Writing and the Body

Cover of Writing and the Body

I’d probably been using the words gross and disgusting to describe my writing for months before I noticed them. My internal self-talk has never been overrun with kindness or tact, so it wasn’t hard for them to sneak in. But one morning last fall, as I prepped for a session with my writing group, I could no longer ignore them. I pressed send on my pages and cringed, imagining the other writers’ disgust upon reading my essay about my Cajun grandmother. My inner-monologue was typical: My title’s so bland! The river metaphor is completely cliché! My conclusion is so cheesy! Why was my writing so, well, gross? I felt the urge to shrink my pages into nothing—delete, delete, delete—exactly as I’d wanted to disappear my body, first in ballet class at age eight, and then everywhere else.

Growing up, ballet was more than an after-school activity: it was my identity, and by third grade, it bloomed into a passion that bordered on obsession. For Christmas, I asked Santa for new leotards; I checked biographies of Maria Tallchief, Gelsey Kirkland, and George Balanchine out of the library; and I hung posters of Baryshnikov on my bedroom walls. At recess, I corralled other girls at school to play a make-believe game about dancers in New York preparing for Swan Lake. And several hours a week, I stood before a giant mirror in a form-revealing black leotard, appraising myself as I stood next to the Jennifers and Melissas in my class—all of whom had bodies that were smaller than mine. The mirror delivered the proof. My thighs rubbed together as I drew my feet into first position, while light streamed through their spindly legs. More evidence: our ballet teacher constantly reminded me to suck in my “pumpkin stomach,” a request never made of the Melissas and Jennifers. By the time I celebrated my eighth birthday, I hated my body as much as I loved to dance.

My body-disgust deepened at ages nine, ten, and beyond, as I continued to absorb culture’s toxic messages about the superior value of the slender body, a message taken as gospel in a 1980s dance studio. No one taught me to question these messages; no one informed me they were misogynist directives straight from the bleak heart of patriarchy. My body was wrong and that was a fact.

After I submitted my pages to my writing group, I considered skipping the meeting. I got so worked up that I convinced myself that my words were not simply pedestrian, but actually damaging. My words will murder them with boredom! When the session started, I logged on reluctantly, cracking self-deprecating jokes and bracing for my turn. Of course, none of the feedback from other writers sounded as harsh as the voice in my head. In fact, most of them offered praise along with reasonable suggestions about how to strengthen the narrative. I took notes, hoping a saner version of Christie would eventually revise the work. It hadn’t killed me to expose my rough draft to the writers I respected.

“Christie, sweatshirt off,” my ballet teacher scolded me from across the room almost every class. We were allowed to swaddle our bodies in extra clothes for the warm-up at the barre, but when we advanced to the center of the room, leotards and tights only. Sweat ran down my back as heat rose from our dancing bodies, but I clung to my layers. I endured the pain of my reflection for the transcendent moments when I mastered a tricky brisé combination or completed a series of fouetté turns en pointe. Ballet added considerable joy and dimension to my life, but that damn mirror kept reflecting my body, which fell farther from the ideal every year. My belief about the wrongness of my body echoed in my teacher’s comments after class. “Do you know the egg diet? Three eggs for breakfast, three more for lunch, and then three for dinner, but that’s it all day. High protein. Results in a week.” She was trying, I believed, to help me reach my potential. Thank you, I whispered. I was thirteen years old and two months from discovering bulimia. 

The night after I survived my writing group, the shame flared again—it shot through my chest, inky and spreading. Why was my work so disgusting? Why couldn’t I write with gravitas like Roxane Gay or sophistication like Eula Biss? With these thoughts swirling, I logged onto a virtual conversation between Jami Attenberg and Patricia Lockwood about Attenberg’s new memoir. I listened to their discussion, and my eyes filled with tears at the keenness of their insights and the beauty of their work. I’ll never be like them. I should quit. 

