by Dana Rossi
I WAS SO FAT.
I mean, I wasn’t. But for this to work, you need to believe I was at least sort of fat.
So let’s try this another way.
THIS IS SUZANNE FARRELL.
Suzanne Farrell is one of the most famous ballerinas ever to flutter across the NYC Ballet stage. Lean and lithe with limbs for days, her physique was the gold standard in ballet bodies—so graceful and effortlessly perfect that she could make wearing what appears to be a dishtowel look chic.
THIS IS ME.
Or rather, this was me in Philadelphia in 1998 at 20 years old, 5’2”, and probably somewhere around 150 pounds. In this picture, I’m wearing boxy corduroys (in August), a tank top I would stretch out on a bed pillow before putting it on, and underneath it all, a black leotard that looked like a lot like a vaudevillian bathing suit. That was the flirtatious statement I wanted to make to anyone who’d ever see under my clothes—a coy, sexy little Bonjour. Je porte une ceinture discrete. Which is French for Hello. I am wearing an inconspicuous girdle.
Okay! So this is where we meet the root of the problem (and the origin of stupid). Because there’s one thing—and only one thing—that Suzanne Farrell and I had in common. We had both seen the inside of a ballet class.
For her, that was fine. She clearly belonged there. But I was a different story. Ballet class from the perspective of an active participant was never something I particularly wanted to see. As a kid I was more into bowling than gymnastics, and at birthday parties I could always be found right next to the onion dip. But once I was a sophomore in college majoring in musical theater, ballet was just part of the deal. Take it or leave it, but if you leave it you don’t graduate. I didn’t want to dance at all, but ballet was just the worst. It was dancing IN YOUR VAUDEVILLIAN BATHING SUIT, and being required to constantly look at yourself in the mirror. And so it seemed to me every time I had to “check my form in order to learn” that the girl looking back at me from the mirror was not Suzanne Farrell. And because I didn’t look like a ballerina, I thought I was fat.
And because I thought I was fat, I didn’t want to have to be forced to look in a mirror in a class full of Suzanne Farrells. So I thought, well, I’ll just not go to this class.
Which didn’t work because I needed to finish this class to graduate.
So I went, but I made excuses to sit out. Which did not fool my whip smart teacher, who forced the girl who just wanted to sit by the onion dip to plié and grande battement.
And now we’re back where we started—with me looking in the mirror. Fat.
That’s what I had to fix. If I had to take this class, then I had to be able to look in the mirror without having a crisis. And that meant losing weight.
There are so many effective ways to lose weight. Diet. Exercise. Being Stevie Nicks in the late 70s. But none of these seemed right for me—especially once a friend told me about a place in North Philadelphia that sold herbal phen fen.
I knew the dangers of regular phen fen—that shit was killing people. But I also knew that whenever anything said HERBAL on it, that meant it was totally safe and peaceful and friendly, in a paisley print with music by Joan Baez. Right?
So even though the bottle said to take “two” a day, I decided that herbal on the label plus ballet every Tuesday morning totaled more around “eight.” So that’s what I did for months—took eight herbal phen fen a day. It made me lose some weight, but also made me lash out at fire hydrants, sewer grates, the color yellow, visible breath—I was very quickly becoming Alex P. Keaton in the episode of Family Ties when he takes speed to study for a test. But it was doing what I wanted it to do, so Alex Keaton be damned. I continued.
Then one afternoon (somewhere around pill 5) I was at home watching The Golden Girls when suddenly I felt an enormous amount of concentrated pressure on the right side of my abdomen. I thought, this is gonna be some fart, and prepared myself for a thunder down under I was glad only I would ever know about. But it never happened. The pressure just grew more and more intense until eventually, I couldn’t stand up straight anymore.
I took a cab to the ER, and by this time I was in so much pain I could barely walk and was slurring my words. After four hours in the waiting room without a doctor in sight, I was so desperate and so terrified that my appendix was bursting that I just snuck into the ER and pretended to pass out right in front of everybody so I could get drugs and attention as soon as possible.
I wish I could say, “don’t ever try this”, but it totally worked. So, you know. If you have to.
Once the drugs kicked in and all the tests were done, it was revealed I had a HUGE kidney stone lodged firmly in my right pee tube. How huge was it? Well, did you know that according to the NIH, kidney stones are the most common urinary tract disorder, but most of them are so tiny they are easily passed without the need for a doctor to go in and surgically remove them?
Mine had to be surgically removed. That’s how huge.
The last thing I remembered before going under a couple of days later was the anesthesiologist asking me what my favorite kind of wine was. I think I said white. And the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the recovery room, my mom peering over me. She asked how I was feeling and if I was gonna stop taking those pills now and I said, “yes.” But then I realized something very important. So important I tried (in vain) to bolt upright. I said, “Mom, what day is it?”
“Tuesday. Still Tuesday.”
“Around 11:30 in the morning. Why?”
I didn’t answer. I just laid back down and smiled. Because I was still pretty drugged, sure. But also because I may have gone about it the hard way, and I may have taken the scenic route to get there, but 11:30 on a Tuesday meant I had totally and completely missed ballet.
Dana Rossi is the creator and host of The Soundtrack Series in NYC–the live event and podcast where people tell stories they connect with songs from their past. She was also a contributor to the anthology Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop.