It is my pleasure to present to you Seattle based dancer/choreographer Catherine Cabeen’s first contribution to My Body My Image. I have long been a fan of her dancing and just recently upon seeing her choreography at Joyce SoHo I was once again won over. However it was my interview with her prior to her performances that moved me to ask her to contribute to the blog. I was awed by her submission, the candor and courage with which she shares her body experience is powerful, insightful and thought provoking. Sometimes the most simple and obvious of truths are the hardest to articulate but Catherine has a way in her writing (much like in her dancing and choreography) of telling her story with clarity and force. It is my honor to welcome her into the forum!!!
Respect In Retrospect-
by Catherine Cabeen
A few weeks ago, I spoke with forthright Theresa Ruth Howard about the body. In particular we discussed the large female body and how being called “too big” affects young female dancers. It was a stimulating conversation and one that left me pondering how drastically our perceptions of our bodies change during our lifetime.
I am absolutely a dancer who can attest to the damage done by eating disorders. My late teens and 20s were rife with in- and out- patient clinics for anorexia and bulimia. I was kicked out of college so that the school couldn’t be held liable for the impending heart attack they saw coming in my obsessive self-starvation. After leaving college I went to a professional training program for dance, which celebrated my emaciation with a scholarship. At 5’10’ and 105 lbs I was terrifying my family, but getting roles in the student ensemble. Needless to say, this was confusing. The dance world’s celebration of unhealthy aesthetics made the road to health long and professionally treacherous. As I fought to understand the balance between eating and fitness, and to develop an understanding of the simultaneous interconnectivity and separation of dance and life, I also had to weigh my own physical survival against professional success. However, when I think about the issue of body image in relation to size now, I find myself furious. I am sad that thousands of young people have been physically and emotionally hurt by our culture’s obsession with thinness and the dance world’s perverse amplification of that aesthetic. But far overpowering my sorrow is anger, because our getting hurt was SUCH A WASTE OF TIME!!!
Now that I have sat with friends who have lost legs and breasts to cancer, now that my friends young and older have gone before their time, now that my own body has experienced injuries so severe that I’ve had to relearn how to walk several times, to hate the body because of what it looks like seems like an obscene luxury. This collection of flesh and blood that we move through and conduct with spirit and desire, is not a burden, it is a gift, and a gift that we are given only briefly. To be able to dance is a freedom that we can enjoy for a short time in our life while we are “temporarily able-bodied.” How is it that in a life so precious and fragile, we have convinced so many young girls to be so obsessed about their looks? This obsession is nurtured to become so all consuming that many young women don’t have time or energy to dedicate to work they could be doing to feed their spirits, let alone to help their communities and environments improve. Our world currently needs creative solutions to chronic problems, but creativity takes energy. If, in order to fit into a size 2, youth don’t literally feed their minds, our culture will stagnate in its attenuated numbness. We need to encourage each other to focus our energy on using what we are, rather than judging what we are. Otherwise we will continue to fetishize the surface of things and, in doing so, miss the brief opportunity we have in this lifetime to experience our own vitality.
In addition to revealing the fact that our bodies are a temporary gift, not a messy cage, life has provided me with several opportunities in the last decade to understand the incredible value of physical resources. I lost my job and home in the recent economic crisis, and not long after, I began to have trouble affording food. ACTUALLY not having enough to eat has revealed dieting in particular, to be a first world solution to a first world problem. A great deal of the planet is desperately fighting to find enough to eat. In this world with dwindling natural resources, how dare we lament the temptation in our swollen supermarkets?
In America in 2011, we don’t so much live in a time of plenty, as one of unconscious insulation. Mega-stores and super-markets, bursting with growth hormones and genetically modified, pre-packaged “engineered nutrition,” have masked the on-going environmental devastation that our cultural obsession with instant gratification is causing. By producing and shipping food products in ways that deny human rights or environmental protection, America is masking its own poverty. Imported, out of season, greenhouse crops and super-sized “foods” are illusions of wealth that are in fact creating new diseases of overindulgence. The diet industry banks on the confusion that has been induced by culturally celebrating quantity over quality in American food products. In this self/culturally-imposed struggle, we lose track of the innovative work of redistribution of wealth that we could be doing to make the world a better place. Perceiving the human body as a celebrated sense organ connects us to other human life, as well as the life of the planet. Acknowledging this interconnectivity, and the responsibility it implies, exposes the real cost and luxury of the foods we eat.
Though Eating Disorders gave me a temporary respite from being called “too big,” I was still “too tall,” “too loose,” “too emotional…” There didn’t seem to be any escape for being too something in the dance world. Now having studied dance history I know that being “too” anything is actually always what catapults choreographers into the history books. Though we might get jobs in the field for looking like someone else, the movers and the shakers in the field do so because they don’t fit into the status quo, or the costume that’s already on the hanger. Modern dance is a history of idiosyncrasy and rebellion, a celebration of self-representation in defiance of being culturally silenced. This revolution takes calories.
I was incredibly fortunate to be introduced to yoga in the depths of my self inflicted struggles with my body weight, and it remains an anchor in my understanding of balance and wellness. On my road to recovery a yoga teacher said something to me that has always stayed with me, “Your body is the channel for your spirit.” She said, “And if you don’t take care of the channel, your spirit won’t be able to do what its meant to do in this lifetime.”
May we all find ways to support our own spirits and, by living in love with our bodies, give others permission to do the same.