My favorite outfit of all-time was a kelly green, terrycloth jumper. It had solid block colors across the front in red, yellow and blue, with strings at the shoulders that tied at the top. I loved that thing, but I would only wear it in my bedroom because the shoulder strings exposed my arms. My plump, padded arms. They lacked any definition and for that,
I refused to let anyone see them. This was middle school. I was not, by any means, overweight. My family often joked that I ate like a bird and usually fell asleep before dinner was on the table, but by high school, I was dieting.
I remember walking down the hall in high school and thinking to myself, “Wait a second … is that my rear shaking behind me?” And it was! So I made the necessary changes and started eating a Granny Smith apple and two Quaker rice cakes everyday for lunch, for years. My family didn’t know, but it didn’t feel like a secret. It felt more like brushing my teeth twice a day. It was just something I had to do.
I was already very active. I’m from the generation of kids that immediately went outside to play after getting home from school in the afternoon. I’d also been dancing since the age of six. Everyday, after school, Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings. Performances, Recitals, Competitions, After-school Intensive and Dance Company.
Since I didn’t know where I wanted to go to college, I attended a community college for a year and continued my dance training at the Artistic Dance Centre. I also joined a gym and went to a cardio class everyday. If I couldn’t make the gym, I did one of my mom’s workout videos at home. I felt great! And I was thin. And that felt incredible.
* 17 years old
* 120 lbs
Pretty perfect dancer specs. Or so I thought.
In that same year, I discovered a university whose primary focus was dance and musical theatre performance and that’s when I knew that that university was exactly where I wanted to be.
One hundred thirty-two dancers auditioned for the university’s dance program in 1993. Fifty-seven made it. Sitting in the front seat of my mom’s Volkswagen Cabriolet, parked at the top of our driveway, I opened the envelope from the university and cried when I read the letter.
I was accepted as a Dance Performance Major. I was one of the fifty-seven and I was elated.
This was not your typical dance school. Most colleges focus on Ballet and Modern. This program was modeled after the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, offering Tap, Jazz, Ballet and Musical Theatre with an acute
focus on creating a triple threat … someone who can sing and dance and act, so they’re more marketable in the industry.
Leaving home for the first time, so many emotions swirled within me … excitement, fear, anticipation. I moved from Maryland to the Midwest where the school was planted and fell in love with my decision, my new place in life and the personal path I was beginning to carve for myself. Something about being there on campus, finding and connecting with new people, my people, felt so freeing and meaningful.
With that joy and excitement came hardship, too. At least for me it did. Part of the industry, I learned, pays particular attention to body image. Just as the Rockettes and many other shows do today, dancers are required to make and maintain a certain weight. So in preparation for the real world, we were required to weigh in. No problem, I thought. I was slim and dancing everyday would only make me slimmer. We weighed in three times a semester and our weight was a part of our grade, but as the semesters passed, even though I was a proficient dancer, I began to receive low marks because of my body. It did not match what they wanted.
And then the dance faculty addressed my weight directly. They told me I needed to lose. I was shocked at first. Me?! I mean, I was thin. In fact,
I was thinner than most. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand their logic, but I was also too afraid to ask questions. Instead, I began to watch and study and try to determine how they were making their decisions. It just did not make sense. It appeared to me that they were holding me to the 122 lbs I came in weighing in my freshman year. And while other girls weighed more and had more body mass, if the other girls lost 1 lb, but I gained 3 lbs, they were ‘good’ and I was ‘bad.’
So what did I do? Well, a natural-born people-pleaser, I wanted the dance faculty to like me, so I tried to lose the weight. Dancing 4-6 hours a day and afterwards, hitting the gym, I ate as healthy as I could at the time, but also regressed into binges with friends on the weekends.
So I began to manage my weight in ways I had never tried before. Restrict. Diet. Binge. Restrict. I tried not to eat what I thought was ‘bad.’ I tried to control my eating. I tried to control what I ate, the amount I ate and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d cave and binge. Restrict. Diet. Binge. Restrict. Smoke. Restrict. Diet. Drink. Binge.
God, I hated those next mornings. Peeling myself out of bed with guilt and shame bound to my body like dead weights at my ankles.
I was devastated and at 5’8”, now weighing in at 128 lbs, my body was beginning to affect my path as a dancer. I was cut from the Dance Company and forgotten, or so it seemed, for Choreography Shows. For all the performances, I was required to work backstage, helping dancers make quick costume changes and then re-hang their costumes on hangers, or I was required to work front of house as an usher rather than being onstage where I wanted to be, where I was training to be, where I belonged. It was diminishing. I hated it. I hated me. I hated me for not being able to get this right. I hated me for not being able to fix myself.
I hated my body for failing me, for not losing weight, for its bone structure and for having cravings I couldn’t control. I hated myself. I was ashamed of myself. I was embarrassed that I’d been rejected. Couldn’t they see? Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know how hard I was trying? Apparently not. So I tried even harder.
Restrict. Diet. Binge. Restrict. Smoke. Restrict. Drink. Binge. Diet. Restrict. The cycle continued again and again, until I had an idea.
I decided one night in my sophomore year to try something I’d never done before, but just this once. I was only going to try it once. I ordered a Domino’s pizza for delivery. Again, it was just this once. No big deal. And then, my brighter idea. “If I’m gonna do this, I might as well add ice cream.” But again, just this once. So I raced to the Braum’s on the corner, purchased a hot fudge sundae – no nuts, no cherry – and raced back home before the pizza arrived. Just this once. Just this once. Sitting and waiting for the doorbell, I tried to remember the last time I had had pizza or ice cream, let along both on the same night. Had it been two years? Two and a half? I couldn’t remember, but you know, just this once.
