Keri offered me the opportunity to contribute my thoughts after I made a Facebook post about the fool’s game that is decoding women’s clothing sizes.
“This weekend, I wore a dress that was a size 4. Today, my shorts are a size 11. Women’s sizes are so arbitrary that it’s impossible to base your self-esteem on them.”
I was so flattered when she asked because that’s an attitude I have been working hard to adopt. After 19 years of life spent between measuring, starving, bingeing and purging (I started early), my recovery and new-found enlightenment felt legitimized by her request.
So why the hell has it taken me, in all my glorious smugness, the better part of a year to write this piece that I was so honored to have commissioned?
The longer I think about the Facebook post, the louder something rings false. And maybe it’s because I made very sure to let everyone know I could still squeeze myself into a 4, even though that day I was in an 11. Yes. That’s where I feel a little like a fraud. Because I want so much to live my statement, and I want all women to be rid of the shackles of size fixation because it’s an empty, maddening, USELESS way to measure your worth. But here I was, holding on to my 4 for dear life, asking social media to bear witness to my culturally acceptable size-range.
I’m an actress. I started dancing when I was four, and though I gave up dreams of professional ballet when I was nine (because some people just don’t have the gift), I stuck around long enough to cultivate some anxiety. Anxiety that was nurtured by a mother who spent too much energy staying thin, who has looked at weight as a measure of personal value, and had a relationship with food like some people have with abusive lovers- alternately passionate and life-threateningly controlling.
I spent my teens fluctuating between sizes 5 and 14. I was neither fat nor skinny, but never healthy. I struggled with disordered eating much of the time, from ages 10 to 25, careening from anorexia to bulimia and everything in between.
Eating disorders are rarely about weight. Weight and food are tools- a tangible thing to control, especially when one is in situations that are wildly out of their control. With a very dark upbringing, I was a pretty text-book case.
After graduating college, I moved to New York City to make my mark on the industry in which Julianne Moore has said the greatest challenge of her career was “going to the Golden Globes 6 weeks after giving birth.” I had just endured a spate of heartbreaks. I was very unwealthy and straight out of the collegiate gate, I was viciously competitive. These factors, unchecked in my angry psyche, were a poisonous combination, and soon, I had turned orange from eating a diet that was 90% carrots. But I had dropped to a size 4. 4 had been the Gold Standard since the turn of the new century, down from the “Perfect 6” of my mother’s generation. But just as I was squeezing myself into this magic number, 2 became the thing. People were singing about it. “Legally Blonde: The Musical” anyone? So I had work to do.
The glitter of New York faded fast. I burned out on competition. I felt sucked dry by the city (and nutrient deficiency), so I headed north to Boston where I had family and close friends. I lived with my mother for 2 months, and she very generously made room for me and my precious diet.
I had convinced myself that I was allergic to all things that weren’t spinach, protein and of course carrots. I pared myself down further and further under the guise of an elimination diet. I started to need enemas to have any bowel movements. A man I was seeing asked me once, “When are you going to start reintroducing other foods? Because you can’t lose much more weight.” When I relayed the conversation to my mother, she responded “Oh, yes you can!”
I moved out and started working in a bakery to support my theatre habit. I found our merchandise irresistible. I took home the day’s discards to share with friends, but would eventually break down and binge on the leftovers. And then I was back to purging. I was still actively bulimic when I, overstuffed with Shakespeare after Shakespeare and inspired by Tina Fey’s memoir, found myself at an audition for a sketch comedy.
The show was “Bye Bye Liver.” The writer and director was Byron Hatfield. This was the beginning of my life as I know it and my belief in true love, but as they say, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Byron and I fell in love while working on the show. I stopped purging. We spent six beautiful weeks wrapped up in each other before he was summoned back to Chicago. He offered to move his life to Boston. I was coming up on a year there, and was ready for an adventure. He mentioned the possibility of opening a theatre in Chicago, and I wanted to be by his side for that exciting chapter (and every chapter). So he left to get started and I stayed in Boston to finish out a show contract before joining him.
While he was gone, I lost myself and got very, very sick. I became a prisoner to two pieces of clothing- a pair little black shorts I wore onstage, and a skirt I had from H&M that was a size 6 and inexplicably tight.
Friends started to worry aloud. “You don’t look right.” “Can you even see yourself?” Some people encouraged me. “How do you do it?” was an insidious question. Girls in our audiences playfully hissed “skinny bitch,” and having always had a butt and boobs to spare, I found this novel. I felt a cold sense of accomplishment when Byron and I went shopping for a dress for a friend’s wedding and I couldn’t find anything at Anthropologie small enough. (And yet the H&M skirt remained snug.)
Then, something happened that made no sense to me. I stopped getting work. There was a golden period in Boston when I was picking up consistent jobs. I booked a few commercials. I was never without a show. At one point, I was making a living wage as an actor. I thought it would only get better as I got thinner. I was wrong. During a voiceover, a director I knew well stopped me repeatedly in frustration and said, “What’s going on? Even your voice sounds thin.” Thin was turning out to not be a compliment.
