Thursday, January 12, 2017

Confession of an Anorexic/Bulimic Theater Student

I am a recovering actor. I’m not talking about healing from auditions here. No, my recovery is from eating disorders and the oft emphasized importance to actors of their physical appearance and discipline.

I’m not saying theater ruined my life. In many ways, it was quite the opposite. It provided me with a release valve of emotional expression. It was also where I met my wonderful husband, Russell.

As I have worked on my recovery throughout the years, I’ve realized how the emphasis on outward appearance and discipline unfortunately played a confusing role in my burgeoning eating disorder.

At age nine I made my acting debut. I played a baby doll in a Christmas play. As the play was presented to my third grade class, I became obsessed with the role. More than anything else, I wanted to be that character. It occurred to me I needed to audition in a baby doll voice. When the teacher who was casting the play howled with laughter at my reading, I knew I had it locked. That was intoxicating! I was bitten by “the acting bug”.

For that debut there was no pressure to have a thin physique. It was, however, the last time I would experience that freedom in any role I played.

Throughout my elementary, junior high and high school years, I was in numerous school plays. As adolescence unfolded, my body image issues continued to worsen. I was often cast as the dumpy friend or the humorous comic relief character, never the beauty. I was, in short, “the fat girl”.

My self-consciousness followed me into my senior year of high school. During a production of the musical South Pacific, I was doing double duty. I was cast as the French maid and an island native, because I had brown eyes and brown hair. My coloring worked in my favor since many of my peers were blue-eyed and blond-haired. My drama teacher joked about the Scandinavian presence in our school by saying, “The Sons of Norway portray the Pacific Islands.”

My native girl costume consisted of a strapless top and a grass skirt. As I sang and danced to the Bali Ha'i number, I obsessed about whether my arms and shoulders were too big to effectively convince the audience I was a beautiful South Pacific ingénue. Was I too fat?

As a speech and theater major in college, I still wrestled with that question. Anorexia kicked in. College was all about reinventing myself. I needed to be someone else, someone thin. That became my main focus. Because I was only a production assistant or assistant director in my first two years, and not cast in plays, the “fat and ugly” arguments in my head solidified. I wasn’t thin enough or pretty enough to be a leading lady. Instead I was the grotesque gorilla who worked behind the scenes.

So, with my anorexic mindset, I starved and exercised compulsively for hours at a time, gradually weighing less and less, until finally reaching a two-digit weight. This stage in my eating disorder was short-lived. My bulimic behavior took over during my sophomore year. Because of my misery and physiologically ravenous state, I became an eating machine and put on over one hundred pounds in less than nine months. My attempts at damage control – obsessive exercise, diuretics and laxatives – failed me. I was devastated.  My predominant thought was that I wasn’t dedicated, disciplined or deserving enough as a theater student and as a human being. I certainly didn’t deserve any ingénue roles, but that didn’t keep me from wanting those parts.

I again became a stage actress when I transferred to a new school in my junior year of college. After a fear-driven starvation and exercise-obsessed summer, I won a few lead roles in auditions. I was cast mostly in character actor roles, playing crazy women. Nope, no ingénue, pretty leading lady roles for me; but hey, at least I was onstage. That was progress, right?

But this behavior was not without complications. During costume fittings, I again ran smack dab into my insecurities. One had to dress the part, and that was about measurements and fitting into clothes. Oh, the fun of shouting down all the weight and body image voices in my head!

When I was cast as Claire in Neil Simon’s play, Rumors, I was asked what size dress I wore. According to my perfectionistic fears, I wasn’t good enough or thin enough, so I wrote a large dress size. The costume department immediately argued with my assessment and instead gave me a smaller-sized dress. It actually fit! You would think that would have set me at ease and given me some reassurance, but it didn’t.

I was studying the importance of discipline, fitness and adaptation in acting classes, and the importance of the body as an instrument. This emphasized training one’s physical body as part of artistic preparation. A minimum of two hours of exercise a day was recommended. I dutifully obeyed the rule.

Years later, I squirm about this. From a recovery perspective, I realized this two-hour-a-day exercise mandate triggered my eating disorder yet again. Yes, I believe physical exercise is a necessary part of life and health. However, exercise in an eating-disordered mind is often coupled with a set of ritualistic rules or is used as punishment. At the time, I didn’t see exercise as taking healthy care of my instrument (body). I only saw it as a way to punish myself for being a horrible failure of a human being or to compete with other females to win the elusive title of “The Thinnest Actress of Them All”.

Having the body portrayed as an unruly thing that must be subdued by a dedicated, worthy theater student prompted guilt, fear and, yet again, the predominant thought that I was “not good enough”, not now, not here, not ever.

If that was not difficult enough, I also had an incident with a fellow student which further emphasized the “instrument” theory in my head. To be fair, I believe he did not intentionally want to hurt me. He probably saw himself as being helpful.

Oh good, more help.

During a rehearsal for Rumors, this fellow actor pulled me aside backstage. I immediately knew what the topic of our conversation would be. I had put on some weight, and it was visible. He told me he had noticed. He went on to tell me how our bodies are our instruments (there’s that word again), how we need to exercise and take diligent care of them. We couldn’t let ourselves get out of control.

I felt exposed.

I had not revealed to anyone, much less my theater comrades, that I’d ever been anorexic and bulimic or that I was struggling with the entire issue. I did everything I could to hide, lie and deny this ugly and shameful reality.

So, in this cornered moment, I did my best to laugh it off. But it stung. I felt I was a worthless failure.

From that point on, my self-consciousness escalated. Now I not only deeply feared gaining weight, but I also feared being taken to task for it in the name of theater. I feared being labeled, not only as fat, but also as uncooperative, lazy, ugly and untalented. I feared losing roles if I wasn’t aesthetically pleasing (thin) enough for them. I feared any weight changes would be revealed in costume fittings. I feared life would only continue to show me I was a worthless human being, and there was nothing I could do to change that.

My eating-disordered mind was in high gear. I constantly thought, “I’m fat and ugly. I’m unacceptable. I’m a failure.” Mercifully, I somehow managed to complete my college degree, but I was riddled with anxieties, perfectionistic standards and self-rejection.

Since those theater days, my life has taken a different direction, one that involves recovery from my eating disorders and their underlying issues. I am blessed to have written a book and to have numerous articles published on this subject. My faith, hindsight and therapy have helped me come to terms with many memories and erroneous beliefs, including those revolving around my acting experiences.

Theater is an environment for rejection. Anyone who has been told “no” at an audition knows that reality. Critical standards are attached to anything emphasizing art, dance, theater and beauty. I get that. I understand that dedication, hard work, talent, appearance, costumes design, set design and the actors themselves all must factor into the final product. My observations are not about demonizing the study, pursuit or performance of theater.

They are, however, about raising awareness and sensitivity when teaching theater principles. Unfortunately, there are individuals who may be triggered by these regimented disciplines. If there’s going to be so much emphasis on exercise and training, then I believe there should be equally as much education on the potential pitfalls, including eating disorder behavior. Safe havens of support should be in place for those who are struggling with these issues. Indeed, there are acting students who are struggling.

I love the theater. I love seeing an opera, a play or a riveting piece of performance art. I don’t think that will ever change.

I also love acting. Only time will tell if I participate in any more productions.

I now know myself and the triggers which still lurk in unexpected places. Situations with an emphasis on appearance and image are probably not the best for my continuing recovery.

This exploration of my experiences is not about bashing the theater world; it is a love letter to it. I searched for information and statistics on eating disorders in the theater setting and found nothing. I contacted major American drama schools to ask for their help on this subject and was informed they could not help me.

I did discover considerable information about eating disorders relating to dancers, models and celebrities. I know it is an issue in the theater world, perhaps even a dirty little secret no one wants to discuss. How many people fear losing a role or being labeled and stigmatized if they reveal their struggles?

Not everyone who pursues acting has an eating disorder. But for those of us who do, words like discipline, training, instrument and dedication may be interpreted in a radically different way. Unfortunately for someone struggling with an eating disorder, these words can have a literal “do or die” meaning.
That kind of death does not belong in the theater.

Copyright © 2017 by Sheryle Cruse

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