Starve, Shrink, Speak

Michele Merritt
6 min readAug 11, 2021

Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to take up space

Except, I didn’t want to take up space. I wanted to shrink myself small enough to fit into the emerald tutu. I wanted each sinewy line of every muscle to poke through paper thin skin as I pirouetted and jetéd across the dance floor. I wanted to wear a size zero. No, a double zero. I wanted to disappear.

Those are the thought patterns that nearly destroyed me and they are the thought patterns I continue to battle, even though I am no longer an aspiring ballerina and I am comfortable accepting that I was never and will never be a zero.

Today, I’m a 40-year-old mom of two, and my mission is to teach my children — especially my daughter — that taking up space is a virtue. This is no easy task because choosing to take up space runs counter to everything we are taught as girls and women. In a world where being big, loud, proud, and assertive is only justified if you are a white cishet man, the choice to occupy as much space as possible can be an act of political warfare.

And it can get you killed.

But you know what else can get you killed? Starvation. Silence. Submission. Shrinking your authentic self so much that it’s unrecognizable, even to you. This is how I used to be — a people pleaser, a quiet smiling face, a receding shoreline, eroded by self-loathing. The smaller I got, the bigger my feelings grew, trapped in my tiny frame, screaming to be let free. The less space I occupied, the more rage and resentment occupied me. For someone so slight, there was a lot of square footage being rented out in my mind, and it housed tremendous and terrifying thoughts.

Research on patients with anorexia shows, rather ironically, that their brains represent their bodies as bigger than they really are. One study found that when presented with a door-like structure large enough to pass through without turning sideways or otherwise contorting the body to fit, neuro-typical participants will walk straight through. Anorexics, on the other hand, tend to twist, shimmy, and shrink themselves, despite being perfectly capable of passing unimpeded. This suggests that the body schema — the unconscious part of us that provides a general sense of where we are in space and allows us to move without consciously thinking about what…

--

--

Michele Merritt

Philosophy professor. Adoptee. Advocate. Activist. Marathon swimmer. Cheese consumer. I write about dogs a lot. michelemerritt.com