Back to the Places I’ve Left


One Sunday afternoon I take a drive down the spine of California and then cut inland, where I pass through dry brown hills. The landscape is a much hotter, much emptier place. Here, I find a graceless building where I park and go inside to visit Annabel. She is climbing the mountain of an eating disorder and I’m here half out of duty and half out of a belief that I can do anything to help. Annabel knows I climbed the same mountain years earlier, and I wish I could tell her what’s on the other side and believe it myself.

I sign my name in the visitor’s book, and she comes around the corner, hair brushed, face made up, and takes me outside “So we can talk.” She called this a trailer park in her emails, but it’s a permanent structure—the ugliest building in a nice neighborhood.

We haven’t seen each other in four years, but she sits down with me as though we just left off a familiar conversation.

“These other girls,” she says, and rolls her eyes. “Oh my god.”

We are sitting in a cheerless patio, and there is a flowerpot next to her chair filled with cigarette butts. After each sentence, she looks to me for approval, but I’m trying to pretend I’m someone I’m not: serene, wise, on the mountaintop. This means making the face my mother made in photos when she was younger. It’s a very convincing half-smile.

“What’s wrong with them?” I ask, but I see the girls through the windows, lying on couches in sweat pants, and know how unimpressed Annabel must be. One of them, I learn later, is named Julia and used to date the younger brother of a girl who hated me in high school.

“Two of them were in the military,” Annabel tells me, as though this is something we can both agree is insufferable.

When I last saw Annabel, she was a young teenager and I babysat for her family in New York, spending most of my time trying to stop her younger brother from sneaking candy before the housekeeper gave him dinner. I know why Annabel is miserable here. She is away from college and her family’s Fifth Avenue apartment. Away from the parties in New York and the vacations to Europe. Her letters have been an intricate patchwork of vulnerability and optimism, but here, in person, I see she is wearing thin. She hates the other girls almost as much as she hates herself.

Our correspondence over the last few months means we know, for the most part, what each gesture means to the other person, and its back story. When she told me how sick she is, and I tried to stack my own past up against hers. Somewhere along the way it became clear that Annabel had taken this much farther, and during both our correspondence I became aware that I was competing with her, matching story of story, calorie for calorie, until I told myself I should try to lose this game. I know, for example, that this is Annabel’s second treatment center in California­. She was kicked out of the first one—a much nicer place where celebrities go, because she bragged about purging and “it triggered the other girls.” I know she was asked to take an indefinite leave from college and that her parents didn’t know what else to do when she didn’t stop purging or working out once she got home to Fifth Avenue. Now she’s in California, and I promised to visit. What is she shrinking from? What space does she not want to inhabit?

We talk for only a minute about her college friends who started going to the dining commons without her every day. “No one knows how to handle it,” I tell her, but I can see she’s angry and I’m speaking into the wind.

Annabel shows me her feet, which she has carved into with anything sharp she can find. She is wearing sandals, and I’d noticed her feet before she showed me. I’ve also noticed the eroding enamel on her teeth, but we’re pretending those still look healthy.

“They won’t let me have a closet door,” she tells me. “I used to be upstairs in a different room, but I threw up every night in the closet.”

The patio we are sitting in could have been any patio, in any depressing place. One squat cactus sat between us smugly.

“On the carpet,” she adds.

“You’re proud of this, aren’t you?” I ask.

“Yeah!” she says. I can almost remember pride in my own hunger.

“The staff here doesn’t trust me,” she says. “I’m on 24-hour observation. I have to sleep downstairs with a nurse and I can’t shower or pee by myself.” She says she sees herself getting fat. When I respond, I see the shape of my own former body-terror, and it is me: a teenager, leaning against the wall, talking about someone else.

But Annabel is already on to the next story: their daily outings to the park, where she isn’t allowed to walk.

“They make me sit on a yoga mat, but sometimes I find reasons to get up, like today I saw a little boy who needed help, so I ran over and did the monkey bars with him,” she tells me.

I want to say to her: Isn’t it better to be here as we are?


