A Belly Dancer's Confessions: I Was Bulimic
To paint a picture of Monah Li's life before belly dance, one would need a strong stomach. Behind her stood 19 years of self-loathing, evident in her extreme dieting as well as her relationships with men. One Saturday evening, in spite of a husband who said, "The last thing I want in life, is a wife who belly dances," Monah Li walked into a belly dance class.
The Beginning and The End
At the front of the class stood someone familiar: a small curvy girl with dark hair and bangs, a remnant of Monah Li's soon-to-be former life. Monah did not recognize her at the time. According to Monah, as the class ended, she was called to the front of the class and the teacher, Eloise, announced,
"This is Monah Li, one of my oldest and dearest friends in the world. Please welcome her. I am so happy to see you here!"
At once the memories came rushing back of a man they had once shared, a man Monah had stolen away without a second thought, the father of Monah's daughter. A scene sticks in Monah's mind of the final break-up between Eloise and Monah's ex-husband.
"We fell in love immediately and the little fact that he had a girlfriend, who had been standing by him through the years of his heroin addiction, was nothing but a small nuisance to me. I stared at her with ill-disguised contempt, when she came by our loft to pick up the furniture she considered hers," Monah said. "The whole situation was weird and I felt guilty and awkward. It got even more uncomfortable when she started to cry and I fled outside."
Monah and her husband were married a few months later, and Monah never saw Eloise again until fate brought her into the class of this woman she had once wronged. That fact alone is shocking, but not so much as the friendly sentiment with which Eloise greeted this old rival. Monah was overwhelmed with emotion.
"Now, almost 20 years later, this same women offers me, not exactly friendship, but kindness and welcomes me into her class. I started to go to every one of her classes, two times a week for two hours and slowly, but steadily, I learned the moves that save my life," said Monah.
Who Monah Was
On the outside, Monah appeared to be blessed with a good metabolism. At dinner parties, she cleared her plate, always wanted dessert, and still managed to stay thin. Her friends would express envy, to which Monah had a practiced reply:
"Oh, I'm just blessed with a real good metabolism. Look at my mom and my dad!"
What she hid was a deep-rooted fear and hatred of being overweight, stemming from family members who struggled with anorexia and diet pills. Unable to refrain from eating even with diet pills supplied by her grandmother, Monah would sneak to the bathroom 3 to 15 times a day to throw up. Though at times she binged, even during her healthier eating patterns she couldn't resist the urge to find a nearby toilet as soon as she felt food in her stomach.
"Every restaurant I went to, the first thing I did, was make a beeline to the restrooms and check out if the doors locked and the flushing worked. Only then did I order and eat," said Monah.
To enable her bulimia, she would do almost anything. From an elaborate system of lies and practices to hide her disease, to eating birthday cake, spoiled cheese and moldy bagels straight from the trash can, Monah's behavior grew more extreme as time went by.
"I had this insane belief, that since it was so easy, I was meant to do that. No big deal. No retching and burping, just a little splash and it was all over, all gone," Monah said. "I was sick a lot during those years, going from doctor to doctor, from quacks to healers, always complaining about the fatigue and the bloating of my hands and my stomach and the paralyzing depression that I could not explain."
The Last Binge
The night before Monah Li was set to board a plane back to Los Angeles for a meeting with French business partners for her fashion line, Monah Li sat alone in a New Delhi hotel. She was armed with samples of clothing she had spent two weeks creating. Reviewing the clothes in her collection one by one, she was struck with an epiphany that each item was doomed to be rejected.
Overwhelmed with the task at hand, and now convinced it was an effort certain to fail, Monah ordered room service. Four plates of extravagant food arrived, and after a flimsy lie about guests who had yet to arrive, Monah found herself alone again.
"I sat down to my lonely dinner, not even bothering to get to the bathroom a few feet away to throw up in between stuffing the excellently prepared cuisine down my throat. I used the flimsy wastebasket to get rid off the shrimp and lamb, the chutney and rice to make room for more. I tried to pace myself and at least enjoy the excellent and quite expensive meal for four, but it took less than an hour until it was all gone. Now what? My fear and apprehension about the ill-fated samples in my suitcase stuck to my brainpan like the sticky mango-rice I could not vomit up, no matter how deep I stuck the hotel supplied toothbrush down my raw and bleeding throat," said Monah.
On her journey to Los Angeles the next day, she returned a tray of airplane food after a few bites and went to the bathroom to relieve herself of the little food she had consumed. Bent over to throw up, she had a vivid vision.
Before her stood a balance scale, one on the brink of tipping over. She explains that to her, this scale represented the fate of our planet, our very civilization. She saw at once that her actions had consequences, and that this one act could very well be the grain of sand responsible for the scale tipping over for good. For the sake of her daughter and her friends, she couldn't complete the action that for years had been the easiest act to perform.
