Because my mind is odd at the best of times, that's the first thing I thought of when I selected an ARC entitled How It Feels to Fly, by Kathryn Holmes. The book is actually about ballet. Aha, flying with arabesques and so forth. Got it. The other reason that this book intrigued me was that it was supposed to talk about BDD (body dysmorphic disorder).
Unfortunately, this book was fail upon fail, culminating in a big, sloppy, hot mess. Honestly, I don't know where to start with all of the wrongness here. Perhaps I should find something nice to say.
Well, this had no glaring grammatical errors and the prose was straightforward, with no tendencies toward purple that mental illness, body image, and other Issues tend to bring out in an author's writing. So, there's that.
But! Samantha is a ballet dancer who is spending three weeks at Perform at Your Peak summer camp, which supposedly cures "elite teen artists and athletes with anxiety issues." She has panic attacks, but throughout the entire course of her treatment, she never tells a therapist or another adult why. They all assume that's performance stress.
Sam hates her body. Everything about her is "wrong" or "gross." Her body has betrayed her, and now she's trying to starve it into submission. In the mirror, Sam doesn't see strength, but a "bubble butt" and "thunder thighs" and "C cups" and the ever-present tummy pooch. Her account of the tragedy of gaining fourteen pounds involves the evil "soft curves" and "hint of an hourglass." Ballerinas don't have curves, Sam tells herself. They don't have muffin tops. But a lot of them have mothers who project their failed careers onto their daughters and encourage them to have an unhealthy and unrealistic view of their bodies that borders on acidic loathing.
What really gets my goat about this book is that it had the potential to be a thoughtful examination of how we see our bodies and how we can work on not hating the marvelous biomechanical machine that lets us move. Instead, this book is about hiding, about compromise, and about magical epiphanies. Oh yeah, and the creepy counselor romance.
I'm unsure why Sam's therapist would send her to a camp for gaining confidence when no one seems to understand why Sam lacks confidence. She's mocked at ballet for having a non-ballet-acceptable body. Her mother encourages disordered eating and regards her daughter as a project to be shaped and molded into the perfect ballerina. Even the doctor at camp, who notices Sam refusing to eat, gives half-hearted exhortations to eat all her meals, but never addresses the underlying issues.
Objectivity is impossible when it comes to books about disordered eating, body image, and weight. These are issues that I struggle with daily. Things are a lot better than they used to be, but I don't think I'll ever be "cured." I focus on surviving. So as I read this, I identified a lot with Sam, and I looked at her situation versus mine, and I was so, so grateful that I had people to support me and show me how to claw out of that deep pit of purging and restricting and loathing myself with the heat of a thousand suns.
I was a chunky teen. I didn't eat right and I preferred binge-watching BBC miniseries on VHS (OLDNESS ALERT) to moving. I hated team sports and I live in a state where "winter is coming" could be the year-round slogan. I had boobs, which meant that running was painful unless they were lashed down under two bras. But as a senior in high school, I wanted to lose weight. I wasn't healthy and I didn't feel good. So I worked out and stopped eating weird fake foods and I lost weight. I have a feeling that it's weight I would have lost anyway--I was only sixteen, and looking at my face then versus my face at twenty? Yeah, it was a lot of baby fat.
I thought I was in a good place. But as a competitive person, I wanted to lose more weight. In high school, we had the opportunity to take dance instead of gym. I leaped at the opportunity because the idea of sharing communal swimsuits was so repulsive that I got the dry heaves. Oddly, I took to dance, even though I wasn't tiny. I liked the precision of ballet: it was control. My teacher liked my hyper-flexible hip joints and pushed me to developpé higher and to do the splits deeper. Modern dance had the core of ballet but the freedom of emotional expression. I loved that even more.
In college, I had the opportunity to take modern as an elective. I would go and dance for an hour and a half, trot across the street for a latte, and make myself throw it up. Rinse, repeat. If my teacher knew what I was doing, she would have smacked me. I moved on to jazz dance but didn't change my behavior. I knew I wasn't going to have a dance career, although I was offered places in small dance companies. I didn't develop an ED because of dance, but I used dance to supplement my disordered behavior. I wish I could go back to a dance class and experience it as pure movement, without being in that bad college place. Maybe I will, one day.
So when Sam talks about her love for dance, I could understand. I also understood the feeling of looking at your body and feeling that it's not good enough, wishing that you could just rip off the handful of fat on your stomach and cast it away. And I wished--so badly--that someone would help Samantha. But no one really does. Dr. Lancaster, the therapist at camp, helps her see that her issues have to do with control, but she never acts to get Sam more intensive help. The expectation is that Samantha will return to dance, when it's the mostly unattainable aesthetics of her dance form that are making her go crazy.
Sure, Sam repeats a few mantras, like "I am beautiful" and eventually joins a summer intensive for modern dance, but it's very clear that this is settling. It's a compromise. Sam's body is not good enough for ballet, so she's failed.
And then, the kicker: we find out that Sam used to purge, but as she explains, "I stopped." At this point in the story, she's talking to another camper who "used to cut" but who also stopped. Thinking back on when I used to purge, I wanted to stop. I really, really, really did. I hated what I did, but I felt trapped, like that was the only way for me to "not get fat." I was ashamed of myself, and I was in no mental place to decide to just stop. That's not how it works. So the author is also saying, "Hey, you can try out bulimia, but you can stop if you want to."
Surprise, surprise, Sam doesn't tell her therapist any of this either.
But we know Sam is "cured" when she agrees to take on a challenge from another campmate.
" 'Is this new roommate of yours smaller than you?' Zoe asks. 'Yeah.' 'We're going to need a picture of the two of you together. In your tightest dance clothes. No hiding. No slouching. Got it?' I make a face, but I say, 'Got it.' "Are. You. Kidding. Me. Sure, send the girl with low self-esteem into another spiral of self-loathing by forcing her to compare her body to her roommate's.
There's also this bizarro one-sided romance that Sam has with her peer advisor, Andrew, who is in college and thinks that flirting is a great way to boost self-confidence. I am so, so tired of vulnerable girls being predated by older guys who backpedal and claim "I thought you knew where the line was." Cry me a river, Andrew.
And that's it. That's the book. Sam doesn't make any lasting changes to her thought patterns. I'm afraid for her, even though she's fictional, because her actions will make impressions on the very real girls who will read this book. And that makes me so angry. So. Angry.
If you want to dance, dance. You can dance with boobs (and Sam, honey? A c-cup is not that big. I'm three sizes bigger than that and I workout just fine, thanks). You don't have to become your mother. You can love dancing without making it an obsession. Because guess what? The odds of becoming an elite professional dancer are very, very small. And right now it's Misty Copeland's reign and it is glorious.
I would not recommend this book at all, especially to girls who think that their bodies aren't good enough. Your body is yours. It does amazing things. If you feel out of control about your body, please seek professional help. The size of your jeans or the number on the scale has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with your sheer awesomeness as a human being. So go out and dance. Play soccer. Play video games. Do what you love and don't regret it.