Here we go.
I really don’t remember tasting a thing. I packed it in swiftly and raced to the bathroom. Knees down. Lid up. Fingers down. Food up. Flushed down. Cleaned up. And that was that. Just this once. It was almost a little too easy, but again it was just this once. Yeah. Just this once. Until it wasn’t. Until it was 13 years later.
What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I stop this? Where was my strength? Where was my will? Every time I knelt down to make myself sick, I would prop my elbows on the toilet seat, interlace my fingers, rest my forehead on my clasped hands and sincerely pray, “Please God … please don’t let me die from this. Please don’t let me have a heart attack. I know You’re going to use this for Your will and purposes someday. Just please don’t let me die.”
I tried so many times to stop and I couldn’t. I kept it a secret as long as I could and then I couldn’t. I tried to get help and take their suggestions and I did and then I couldn’t. I went to see a nutritionist, a therapist and a hypnotist. Nothing worked long term. Therapy, with a handful of different professionals, helped for a session or two. I was able to vent
about things I was holding onto and the therapist, who knew nothing of my past, politely sat and listened. I appreciated that, but I needed more.
I wasn’t changing. Nothing was changing. And I was getting frustrated which only lead to more episodes.
This went on for years. When I thought I had it licked, it returned. It rarely got better. It only got worse. One of the therapists even told me flat out, “You know you’ll never get over this. You will have this forever. It will get better at times, but it will never go away.” Her candor shocked me. I refused to believe her. That couldn’t be true. Because I didn’t always have this thing and if I started it, I could stop it. Oddly enough,
it was comments like hers that kept me fighting and so I did. I kept on fighting. I never stopped fighting. I just kept fighting. And it was a living hell.
In my late twenties and through my thirties, I studied under the tutelage of a Spiritual Director. God had had a tug on my heart since my youth and at this time, I wanted to explore more. It was what my Spiritual Director said that finally flipped the switch. Not a switch that turned the disorder off, but a switch that turned me on. A switch that ignited something new in me. Knowing my struggle, she asked me what God would think of me having an eating disorder. I’d never thought about that.
I didn’t know the answer. And when I took time to consider it, I couldn’t connect the dots. What I could do, though, was consider what my dad would think of me having an eating disorder. And that struck something deep within me that started a slow, but continuous shift. My dad had passed away suddenly in my junior year at that university.
I missed him terribly and to think how he might respond to learn that his daughter, his baby girl, his only girl was suffering and struggling and failing and depleted. I could definitely connect to that. It broke my heart and that breaking began my rebuilding.
It didn’t happen overnight, the way I wished; the way it seemed to start. It was and has been a very long road and it is possible. Here are a few of my takeaways:
• Acceptance. Yes, acceptance. I spent most of those 13 years waiting wishing and hoping my life were different, that I was different. Yet, waiting, wishing and hoping only distracted me from exactly what was happening. I was suffering. When I let go of the idea that there was something wrong with me and accepted that I was suffering, I got curious about my suffering. I got curious about me. Instead of running away from me, I started to learn who I was, what I needed and how to meet those needs.
• Start Something New. Have you ever tried to stop something? Like, stop eating after 7pm? Or stop eating the pint of ice cream? Or stop smoking? It sucks! It’s hard! I don’t want to stop anything! I’m not a quitter!!! What I’ve learned I can do is start something. Start something new. Start calling someone you care about when the clock strikes 7pm. Start eating ice cream from a bowl versus directly from the container. Start a new class at the gym or buy a bike and go for a spin. I’ve never been good at stopping anything, but when I start something new, the old thing, the dead thing that no longer serves, starts dissolving into the background.
• Become Your Own Best Friend. For God’s sake, do this. Start treating yourself like one of your own, one of your inner circle, one of your buddies because you are. You deserve the love and attention and kindness and compassion that you probably extend to most other people without a thought or question. For the love of all that is good in this world, toss your loving self into that category. Spend some time with you and give yourself the gift of your own friendship.
• Come Back to Life. Ever notice how much our struggles with body and body image issues cause us to retract and hide from life? I know I did this. A lot. I missed out on so much because I didn’t like the way I felt or looked. Even if I showed up, I couldn’t let myself be seen. I hid inside my life and so coming back to life has been an exciting adventure. Bringing people back to life is essentially what I do as a Coach. I give my clients the tools they need to see themselves and to let themselves be seen. Be in your life. Stand in your life. And whenever you find yourself hiding away, come back. Come back to life.
So do I ever slip up and regress? Heck, yes. Do I still purge? No.
I haven’t for over nine years. I can, however, still put some sugar down, but it no longer takes me where it used to. And when I indulge, I choose the best of the best. The best ice cream. My favorite candy. I only want the best because, for me, it’s the best that satiates.
And when I’m done, I’m done. And I start back clean again. And I rarely feel the guilt and shame for being who I am. Do I still love candy? Yes. Always have; probably always will. It’s just that these days, the difference is, I love me, too, and these days, I choose to include myself in life and living.
My hope is, if you need to, you will get there, too.
I know you can. I know it.
And that, I know to be true.
* * *
For over two decades, Jennifer Cahuantzi, a professionally trained dancer, has worked with celebrity clients as a Pilates Instructor and Personal Trainer – an experience that has inspired her development as a Certified Fearless Living Coach and Certified Fearless Trainer – training people from the inside out.
Through triumphs and trials, getting it right, but more often getting it wrong, struggling with addiction, overcoming addiction and learning to live life versus just survive it, Jennifer has learned some incredible lessons along the way.
Through IgniteSheShines, she expands her clients’ awareness and equips them with tools that empower them to build confidence and stand in the freedom of authenticity.