Cover Story: Games People Play

Theater piece sheds light on local women's struggles with eating disorders

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Jymi Bolden


Jennifer Dalton (left) and Sarah Mann prepare their performance piece/play about eating disorders, The Weighting Game.



"You had an eating disorder? I thought you were smarter than that."

"People can think what they want," says Jennifer Dalton, 27, who for nine years struggled with anorexia nervosa and bulimia. "I know I'm a healthy person."

But more than once while sharing her history, Dalton has been told "I thought you were smarter than that." Hearing that repeatedly helped lead her to pair up with Sarah Mann to write and star in The Weighting Game, a performance piece/play combining the women's experiences with history and facts about eating disorders.

For Dalton, Mann and women and girls like them, it wasn't a lack of intelligence that contributed to their years of playing the eating disorder game.

"People think you can help it," says Mann, 32, who became anorexic when she was 12.

"It starts out as a choice," Dalton picks up.

"But as (one of the play's character) says, there's no other choice after a while," Mann adds.

It's clear that the two women feed off one another. They build on the other's excitement and ideas and regularly finish each other's sentences — bonded by their quest to fill society's idea of the "perfect" body.

Mann felt inadequate while taking ballet classes in her early teens. She heard male students' various comments on the females in the class.

"As soon as I heard them talk about the girls' weights, I flipped out," Mann says.

Dalton began her battle with anorexia when she was 15. She'd hoped to be a model.

"My problem actually began in elementary school, because I developed before any of the other girls in my class," she says. "All of a sudden I just grew in all directions, and it made me feel like an ogre compared to the other girls. It felt like there was something wrong with me, even thought that's naturally what happens to a woman's body as she enters puberty. And since weight was the only thing I could control ... ."

Mann jumps in: "One common denominator is (an eating disorder) is an attempt to control something. So many people don't feel empowered."

Dalton employed various means while being anorexic.

"I had a little game going with myself in the beginning of my anorexia where if I lost 2 pounds, I would challenge myself to lose 5," she says. "And if I lost 5 pounds, I would think, 'Well, if you can do that, then surely you can do 8, 10, 15, etc.' "

Dalton says she would challenge herself to go as long as she could without eating until she actually felt hunger pains.

"If I was hungry to the point that it hurt, that was good," she says, "because I felt like it meant that I was accomplishing something."

When she was 18, Dalton was admitted to the hospital. It was a deal she made with her family and her doctor so she could attend college.

Her stay lasted two weeks, though she admits it should have been longer. Still, her experience provided her with plenty of material.

"There were so many games going on in there that I just couldn't believe, so I started keeping journals," she says. "People were hiding food for each other under the dinner table so they didn't have to eat it, exercising in closets when they were supposed to be on bed rest, traded medication, etc. It was like a movie, so I started keeping a journal of it all, which led me to writing about my own experiences with the diseases."

Mann and Dalton discovered their shared histories while rehearsing Sam Shepard's Cowboy Mouth last summer for VOLK/contemporary summer project initiative, where they met. Around the same time, Mann presented her one-woman show Drug Dreams, an exploration of the minds of substance abusers pulled from her own and others' experience.

Upon seeing Drug Dreams, Dalton knew she wanted to collaborate with Mann. Mann, though, was hesitant about the subject matter, worried that the topic had been "sitcomed out."

But the fact that anorexia and other eating disorders often are viewed as "a joke" in society prompted Mann to move forth with the project.

"I do pray when I go in on a project like this," she says. "I pray and meditate and see if anything comes up. ... You can show other people you're not alone. Even if you don't call it God, it's a human connection."

Therapy helped Dalton to realize that she wasn't alone.

"At first, I resisted therapy because I didn't think I had a problem — hello, denial — and I thought that going to therapy would mean that I was weak and couldn't handle it myself," she says. "Of course I was wrong, and I benefited tremendously from counseling and a few support groups too."

Letting people know they're not alone is but one of the purposes of The Weighting Game. Another is to educate. The two women researched several books, such as Hunger Pains by Mary Pipher, to boost their experiences with medical facts and history. And they treat the sensitive subject with metaphor-based humor.

"Eating disorder is basically a game you play with yourself," Dalton says, explaining why she and Mann have their characters playing games such as Pictionary.

Parents and friends of people with eating disorders have already asked Mann and Dalton for copies of the script. The play will be presented this spring during the University of Cincinnati Women's Center's annual Body Acceptance Week. But Mann and Dalton hope to perform their work other places as well, perhaps as a tour of Cincinnati. (For more information on The Weighting Game, visit weightinggame.cincyring.com.)

"We're not pretending to be experts on this," Mann says. "We're just bringing our experience."

And their experience continues. Dalton admits that, though she's no longer anorexic or bulimic, she's not cured completely.

"Although I am healthier than I have ever been and totally free from anorexia and bulimia," she says, "there will always be a little part of me that still has an eating disorder, probably because the pressure to be thin will always be there in this society." ©

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