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Taking Up Space For Myself After an Eating Disorder    

Taking Up Space For Myself After an Eating Disorder

Art by FISK

By Gabby Andriello 

I’ve been a dancer all of my life, in love with the art form simply for what it was: movement to music. Dancing was something that came naturally to me. I always felt like my most authentic self when I was performing on stage. When I was 15, I ended up in the pre-professional dance world, commuting by train from Long Island to New York City where I spent six hours each day after school going to back-to-back private practice lessons, technique classes, and endless rehearsals. As I began to follow this regimented schedule during my atypical sophomore year of high school, the new environment fostered a sense of passion and excitement within me that quickly evolved into dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer. 

I was so inspired by the skill level of my peers in ballet class, but I quickly noticed that they were all absolutely dissatisfied with themselves when it came to the shape of their bodies. I didn’t get it–they were breathtakingly beautiful in my eyes. And their physicality aside, they were such incredible dancers. After just a few short months of being surrounded by my beautiful yet insecure peers, I began to question my own appearance during class everyday. If they were dissatisfied with themselves then what was I? By the middle of my sophomore year, I began to see a distorted image of myself in the mirror and I became so determined to fix it, buying into the unspoken fixation on thinness in the ballet world.   

As with many people who develop eating disorders, I thought the answer to all of my problems would be to eat healthier, but this soon spiraled out of control. As I started seeing so-called “results,” I became addicted to the sense of control I had over the way I looked. I actually mistook having an eating disorder for “being put together” when I was really just becoming more distant from who I was. The ballet world only reinforced my new habits, praising me for how small I had gotten, which caused me to restrict my intake more and more until I completely burned out. I felt weak, somedays unsure of how I would make it through the day without fainting. I isolated myself from my friends and started lying to my parents. Soon enough, I had fallen out of touch with my love for dancing and was forced to quit as a result. 

People told me to “just eat,” but my brain was now programmed to prioritize the attainment of a thin body at all costs. I ended up compensating after quitting ballet, developing an exercise addiction which left me running on empty once again. I threw myself into the competitive fitness scene of New York City while juggling being a college student. I took it to extremes because I was still not fully healed, sometimes taking multiple fitness classes a day. Eventually, I became so tired and fed up with this lifestyle that I knew something needed to change. 

Surprisingly, it was 2020 that helped bring me back to myself. As life became simpler due to being in quarantine, I finally let go of the control my disordered mindset had on my life and gained true control of my life back by listening to my heart. I began to enjoy the true simplicities of life as my head became uncluttered from the nonsense my disordered-self had been filling it with for years. I listened to good music, walked to see the sunset everyday, and hung out with my best friend, realizing that I didn’t need anything more than that. With life stripped down to its core, my beautifully complex inner qualities began to shine through to me, as I realized that I had something to offer this world that was not defined by my appearance: a presence filled with energy, knowledge, and spirit.

It all began to make sense to me. I realized that I had spent the majority of my life looking for validation from others. I had spent my youth looking for validation from friends and family. I never felt adequate enough growing up as an artistic and creative individual in my suburban, academic-focused hometown where my friends knew they were going to Ivy League schools by the age of 14. I then spent my years as a pre-professional ballet student looking for validation from the ballet world. I never felt adequate enough in an environment where the preferred dancer had to be as painfully thin as possible to supposedly create “the most beautiful lines.” From there, I spent years looking for validation from my eating disorder-plagued self and its habits. I think of that phase like it was another person, or really more of a demon, who wasn’t truly and authentically me. I thought I would feel adequate enough when I adhered to that person’s rules but it was never quite enough, and there was always more I could do. Little did I know that desire was the root of all suffering. Gaining approval from others and adhering to my disordered self became addicting. The more I reached for something that wasn’t based in reality, the more unattainable it became. I shrunk down to nothing with nothing left to give. 

Last year I finally learned that looking for validation from others was detrimental to my personal growth. I decided to actively stop reaching for unattainable aspirations outside of myself by looking at who I was inside instead, making a point to write down things I loved about myself. I created boundaries for myself from people, places, and things that no longer served me, including my eating disordered-self. This led the way for me to finally take up space for myself and practice elements of true self-care. I began to have meaningful conversations with myself, which then allowed me to attract the good energy I needed in my life. I even had my own dance parties in my room, just for myself. I gained my power back. For years, I sought out an identity based on getting approval from the world around me, dedicating my days to following the rules set by my disordered self in order to get there. But last year, I realized I had everything I needed. 

It pains me that I let people, including my very own demons, strip me of all my precious energy, leaving me running on empty. Still to this day, when I’m having an off day and feeling out of control, the voice of my eating disorder tries to lure me back with a false sense of control. I’m proud to say that I’m in a place now where I can understand that that sense of control is romanticized, and I look back to how miserable and sick I was when I was going through it. Hard days come and go, and this is just part of the recovery process, but there are less and less of them as time goes on. I’m walking down a path of healing, continuing to prioritize myself in every single way possible after being selfless for years. I’ve realized that things get better when you truly put yourself first. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can contact the NEDA Helpline for support, resources, and treatment options by phone or text at (800) 931-2237.

You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.