Recently an article about how ballet has helped a young woman, Min, heal from her eating disorder, “Reverse Black Swan Syndrome,” has caught my attention. What she experienced goes against what is more commonly seen in the ballet world, where the pressure to perform and to achieve a perfectly slim body sometimes leads to, instead of heal, eating disorder.
Min is a Singaporean Chinese who went to study law in an Australian university but found the pressure to achieve to be a bit too much to manage. As a result, she fell into anorexic behavior. It is really interesting to read the journey she went through and how she found cure in ballet class and even became the owner of a successful ballet-inspired ethical clothing brand, Cloud & Victory, after she graduated.
In some ways, her story reminds me of my years in a U.S. college where I started to binge eat due to the pressure to achieve and to get my English standard on par with native-English speakers. How would it be possible for a foreigner like me to be admitted to journalism school, when I didn’t even know what was funny when my fellow classmates cracked a joke, or when I made a silly mistake as my school-taught British English turned into something hilarious in the American context? There were so many books to reads, such long papers to write, and so many new cultural impressions and shocks. I didn’t know I had any sort of eating disorder, despite boxes after boxes of chocolate chip cookies and cans after cans of soda pops that accompanied me through those all-nighters.
Come to think of it, ever since I was a kid, I had used snacking to deal with the pressure of studying. It was as if eating could help me to fill a gap in my soul, to fight the loneliness in the struggle to be the best in my environment. It helped me pass the long, long hours buried in the books. But it did not help raise my self-esteem, despite the good grades I eventually got.
I never went as far as becoming bulimic though. Sometimes I would have a tendency to watch everything I ate—such as during my last two years in high school when I tried to lose weight. It was hard on my body and my effort was totally wasted as soon as I entered college. In the first six months, I gained 20 pounds! My parents couldn’t even recognize me when I went home to visit during Christmas holiday.
Back and forth, back and forth… throughout my whole life I struggled with my weight. It was actually my self-esteem that I struggled with. Despite the extrinsic achievements in my academic life—being always able to overcome difficulties and challenges to get to the top echelon—there was this insecurity about my self that had bugged me throughout my youth. I believe that this has to do with the mixed signals I received from my mother when I was a child. Whenever I got a good grade or an award, she would be really proud. Yet at the same time she always “bragged” to her friends in a false sense of humility that it was “nothing,” that I was “not good enough,” and she would make sure that I stayed humble and tried to do better the next time. So I guess I always felt that nothing I ever did was good enough. This feeling had lasted until quite recently, as even throughout my adult life, she has inadvertently transmitted the message that no matter how much and how well I do, it’s never going to be enough (Sounds familiar? Joy Luck Club, anyone?) I am glad that I have finally gotten over this feeling now. I finally understand, that it’s not about what I do, but who I am—and I don’t need her approval to be the unique person that I am. It is alright even if she does not understand.
In addition to my weight swings, I have also been experiencing bouts of deep depression multiple times in my life. The first time around, my parents dismissed it as a something that couldn’t possible happen to me since I did not have a good enough reason to get depressed. Huh? That did not help very much! Reading Min’s story made me envy her for having such supportive and understanding parents. They did not question her through her darkest days; instead, they just gave her unconditional support. I think that is so crucial in her healing process, as they provided her with safe emotional environment to refocus her energy on creating a company based on her new-found passion, a passion that stemmed from what healed her—ballet.
As for me, ballet has healed me and hurt me in a million ways. When I have totally recovered from my surgery, I will ease into class and make sure I turn ballet into a source of joy and not a source of grief and tension. I will free myself from the harsh judgments of the mirror, from the silent comparison with my fellow beautiful and skinny adult students, from the strict demands for a “perfect ballet body,” and just allow myself to enjoy the pure essence of dancing!