accept myself. I may always have to, for instance, deal with feeling like I ate too much or too little, or too unhealthily to some degree. But then I started to tell myself, ‘that’s okay. Stop feeling guilty about it! You know how to deal with this. You know how to take care of yourself.’  I may always have to deal with feeling like I’m never working hard enough. ‘But nobody’s a robot! You can’t give 100% every day! You did this productive thing today, and that’s good!’  

I stopped feeling like I had to fix myself. I stopped feeling like I was made of a whole bunch of parts that were put together wrong, like a defective Barbie doll. Instead, I’m learning how to manage my various personality traits when they get out of hand, and recognize how they can be helpful. I mean, let’s face it – as someone who only took up ballet 6 years ago I should have no business running a dancewear business, save for that perfectionist streak that compels me to keep learning as much as I can about ballet and running an ethical business.

Fun fact: my office is actually a spare room in my family home. Thanks, mum and dad.

It’s a little like the ankle impingements I spent most of last year dealing with – the more I danced and tumbled, the more painful it got, until I finally realised that I couldn’t deal with it myself and needed to get it checked. When I started working with a physiotherapist, it felt like they wouldn’t ever get better. But fast forward a few months later, and they’re mostly fine. My ankles won’t be the same – they look totally normal, but there’s still some scar tissue inside that can cause pain when I do certain movements, and I have to keep working on strengthening them. But they also doesn’t hurt anymore.

My experience with an eating disorder was the same – an illness that kept getting worse until I came to terms with that fact that it was a serious problem and I needed to get help. I will say that recovery for an ankle impingement is at least million times shorter and easier than recovering from an eating disorder (again, in my expert scientific estimations). But I remember looking at my physiotherapist and wondering aloud in frustration, ‘am I ever going to be able to do a round-off without any pain?’ It was the same sentiment I echoed so many years after I considered myself recovered, ‘am I ever going to be able to live without the spectre of an eating disorder always haunting me?’

The answer – and I’d never thought I’d say this – is yes.

There’ll still be there scars no one can see: recovery doesn’t make life insouciant. It doesn’t make me any less imperfect.  I’ll always have to be careful not to let myself fall into self-destructive behaviour. Recovery is just one part of a journey that’s leading me to be more okay with who I am, and to be more of who I am – instead of the sick, scared kid trying desperately to be someone she wasn’t.

I was probably thinking about pizza, hence the smile.

So I figured that the best thing I could do for Eating Disorders Awareness Week is to be real. As a grade A certified introvert, I have always been much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. Not to mention the fact that I’ve had the pleasure to work with some extraordinarily talented and beautiful dancers.

As someone who naturally turns in and has trouble switching directions between sissonnes, I can assure you that I am not an extraordinarily talented and beautiful dancer. But that’s not going to stop me going to a class and having fun muddling through grand allegro (dodgy turnout and all!) or designing dancewear that myself and professional dancers and everyone in between can enjoy wearing. So I finally decided to put myself in front of the camera.

I will admit to feeling somewhat self-conscious about my wobbly bits, and refusing to do anything too dance-y. ‘Stand in fourth!’ my assistant Chun suggested. Me: ‘With my turnout? No!‘ ‘Go on fifth en pointe!’ ‘No!’ Eventually she managed to coax a fourth out of me. Because I figured –  I’m totally okay with being the adult dancer I am. I can be proud of the work I’ve done – both in terms of my health and what I’ve accomplished with C&V.

I’ll always bear those invisible scars – but you know what, they‘re just scars. They don’t hurt anymore. And that’s what recovery is, isn’t it?

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