Byron and I moved briefly to Philadelphia for “Bye Bye Liver.” My periods stopped. Even as a teenager, when I would go days without eating, my bodily functions never ceased for more than one month. But now they had. For several months. When we were sure it wasn’t a baby, I wrote it off as stress. Byron and I were splitting our time between Boston and Philly, and it was hard on us. I was getting knots in my calves so bad that I would wake up screaming in pain. I would sob uncontrollably before dinner. I didn’t connect this to my attitude about my body or how I was treating it.
Especially because that damn H&M skirt was still tight. Now, I was wearing it all the time like a yoke to keep me from expanding beyond my ever-encroaching boundaries.
Byron laid his heart out one night. “I don’t care if you win, but I care if you fight, and if you’re not fighting, I can’t stand by and watch you die.” He showed me a picture he had taken. I was dumbstruck. I didn’t recognize myself. My thighs bowed away from each other unnaturally. Every bone in my chest cast a shadow. And I heard him. I wanted to fight for him, but I felt so far gone that I didn’t know where to even begin. I started by eating bread. I lost more weight at first, which was terrifying at that point. When we were apart, I tried to send Byron sexy pictures, but had to pose creatively to hide the hollows where my body had been.
Then, Byron was robbed at gunpoint in Philadelphia. Nothing has ever been quite so clarifying as the realization of my Husband’s mortality. I’m very familiar with my own, but his. That’s different.
The next night, we ate an obscene meal to celebrate being alive. Then we did it again. And again with friends. And day by day, meal by gorgeous meal, I started to fight. I kept eating and enjoying it more and caring less and less about how much space I took up in his arms because I was just relieved to have them around me.
Recovery took time and accelerated with the help of therapy and patient love. Pound by pound and potato by popcorn, I began to look like a woman again and become comfortable with having a woman’s body- not a child’s or an androgynous skeleton. Byron was overjoyed when my breasts arrived, and I realized he had never seen them as they are naturally- not hanging from a rack of bones. Now, every day, he reacts to me like Christmas.
And now I’m completely healed and everything is fine and I love my body the way it is all the time no matter what.
Which is what I wanted to feel when I wrote, “women’s sizes are too arbitrary to be a measure of self-esteem.” And somewhere in me, I know it. For a while, in my commitment to recovery, I haven’t known what size I am. I discovered the many splendid joys of yoga pants. I have often felt happy and beautiful without looking in a mirror, and exercise to feel good instead of punish myself.
Except for the last two months. I was cast as Marion Crane in a musical parody of “Psycho.” I gleefully dove into the history of Hitchcock’s masterpiece and learned as much as I could in hopes of doing a send-up worthy of a legend. But I got fixated on one very tiny detail: Janet Leigh’s waist. 20 inches. Even after the birth of two children: 20 inches. 20 little, impossible, mind-obsessing inches. And all at once, my security unraveled. I started minding calories again, and exercising a little too much. I became isolated and anxious and my skin started to turn orange and I couldn’t carry on conversations and I thought, “maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. Maybe I’m not healthy enough for this. Maybe this line of work just isn’t meant for me.” And that felt even worse. Which meant it was time to fight again. And the way I fought before is the way I fight now- by dragging these obsessive thoughts out into the open and speaking them aloud so I can hear them, and have a chance to talk back.
And when I talked back, I found clarity. There is nothing that halts my creativity and happiness faster than trying to be someone else, which is a doozy when I make it my business to bring other people to life. But I have to remember that I’m me.
Here’s what I said to me: I’m not playing Janet Leigh. We’re not remaking “Psycho,” and hell, if we were, casting would not come down to waistline comparisons (see also: Scarlett Johansson in “Hitchcock”). Ms. Leigh was a great beauty, and had a figure that was admired in her time, and that’s just fine. But it’s not my figure. I have my own. And I can only have my own. It’s the outline of a body that is good to me when I’m good to it. It’s my husband’s favorite body. With it, we have built a theatre. Eventually, we will make babies with it. I can sing and dance in it, and when I’m not caught up in how I look, I can even do both at the same time. I can emotionally connect to other humans. Sometimes it’s with laughter or tears or argument. And that’s what a body is- a vehicle for expression and connection and life, and nothing puts a stopper on that like a diet. The only thing sizes are good for is guiding us to the decorations we want to put on our bodies in a pattern that will fit. There is nothing more valuable about a size 2 wedding dress than a size 20, and the beauty of the bride can only be measured by the happiness she radiates and the love she receives. (And wedding dress sizes are a madness of their own, so f*** it.)
Here’s where I’m at right now. Today, I am me. And today, I like me. I feel good in my body. And today, I’m happy to be me. And tomorrow might be different. Tomorrow my favorite skirt might be tight and I’ll feel insecure about it. And that’s ok. It doesn’t mean I’m sliding backwards into the darkness of self-loathing and death-defying restriction. It does mean I need to get a skirt that fits.
It doesn’t make me inherently shallow or anti-feminist. It doesn’t mean I’m losing in the struggle it feels like all we women (and men, for that matter) are facing.
Because it doesn’t matter if you win. It only matters that you fight.
– Sasha Hatfield