I remember growing up in the ballet studio: the ways we used to side-glance at each others’ bodies in the ceiling-to-floor mirrors that lined the walls—how the leotards clung to our stick-straight frames, shoulders back, tummy tucked, hair sleekly sprayed to death in tight buns. That was always the smell of the studio—a palimpsest of hairsprays faintly mixed with this competitive bite, this question, “Can you perform this routine without any mistakes?”, any misstep accompanied by sharp scolding, humiliation, laughter in corners. Afterward, as we took down our pins, shook out our hair, slipped into jeans and talked about parties and boys, the question became, “Can you perform being a girl without any mistakes?” The teachers would put their hands on our soft bellies and ask us to suck in, would tell us to be careful not to eat too much ice cream. The floors were constantly slicked with sticky rosin, toughening our satin shoes so that we could pirouette without slipping up. There was never enough though. As I grew older, the perfection I found myself dancing toward always grew more complicated, more slippery, the music more frenetic, the floors painted with sweat and beer, always slipping away.
This was at fifteen years old—a time when I was swallowing media whole. I remember cut-outs from magazines I collected under my bed of movie stars in long silky gowns, and tips on how to be pretty, ways to attract cute crushes. How one of my first memories of hearing about anorexia and bulimia was from Allure, from the mouth of a celebrity, who, upon being asked to comment about another recent star’s struggle with an eating disorder, said that she felt eating disorders often afflicted those who possessed other admirable character traits, like a tendency toward perfectionism. I remember how, one year, upon returning to school, a girl I barely knew was being talked about in hallways, the cheekbones of her face jutting out like angular wings.
The year my father had a heart attack, I remember feeling sick watching him pour thick, white salad dressing onto his sad piles of lettuce, how I sometimes would escape to the bathrooms of restaurants to get away from the smell of food, the sound of mouths chewing. In our household, my mother tossed out the margarine and the butter, and we substituted olive oil for everything. I would press piles of brown paper napkins on french fries to soak up the oil, and still, no matter how much I washed, the scent of grease clung to my fingers.
It took leaving. It took detaching from the world I’d grown up in, turning off the TV, leaving the glossy pages and almost disappearing from pop culture entirely to understand that I had been surrounded—totally, utterly closed in on. It wasn’t until my first year away from home, away from Miami — from plastic surgery operations for seventeen-year-olds, from classmates with supermodel dreams, from a culture where the worth of a person rested on their looks and figure — that I understood what I had been in: this was barely a winnable war. Until then, I hadn’t even realized I was fighting. It was only as a college freshman that I learned how I might let go — how to fight the inner critic that society had told me to obey. It was also there, that first year away from home, that I made a friend who taught me to love myself.
On the outside, my freshman roommate was a girl who could carry enough energy to power a billboard. She would dash through school political meetings, bike over to chemistry classes, go to the gym, and then wipe her whiteboards to write up the next inspiring quote of the week while dancing to Wiz Khalifa. She was pre-med, set on getting into what she deemed was the top sorority, and embodied a roaring determination. But as I got to know her better, I also saw the moments she would take off her outside-happy-overachieving face. A deep weariness would set in and her inner critic would begin to eat her alive.
My first worries about her began when I noticed how she would never join the rest of our friends in the cafeteria for lunch or dinner. Things started slipping further downhill when a chemistry test came back with poor grades. Could she make it as a doctor? she worried aloud. She didn’t want to be one, but she didn’t feel like there was any other choice. I remember how she confided in me that she wanted to be successful in order to make enough money for a plastic surgery operation, so she would finally be beautiful, and then life would be okay. Would it, though? I wondered. Language to share how beautiful we already were escaped me—these types of conversations and words felt trite and unnatural. I’d try and fail to pull them from my tongue.
Some days that year, we felt unbeatable, but there were also days when we would be so tired of life that we would take naps in the middle of the day just to escape. At the end of every day, we developed our own roommate ritual—something I had picked up from a positive psychology conference—we had to name three things that had made us happy or grateful that day. Then there were bad days — I can’t remember how it started, but we called them “teeth days” — days when we struggled to name anything at all that was good or redemptive. On those days, we would say that we were just thankful, thank goodness, that we had teeth. Then, we would chew on this thought together, maybe cry or laugh a little, and go to sleep.
As the months unfolded, things got tough. I could see that my friend was really struggling. On most days, trying to be happy had become for her like trying to squeeze juice out of a dry orange. By March, a perfect storm began blowing in. The sorority she dreamed of joining dropped her on the last big day of rush. Other social dramas ensued. She stopped going to class. She stopped eating. How do you help someone see that they are already — have always been — enough? How do you help a friend who is barely staying afloat? I was bringing her Gatorades and sodas, blocking out the nutritional facts with a Sharpie. I was secretly going to workshops held at community houses to learn more about eating disorders. But I was also making mistakes left and right and saying things so unhelpful that now I cringe just thinking about them.
She ended up taking the last quarter of the school year off. I felt like a failure, as a friend and roommate. But it was with time that I realized it was the most thoughtful and caring choice she could have made. She had gone to get professional help, and been on the difficult journey of finding someone who actually understood her. She had been diagnosed with clinical depression and an eating disorder. I realize now that the best thing I did was try to support her by showing, in the little ways that I could, that I was there for her and loved her no matter what. The more she wrestled with the distance between the perfect person she wanted to be and who she was, the more determined I was to find beauty in who we already were, and who we were becoming. While my friend was struggling, I realized I had no room for my inner critic to take up space or thought. We had enough inner and external demons to fight in one room, and society was always more than ready to throw more in from any window.
When I emerged from my first year of college, I watched advertisements with astonishment, felt alien as I dipped back into my glossy magazines, and understood how strong the current was that tried to deliver us some version of perfect and tried to tell us that we were not enough. I listened to family and friends talk about jobs and acceptable majors, the future, money troubles. The calls for perfection haunted from every direction. Ask any friend, and you will find a similar story—how they have been encouraged to be thinner, whiter, richer, prettier, smarter, smoother, more feminine, more polished, calmer . . . more perfect.
It is everywhere, unrelenting, as well as buried deep inside us—these images of who we are not, of we are supposed to be. Somewhere inside of me, there is always a fifteen-year-old who is dancing and trying not to slip. There is always the haunt of hairspray and the siren-calls of prestige or prettiness. It never quite goes away. But there is a thinness to all of this. Nothing compares to the warm realness of my friend’s voice on the phone as I call her in New York City. Four years later, my former roommate and I have graduated, and we’re still slipping on this floor trying to figure it all out. My friend is strong, compassionate, and just as inspiring as ever, as she complains about her job and candidly discusses city life. She has become a person that others lean on, and she speaks up when no one else will. When we talk, it’s just like old times, making jokes about bad days, feeling glad we have teeth. On some level, the gratitude is still there, resting at the bottom of it all—that we are friends, yes, and that we are hungry for the future. Funny that we chose teeth to be grateful for, we wonder—all the better to bite into this sweet juice of life.