#TruthBooking: I recently shared an essay remembering the Oklahoma City bombing through my lens as a 20 year old fresh out of treatment for an eating disorder. I didn't expect the response to that piece that I received from all of you. Thank you for taking time to see and hear me.
During my hospitalization, I was fortunate to be under the care of one of the most respected dietitians in the world, a woman named Leah Graves. We connected almost instantly over our love for ballet and dance, and today I consider her a cherished friend. People like Leah who spend their lives in the trenches of mental illness are unsung champions. Eating disorders are unique in the world of addiction in that (ideally) we have to face food three meals a day. Recovery is a complicated, slippery slope, often riddled with relapse and setbacks. Truthfully, the losses are many and the victories are hard won. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and at least one person dies every 62 minutes as a direct result of the disease.
We talked a good deal in treatment about the cultural pressures and media ideals for thinness. Many a group art time was spent cutting out magazine images, grappling with the photoshopped lies we are fed versus the far from perfect realities of our bodies. The distorted mind of the eating disorder does not listen well to ideas like these. We'd paste together visions of health and words in hopes of breaking through the critical voices that had hijacked the intercom echoing self-loathing in the halls of our minds.
I'll never forget being asked to draw an outline of my body as I see myself on white butcher paper spread out on the floor. I thought, "I need wider paper. My body won't fit here." I could feel panic rising in my chest, thoughts racing. I was nowhere near the thinnest girl in the room, and despite my efforts, I would never be thin enough. I could never disappear enough. I didn't need paper proof of how disgusting my body was. My therapist nudged me on in the exercise. Go ahead, her reassuring nod prodded. Marker in hand, I knelt down. Tracing as wide as I could go, the outline of my body as my mind saw her in the mirror slowly appeared. The group leader then told us to lay down on top of our paper, and a fellow patient was tasked with tracing our bodies in real form. When finished, I stood up and averted my eyes, turned my body away from the paper. I didn't want to see what I already knew.
Eventually, with much encouragement, I looked. There inside my distorted beached whale image of myself, inside the red lines pushed all the way to the edges of the white butcher paper, was the traced blue form of an average-bodied curvy girl. Many, many inches separated my eating disordered mind's view of my body from my body in reality.
I honestly don't recall how it came up, but Leah started talking about Barbie one day. The iconic doll is such a tangible example of the distorted ideal young girls and women are inundated with ad nauseam in our culture. For instance, Barbie is so top heavy she would have to walk on all fours. And when her proportions are divvied out over a real life body, she'd have a BMI of an anorexic, be 5'9" with a shoe size 3. The idea never left me after that- from when we are just little girls, we're being sold a lie about what we are expected to be. One conversation, one therapeutic art collage at a time, my mind shifted to see the truth. This process was decades in the making.
I began writing songs to learn how to express my feelings so I wouldn't die. Honestly? Deep down, I never thought anyone would want to hear the songs. This makes me chuckle now. At twenty years old, I woke up to my life and realized for the first time ever that it was okay to have my feelings. That I had the right to an opinion about how my life would play out, what path I would take. That I didn't have to please everyone. These revelations led me to leave Indiana University and my opera major behind for a move to Nashville in hopes of carving out a life that was authentically mine.
Because I wrote for my mental health, when an emotional epiphany happened in therapy or while journaling I would grab my guitar and try to write a song. Most of my writing in my early 20's happened this way.
And so it was one afternoon, fresh with feelings I sat down to write. I penned two verses but no chorus. I was angry and compelled to finish the song in order to process my emotions, it felt like an issue of urgent importance to my insides. No matter what I tried, I couldn't write a chorus for the song. I enlisted my friend Lizzie to help, and we got nowhere. In my frustration, I began to sing about Barbie as a joke. As we laughed, I kept on making things up in jest. At some point, Lizzie grabbed my journal and jotted the whole bit down. And thus was born, The Barbie Song. Because of how it was written, the song takes a minute to unfold. And the measurements aren't exactly correct, but who's counting, the point is clear.
For years, I was known for this song. I sang it at the close of every show, got requests for it on the regular. Around the time Orchid was released in 2010, I began to close the show with Generous Friends. Somewhat imperceptibly, The Barbie Song faded from my standard setlist.
In time, I will say much more about all this. (Did I mention I'm writing a book?!) How I came to be the girl who couldn't see herself, who couldn't bear to look at herself. How I fought to be the woman who saw what was really there, not just the tracing but the substance, the worth. How I learned that she is beautiful and deserving of care just as she is. How today I look at her and smile. This morning on a different thread, I was reminded of this part of my story. For those who have never heard it, enjoy. I know the rest of you will be singing along.
For more #truthbooking and a free download of my latest record full of songs and stories to help us feel less alone, see the sign up button at the top of the page. If you're already signed up, I'd love it if you'd take a moment to follow me on Spotify. As silly as it seems, this is incredibly helpful for independent artists like me.
If you, or someone you love are struggling with food and body issues, National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has resources to help. You are worth it.
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