Before ballet class in high school, I used to watch the older girls pile their hair up on their heads with their pale fingers, letting it fall a few times before securing it with pins. I sat watching this over many years, in a corner of a rehearsal room while the class before finished their grand allegro, or in the long dark hallways, all in silence. I sat in the splits, even though I had been warned not to stretch before class. Before the muscles are warmed by repetitions and small circular movements, that start at the ankle and move up the body as though we were climbing in a body of water.

Still, stretching in front of the other girls was a way of showing what you could do before you even stood. Before we could move for each other, we silently bragged by laying on our backs and stomachs and fanning our legs around us. We bragged with our feet, with our shoulders. We bragged with our knees.

Then I went to college in Southern California, hours south of where I had grown up and sat in dance studios there.

“Orange and green foods should always be paired together. Red food is the best. I avoid yellow food altogether, at least before dinner.” My friend Emma said that to me, and as she said it, I wished my hip bones could be ledges for my elbows to rest on. We had just begun college, still immune from the world, where our time stretched ahead like a yawn.

I had begun to eat things in groups of eight. I chewed eight times, ate only eight slices of a banana. I didn’t tell her this, though. I hadn’t yet noticed it, hadn’t yet looked on it with clarity.

“You’re weird,” I said instead.

She massaged her fashion model ankles, and I realized without knowing it that she was beautiful in a way that mattered.

“You take the smallest bites of anyone I have ever seen,” she told me calmly. “You eat like a baby bird.”

Sitting with Emma before a class or rehearsal, I noticed she was never quite still, that she always seemed to sway and writhe under my watchful gaze. I wondered if this burned more calories.

Yet once we began dancing, there was a slowness to her steps, as though she had planned them out before she began moving.

“I want a nap and a chocolate bar,” I said to her.

“How can you eat chocolate? I want a nap and a salad.”

“No you don’t,” I said. “No one wants a salad.”

“Mmm, I love them,” she told me absently while tying her point shoes. She had divided into two halves. One half of her was caught in shadow while the other half glowed in the light of late afternoon.

Once my friend and I moved from the hallway to the studio, we stood at the barre with our legs up on the highest rung. We were eighteen, heads close the way young girls talk. She was the kind of girl men would write songs about. This gave me one more thing to envy. The evening began to soften, and our talk grew tight around us. There were so many small confessions taking place in that room before the teacher came in. Any moment the wisp of a teacher would clap her hands, stand in first position, and gesture to the pianist to begin something slow on the tinny piano. For now, though, we rubbed the taut muscles of our legs and looked closely at each other, speaking with the kinds of smiles people wear when they are discussing things that matter.

Once the ballet teacher came in to the room, and we began our first combination, she went to each of us, stopping to offer up a light touch with the pad of her finger, placing them on the bones she could see. This college dance studio was enormous, and could fit so many girls it was easy to get lost. In front of me a girl did a forward bend, and the teacher walked by, barely nodding. When I bent forward the bones of my butt stuck out, and the teacher traced her finger over the protrusions, and recognized me as one of her own.

“Lovely,” she told me. I danced on, full of my own perfection. With the pad of her finger, she had given me permission. Even now, I have never been prouder. If I couldn’t be the best in the room, I could at least be the thinnest, which, in ballet, I thought could hide what I lacked in technique. It was the day I must have learned how to stand up taller and throw my shoulders back, to know how good it felt to have someone else plant their expectations in me.

When I was average weight, I was an average dancer. When I was shrinking, I was noticed, and when I was noticed, I got the attention I was born wanting. The equation was flawed, but at the time, nothing seemed simpler or truer.

My parents didn’t say anything, although years later, none of us could understand why. Maybe they were too close, and couldn’t zoom away to see the whole frame. My aunt talked to my mom about my shrinking size, but my mom pointed out I had always been tiny, even as a child, and besides, I was dancing so much. And like any addiction, I was good at hiding, saving up all my calories for the one meal I knew I had to eat in front of other people. On one family vacation, I remember getting up at five in the morning to walk for two hours before anyone else was awake. I made plans around mealtimes so I had an excuse to be gone. I told my family, and myself, that I everything fine.