I first considered quitting ballet in seventh grade—my body in the mirror was too much to bear—but I learned a trick: I taught myself to glance only at my fingertips in the mirror and to let the rest of my body slip out of focus. By the time I reached high school, I could spend twelve hours a week in ballet class without actually seeing my body. At ballet camp in Colorado the summer I turned fourteen, we danced in open air tents where, instead of mirrors, we gazed out at the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The freedom from my reflection improved my dancing—for the first time, I could complete a three-revolution pirouette with no bobbles, and I could sink into a grande plié with every single muscle engaged for a full sixteen counts of music.

But over the next two years, my breasts swelled to D-cups, a size incompatible with the idealized ballerina figure, and I snapped. One afternoon, I simply couldn’t do it. “I’m not coming to class today. I think I’m done. I’m sorry,” I told my teacher over the phone, and then sat on my bed, wiping hot tears with the back of my hand and wishing, for the thousandth time, I had a different body, one that would allow me to stay. That day, I made a promise: I would never again practice an art that demanded exposure of my body. In the future, I could take up any kind of art I wanted—banjo, abstract painting, documentary film-making—so long as there was no leotard and no mirror, and thus, I believed, no shame.

Was I going to abandon writing in the same way I cut out ballet three and a half decades ago? I hoped not, but when the shame overtook me, I fantasized about leaving it behind. No more early morning writing sessions. Goodbye to the steady stream of Submittable rejections. Adios to all the essays I couldn’t get right after seven or eight drafts, and good riddance to the waves of envy I felt about other writers’ talent and shiny opportunities. I had a law degree and two school-aged kids so I could easily fill up my writing time. I wanted to stay, but I needed relief from the shame. The 15-year-old ballerina with too-big breasts was now a 48-year-old writer struggling on the page. 

Quitting ballet didn’t solve my body problem, by the way. Haunted by my “gross” image and hobbled by years of repressed emotions, including considerable rage at a culture that taught me to hate my body, I dove into bulimia. I binged and purged through all the high school milestones: before and after prom (junior and senior), AP exams, college applications, ski trips, my first sexual experiences, and graduation.

Once I reached college, I paired bulimia with starving and binge-drinking. Following a near-date rape after a day of extreme restriction of food and unrestrained Jell-O shots, I skidded to a physical, emotional, and spiritual bottom. It was clear that my body—that I—would not survive if I didn’t get help.

I landed in a 12-step recovery program for disordered eating where I met other women who binged, purged, starved, and sometimes used cruel words to describe their bodies. Through recovery, I slowly began to untangle the consequences of having believed my body was “gross” and “disgusting” for most of my life. I learned that thanks to body dysmorphia I hadn’t seen my body as it actually was for many years. Maybe ever. 

In early recovery meetings, I asked long-time members a version of this question: “How am I ever going to stop hating my body?” Months into recovery, my vision was still so distorted that even though my body fit into a size zero dress and I’d stopped getting my period, I believed I should eat less. The women in recovery offered sound advice: “Reach out to us. Don’t suffer alone.” If I wanted to recover from bulimia and body dysmorphia, I would need to expose my toxic thoughts in real time. I would have to call a near-stranger and admit my dis-ease. This vulnerability and exposure felt as frightening as standing in front of the mirror in a leotard. I did it, though. I stood in my dorm room, dialed a near-stranger’s number, and when she picked up, I told her the truth. “My thighs are too fat; I can’t study for my sociology exam.” She didn’t recoil or hang up. She said something magical: “Me too.” And I began to get well.

Was there a way to heal around my writing shame? I didn’t know, but figuring it out on my own wasn’t working, so I shared my distress with my friend Krista, a printmaker and textile artist. 

“A version of the shame I once attached to my body has seeped into my writing.” I said. “I don’t know what to do.” 

“Yes, you do,” she said. “Whatever you’ve done to lift yourself out of a self-hate spiral around your body, you must now do with writing.” As Krista spoke, I realized that my decades’ long struggle with my body image, self-disgust, and fear of exposure was the perfect preparation for my life as a writer.

