In college, my non-theatre friends used to make me tell stories about my musical theatre classes, because in their opinion, the insults our program director threw at us were worse than anything Simon Cowell could dish up.
-- "He told us all to go on diets -- then brought donuts to rehearsal!"
-- "He eyed me up and down and said I could have one cookie. Then he pulled this other girl's hand away from the dessert tray and said, 'Ah, ah, ah! You were being sooo good.'"
All of the musical theatre students relished in telling the stories, in defending each other's weights and appearances when he criticized them. We were all "outraged" that he could get away with telling us a size-ten girl could never be an ingĂŠnue.
Looking back, I know why we were so angry with him: We knew deep down that he was right. Appearance matters. Size matters. In the real world, instead of meeting casting directors who see our talents and want to help us be "castable," we met CDs who simply wouldn't call in an actor if they were "too heavy" for a role.
I have too many dear friends who have suffered from anorexia or bulimia to call my particular brand of body criticism an eating disorder. What I will say is that I suffered from (and continue to deal with) what I call my personal disorder trio: the "I Hate You" Disorder, the "How Dare You" Disorder, and the "Compare and Contrast" Disorder.
"I Hate You" consisted of telling myself "I hate you" while running up the treadmill at the highest incline. "How Dare You" was saying "how dare you" when I passed out from overexertion. "Compare and Contrast" was looking at the model on the treadmill next to me who was ambling along at about four mph... with zero incline.
"I Hate You" was my legs in shorts... even after 100 squats a day. "How Dare You" was my brother's naturally skinny girlfriends stuffing their faces with Taco Bell, while I dared to want a bean burrito. "Compare and Contrast" was how their legs looked in shorts (long and lean) compared to mine (short and squatty).
These disorders began when I returned from a tour two years ago and realized I was a size eight, when I should have been an even six. After I easily got back into size six territory (where my body naturally should be), I decided to head to spindly sizeville -- otherwise known as 'four land.'
I'll admit it: With a war in Iraq, with thousands of homeless children starving in my own country, and with beloved family friends dying of cancer, I honestly thought I just might be the unluckiest person in the world. After protein shakes (as a treat!), celery sticks and turkey "roll-ups," I still looked like a stuffed sausage when I put on a size-four pencil skirt.
Eventually, my friends and family gave me an ultimatum: Start eating carbs again, or figure out how not to be a complete raging bitch because you're hungry. I later learned that low-carb or no-carb diets can actually decrease the amount of serotonin the brain produces, causing severe depression. (I think I just really wanted a muffin.)
So I started counting calories. Now I could eat whatever I wanted, but just had to control the amounts. That ended up being what worked for me. I stopped killing myself at the gym, and was overall pretty happy with my body... until an audition five months later.
I was in the final round of callbacks, and the audition panel wanted to conference about me. So they left me in the room and went into another one to talk.
With voices in my head pleading, "Don't do it, don't do it," I peeked at my resume, which was on top of the pile with notes scribbled on it. The first two words I saw changed my entire outlook: "CHUNKY ARMS" was written in all-caps and underlined -- three times!
When they offered me the role, I almost declined it.
"How dare you say that!" I wanted to shout. "My arms are buff. They get compliments. They are one of the only parts of my body that I like!"
I took the role, only to find that whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw chunky arms where once I had seen strong and shapely ones. Certain arm-baring shirts I had always loved starting making their way slowly further and further back in my closet.
Even through summer rehearsals in a non-air-conditioned room, I never wore a tank top.
And the cold hard truth is that the casting director who wrote that about me had every right to do so. The costumes were mostly strapless dresses and fitted baby-tees, and I do not have willowy arms. Luckily, my voice, acting ability, personality, and other aspects of my appearance were enough to get me the job. Weight may not be the deciding factor, but it is a factor.
After a few weeks of "Chunky arms! Chunky arms!" reverberating off my brain and into my Crystal Light, I realized I could either let my three disorders take over again and be miserable, or get over it.
So I found another thing that worked for me, in addition to monitoring calories: Yoga. I found a form of exercise where body image had nothing to do with it.
I started taking more deep breaths and stopped looking around the room to see who was thinner and who was fatter than I was. I replaced "I hate you" with "I love you." I replaced "How dare you" with "Of course you can."
Now I look in the mirror and -- while I don't think Heidi Klum will pass her reign as the "It" Girl to me -- I don't wish I were someone else either. Because another funny thing happened: After I stopped trying so damn hard to be thin... I suddenly was.
Maybe I'm not smaller, but I feel smaller. Maybe it's all in my head that I look pretty damn good. If so, who cares? There will still be parts I can't get because I don't have the right body type.
I will never be the girl at a dance call with the figure everyone wishes they had. But I am happy with it.
I could be skinnier, but I'd be a raging hungry bitch. I could wear shorts -- but then I'd be out $15,000 for liposuction. Or I could just stop, take a breath, and realize that I have a perfectly healthy, wondrously strong body that can run and play, sing and dance, and do yoga. And that is a beautiful thing.