Shrinking

It always seemed fitting to me that, in order to follow the white rabbit, Alice had to shrink—that she was denied access to another, ostensibly better world until she made herself smaller. The scene itself comes early in the movie, after her tumble down the rabbit hole, when she finds herself stuck in an antechamber facing a locked door. The door tells her she won’t fit: “You’re impassable.” “Impossible?” “Impassable. Nothing is impossible.” So she takes a few sips from a bottle: drink me. In a series of pops—at least, that’s how Disney imagined it in 1951—she shrinks to the size of a mouse—and stops just shy of disappearing completely. (In the words of the sentient door knob, “you almost went out like a light!”) There’s some back-and-forth business with the key, which she’s left on the now-humongous table, but eventually, a miniature Alice walks through the door into Wonderland.

To me, this made sense. After almost two decades of ballet school, in my mind smallness equalled access: the tinier the ballerina, the more likely she was to get the role. Not only was she easier to throw around onstage, a male dancer’s hands circling effortlessly around her pinprick waist, but her slim body was almost always deemed more pleasurable to watch, a tender green stalk undulating in the breeze. I have always been small, always stood out for my smallness. At summer camp I was picked to star in Thumbelina, and I played the titular role with a shy sort of pleasure as the other characters fought over me, each wanting some claim to my beauty and goodness as telegraphed by my diminutive size. (“For you’re no bigger than my thumb,” went the chorus. “Sweet Thumbelina, you’re the one.”) My takeaway: small things are adorable, beautiful, covetable. If you are small enough, everyone will want you.

So I made myself small. I developed an obsession with tiny things—figurines, dioramas, those miniature food videos on BuzzFeed. My cat has never grown past kitten size, and I’m unduly proud of her for it. “Tiny waist!” a former partner exclaimed on one of those sweet early dates, wrapping their (equally small) hands around my middle, accentuated that night by a tight plaid catsuit. I laughed and pretended to be embarrassed, but really I was pleased they’d noticed because it must mean they found me desirable—it must mean they wanted to keep me. I shrunk myself in other ways, too. Where most people have a mental membrane that helps them sort through criticism, absorbing what’s valid and repelling what isn’t, I installed a conveyor belt. I took in everything. I shrunk. The more I cared the worse it became, this subjugating of myself to center the needs of someone else—someone I was sure wouldn’t object to me if I became so small they all but forgot I was there.

Last week, curled in a ball on my therapist’s couch, I disclosed a different kind of shrinking. I couldn’t eat, I told her. According to the bathroom scale, I’d lost 5 pounds in 6 days—alarming for any body, particularly one on the smaller side. And for once, it wasn’t deliberate. Food repulsed me. I’d put down my fork after a bite or two, too nauseated to continue. Breakfasts consisted of a single apple. I put off lunch until 3 p.m. Dinner was several bites of cottage cheese, shoveled into my mouth as I fought my own body to keep it functioning. I’d never felt more exhausted, unfocused, adrift. I asked her, in essence, what the fuck was happening to me, and she explained that loss of appetite is a byproduct of grief: “This is what heartbreak feels like.”

In a way, this was validating: confirmation that my sadness was taking a physical toll. “I’m so devastated I’ve lost 5 pounds,” was an easy way to explain myself to people who asked—to give them some idea of the feeling that stuck to my bones, making it difficult to move. On the other hand, it felt like a betrayal: my heart directing my body to make itself small—so small it might disappear—even as my rational mind objected. After all, if you’re aiming to vanish, starving yourself is one of the least-efficient ways to do it. Over the next week I made a concerted effort to return from the brink, bribing my stubborn body with dark chocolate Kit-Kats (for the record, infinitely better than milk chocolate) and macaroni and cheese; rare hamburgers and silky pieces of salmon. Certainly I still wanted to shrink—it was just that I knew I shouldn’t.

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Shrinking

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