And of course Krista was right. I knew from experience that my perception of my body, so distorted from years of patriarchal pummeling, could only be restored to something like sanity if  I opened my mouth and shared my anguish with others. I had to apply the principle of sharing to my artistic practice. 

“I’m going to text you every time I sit down to write,” I told Krista, and she agreed to do the same when she worked on her prints. We responded to each other’s messages with the praying hands emoji and affirming messages. Yes to art! You’ve got this! Enjoy your creativity! My texts to Krista reminded me that when I went to the page, I didn’t have to do battle alone. 

It was a good start.

I can’t write anything worth a damn I texted my friend Tanya after I spent the morning writing a lackluster third draft of an essay. Tanya responded by sharing her own revision woes, and I immediately felt lighter in my body and more connected to her. The next time I felt a wave of dread after re-reading my day’s work, I dashed off a text to Joyce, who reminded me of our favorite quote from Richard Blais, the self-deprecating modernist chef who won the 2010 competition on Top Chef: All Stars: “I hate everything I do,” he said right before winning the whole competition. 

Matt, a musician and writer, fielded a crisis text from me by citing the Julia Cameron prayer from The Artist’s Way: “Okay, God, you take care of the quality. I will take care of the quantity.” 

Within a few weeks, I’d texted almost a dozen artists to report falling into the lie that my work was so gross and unreadable that I should quit and take up origami or quilting. Each response offered me both compassion and communion. 

If I wanted to stick with the practice of writing, I would have to work with words on the page and the feelings lodged in my body. 

Why is this so hard? I texted my friend Jonathan about the writing process. Then I tried to answer my own question. Putting work out into the world is akin to asking if we deserve to exist, right?

I think so, Jonathan wrote.

Hadn’t that always been my question about my body? 

Did I deserve to exist, even though my body had failed at being thin enough?

Could I still dance, even though I had curves and flesh where bones were preferred?

Was I allowed to write even though I could name dozens (hundreds?) of writers doing it better than I ever could?

At my next writing group, I mentioned the shame. “It’s as bad as standing in front of the mirror as a body-dysmorphic teenager in a leotard.”

“Of course it is,” said Lois, a Portland-based writer who’s been publishing books and award-winning essays for years. “Writing comes from your body. Writing is the act of telling stories that live in your body. You took your first writing classes at Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing Center. If you were trying to get away from your body, you picked the wrong art form.”

As Lois spoke, I felt like the dizzy-eyed cartoon character right after she gets hit over the head with an iron skillet. In all my conversations about shame and writing, I’d never made the connection that Lois had. Yes, I thought it was uncanny that my writing shame echoed so closely the shame I felt about my body—I used so many similar words. But I hadn’t realized it was the exact same shame. 

Every piece of writing I’ve ever done—essays, memoir, Instagram captions, emails, texts—has exposed me. I’ve signaled what I care about, what makes me laugh, what I remember, what I’m hung up on, what humiliates me, grieves me, disgraces me, and saves me. And I’ve written it all from my body: the thrill of that first purge in my childhood bathroom and the devastating numbness after bad sex with a man I didn’t know well or like at all. Once, I scratched my arm until it bled when I received cataclysmic news I didn’t know how to process, and six years later I turned that body memory into paragraphs on a page.

I’ve dragged my body to the page and let it speak its memories and sensations. I cannot write without connecting to my body; that’s where all my stories live.

Lidia Yuknavitch says, “[T]he body has a point of view,” and she places her body at “the forefront of [her] stories . . . as opposed to receded in the background.” This foregrounding of the body is exactly the kind of writing I love most and what I endeavor to do in my own work. It’s why I write about the white hot coil of rage in my belly, the tendrils of despair that drape my heart, and the current of desire that sparks between my legs. And because I put my body into my work, into the foreground, is it any wonder that I might feel that same dread and disgust that drove me out of the ballet studio forever?


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