"Shivers ran down my spine and I sat down to pee. A wave of diarrhea gripped my body and I sat there for what seemed like hours, wracked with cramps and fear," Monah said. "I returned to my seat. For the first time in 19 years, I had left a toilet without vomiting."
Back in Los Angeles, Monah's designs were rejected, but she didn't care. At first she took a few days off due to exhaustion, before quitting her job to stay at her then-boyfriend's mansion in Mt. Washington. For a few, blissful days, she and her boyfriend were deeply in love, finally free from the secret that had plagued her life.
Not Over Just Yet
Though Monah had resolved not to throw up her food, she was still wracked with a fear of gaining weight. She turned to a local gym for help. With a regimen of yoga, Pilates, swimming, and treadmills, she curbed the edge of her fear, but her body took a beating in the process.
"I was in constant pain, probably from over-exercising and at one point; it had gotten so bad, that I was scheduled to have back surgery. Thank God I backed out of it at the last moment. But now, with my new, even more brutal and Nazi-like regime, the pain had become almost unbearable," Monah recalled.
Her home life was no less painful. After 13 years of dating, Monah had finally convinced her second husband to marry her. The act had brought her little relief. Though they had shared a brief moment of honest happiness, his constant deprecating remarks made Monah feel small and insignificant. She longed for her old friend, her disease.
"I imagined and obsessed over the almost orgasmic pleasure I would get from buying a cake at the Glendale Armenian bakery, sit down with it at my kitchen table and read all the magazines that were heaped on a huge stack of things I could not read without food," Monah said. "I knew how horrible and disappointed I would be afterwards, but the tension that had built up inside of me over the last five months was about to explode and take me down."
Eating her small breakfast, she indulged in a little more. Instantly she felt the old familiar feeling and her tension started to melt away. But before she could take another bite, a little voice inside her head reminded her where this path led. She ran to the gym and walked straight into her first belly dance class.
"Something inside me, the same power and determination that had kept me from being bulimic for five months by then, made me stay inside this room. I was totally bad at it, I could not even make a turn without bumping into somebody and I was anything but graceful," Monah said. "But I stayed. I tried. And suddenly, that one step and move that looked like I could never do would never be able to conquer fell into place. I was doing it!"
Grasping the movements allowed Monah to take in more of her surroundings. She focused on the teacher who, other than guiding Monah's movements, had escaped her full comprehension until now. It was Eloise.
And Finally, Some Relief
As Monah grew in her belly dance, she began to look at other women and herself in a different manner. No longer did weight represent something slothful and repulsive. She began to recognize a beauty much deeper than skin.
"I stopped being so paranoid about gaining weight, because I could see a different kind of beauty that did not depend on size. To my surprise, I did not gain any weight, even though I had stopped all my other exercise routines and allowed myself to eat more," said Monah.
Now a dancer for three years, her body and soul have been able to heal. The pain in her back disappeared, and she made new friends who supported her when she eventually ended the marriage to her second husband.
"Going against his rules was my way of taking my life back and I started to ask myself what I wanted, not what he asked me to like," Monah said. "Soon, belly dance was all I did - in regards to exercise - and every little success, every little step I mastered, made me more confident."
Belly dance not only helped in her relationships with others and herself, but it inspired the way she designed clothing. It also helps her stay abstinent from her bulimia. Constantly throwing up made her body void of nutrients and too weak to sustain the levels of energy necessary to dance. These little accomplishments keep Monah dedicated to her new life.
"No step is ever too small, an achievement too little to let me know; it pays to be humble and willing to admit that I don't know something, so I can be open enough to learn it," said Monah.
Without belly dance, Monah is convinced her life would be dramatically different, for the worse. At best, she would still be a timid wife, unhappily married with an addiction to working out. At worst, she imagines she should be dead after a return to bulimia.
"Women, who suffer from this illness, usually die in their late 40s, when their bodies just give out. At the very least, I would still be dragging my starving little body to the gym, to Pilates and onto the treadmill, counting the seconds until I could go home again," said Monah.
The journey hasn't always been easy. While she danced as a child, natural talent is not something that Monah boasted about. Combined with her late start and bulimia-induced Ostheo Porosis, Monah has to have patience with her development as a belly dancer. Regardless of the struggle, the end result has been well worth the effort.
"Belly dance is therapeutic and spiritual," Monah said. "It's no coincidence that the Eating Disorder Community of therapists and doctors has started to recommend belly dance as an additional tool to healing."
Monah's Advice for Newbies
Whether you struggle with an eating disorder or not, Monah has a few pieces of advice that every new belly dancer should take to heart.
- "Enjoy and take it easy."
- "Belly dance is not a competitive sport."
- "It's okay to feel like the last person in the class to get it.”
- "Make friends with other dancers and develop a friendly, kind and helpful atmosphere."
- "Be patient and kind to yourself and others – you will learn it, no matter how long it takes."
- "And last, but not least: appreciate and celebrate every tiny success."