Hilde Bruch wrote in The Golden Cage that starving ourselves is an act of self-assertion for women. Through shrinking, we can enact the terrible loss of control women inherited as soon as we were born, the conflict we face, the needs we hide. By controlling every bite we put in our mouths, and every step we take to work it off, to punish ourselves for taking care of our own hungers, our own weaknesses, our own humanness.

You can fake a lot of things, I knew, but you can never fake ballet. We shaded in our chest bones with eyeliner before a show and kept secrets from each other as if we had been born for no other purpose, even in the dorms and dining commons, where secrets were difficult. We were never frightened of sprains or aches, humidity, endless Chopin nocturnes, nor crowded streets. I felt unsafe staying in one place for too long, needing new opinions as often as I could find them, so I danced quickly, for everyone in the room.

Here was my hope: that one day I would come back to the places I left.


Eight years before I visit Annabel at the treatment facility, I am twenty years old, and I sit in an undershirt in my doctor’s air-conditioned office. She has a checklist in front of her, and when she completes it, I will be able to live in France for a year, where I will eat rabbit twice, read Stendhal in the original, buy a leather jacket, and fall in love for the first time. Of course, I don’t know any of this in the doctor’s office.

“Do you smoke?” My doctor asks.



“Not really,” I say.

“I’m putting down that you have an eating disorder,” she says. I watch as her pen carves the word “anorexia” into the form, and this steals the breath from me. It is the first time anyone has ever said the word to my face, although friends and family have talked around it for years.

“Really?” I ask her. My eyes trace a bleak line to her face, but I cannot read what is written on it.

“I can’t in good conscience write that you don’t have an eating disorder,” she says. And just like that, there is a definition for me. This word has a morbid heart, but rather than sink deeper into its marsh, I take the health form from her, hand it in to the office in my college, and fly to Paris. I spend a year there living on the bright edges of the native world, never allowed fully inside.

One afternoon, as the French autumn is on the verge of turning, the person I have fallen terribly in love with sits across my bedroom from me. He says men love the soft stomachs of women, the animal warmth of them, and I decide, enough. I eat from then on, and love my soft stomach too, watching its form take shape in his eyes. Dusk clicked into place right about I came up for air. These are the memories—a doctor who spoke the right words, and a college boy too—I kept to myself. They show the outlines of what I’m made from. Each day I kept my body small, it was all I had. What it took to heal was to think about more interesting things than my body— the Pantheon, for example, or Pere Lachaise, French literature, the pale pink dress in a store window, the graduate schools I could apply to, and pour myself into that instead. By realizing I could think of other powers I had, I eventually forgot my obsession, and slowly healed. How sad it would have been to ignored Pere Lachaise while I counted my steps through it instead, or regretted the breakfast I had enjoyed in a café. How full life seemed when my stomach was full, and my mind too.

Rather than fight my body, or transcend it, I learn the ways we control our bodies, and the ways we never can. For many years my body was not my own: ballet made it belong to everyone who watched. Women learn this over and over and over, in new and surprising ways: the public nature of our bodies, the impact of learning we exist for another’s gaze. Our bodies are discussed every day on the news, appear in billboards and magazines, become passive, property, beautiful only when told they are beautiful. It is hard to believe we are worth more than our weight, and sometimes impossible not to. Our bodies are grabbed on subways, our bellies are touched when they carry babies, commented on as we walk by an audience on the street. I grew up on stage, in front of mirrors, learning my body was not my own, but the teacher’s, the audience’s, my partner’s. Women know they might be called on to give their bodies away someday, to grow life from scratch and, if we’re lucky, from love. Biologically, we exist to use our body to grow another person, and to protect that body more than our own. There are an infinite number of ways the female body is a home for someone else: for eyes, for shame, for babies, for sex. For love, and love, and love.

I am not allowed to sit with Annabel while she eats, so I go to the street outside and look down at my legs, wrapped in summer. Maybe I sit in the car and read for half an hour. When Annabel meets me in the hallway after dinner, she has been with the nurse, has probably been weighed. She told me earlier in the day that they weigh her every morning and after each meal, but never tell her the number on the scale. She isn’t allowed to drink excessive amounts of water before weigh-ins, but she finds this unreasonable, since she is thirsty when she first wakes up. I remember avoiding water before I weighed myself each morning to decide what kind of day I was worthy of having.
After her mealtime, I go back inside the treatment center and ask where Annabel is. She comes back to the dining room table where I sit waiting to say goodbye.

“I didn’t finish my dinner so they want me to supplement with soymilk because I’m allergic to Ensure,” she tells me. Her words belong to this new vocabulary in which “supplement” is a verb applied to not finishing dinner, and she uses it this way automatically. Although I’m on the other side of this struggle against shrinking, Annabel’s control of her food has shifted the power to her. I’m left performing, pretending, feeling uncomfortable about how much this visit has exposed me to myself.

I sit across from her and watch as she swirls the soymilk around in her glass and takes a small sip. Another young woman sits with us and I don’t know whether to pretend she isn’t there. In the next room over, a fed up woman washes the dishes. I can tell Annabel is tallying up the number of secret sit-ups she will have to do later in her room. She does these after her roommate is asleep, in the fifteen-minute intervals between when the night nurse (in treatment speak this is the “noc shift”) pokes her head in the room. The girls aren’t allowed to close their bedroom doors, and all bathrooms are locked.


The next time I heard from Annabel, she sent me a letter from her treatment facility, saying they were beginning to agree with her: they could do nothing to help. She told me she had not been able to flush her own toilet for three months, and they had taken the door off her bedroom so she couldn’t secretly throw up behind her bed. Her gag reflex was so strong she would purge at the table in front of the other patients, so they made her eat with a staff member outside, which she said was easier because she could just lean over and purge in the bushes. She wasn’t allowed any visitors, not even her parents. She cut herself with razor blades until they found those and took them away. Then she cracked a CD in half and used the jagged edge to spring blood from her thighs in deep, bright rivers. I write back that I hope she forgives herself for this, and for whatever drove her to do it.

Eating is a revolutionary act. Because I eat, I write. Because I eat, I overcome the forces that make me think I should lose ten pounds, that keep me ashamed and shrinking. I learn that growing back from hunger is, for a woman, the greatest form of protest.

Driving home that night I call Justin. He tells me about something he listened to on the radio that had made him cry. That he ever cries is news to me. It was a story about a young girl who was hit by a truck and lay in a coma; the doctors thought she was a vegetable, but it turned out she just couldn’t speak or hear.

“I promise that if I’m ever in a coma and wake up, I won’t forget your voice,” I tell him.


The phone line is quiet for a moment as I drive through the dark. “I want you to promise you won’t forget mine now,” I tell him.

“I promise never to forget your voice,” he says. I hear him breathing into the phone, all the way across the country, where he lives. Being in love with someone 3,000 miles away brings our bodies into a different plane. I loved my own body that night for the simple fact of it, for the day when it would not be a mystery to Justin, for the ways he loved me for my voice, my words, the stories I told that had nothing to do with my own flesh. Without my body, I would not exist, which seems like reason enough to be glad I have one. Falling in love and being apart made my body almost imaginary, and his too. We were equal in this way. The physical world and its illusions of control peeled away, exposing the bright bud of ourselves.

Night claims me as I drive towards the lights of home, and Annabel is maybe exercising, maybe reading the book I brought her. I live back there with her, and in ballet studios with mirrors I had to escape from. I live with Justin in New Hampshire and at home in California and in the whole world all at once. I live outside my body, in other words.

“Tell me about your day,” Justin says. And so I tell him this story, how I shrink, how I grow back.


Rumpus original art by Luna Adler.

Ellen O'Connell Whittet has published essays in Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Salon, the anthology The Moment (Harper Perennial, 2012), and Ploughshares, where she is a regular blogger. She is working on a memoir about ballet and the forces that control the female body and teaches in the Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara. You can find her on Twitter @oconnellwhittet. More from this author →