This morning I jabbed an angry finger at my phone, repeatedly snoozing my alarm, refusing to give into its demands. I know…I had all the best intentions when I tucked myself in last night. I envisioned myself bounding out of bed and into the shower before meandering lazily down the steamy, uneven street for breakfast and then onto Ecstatic Dance at 11am to kick my time back in Ubud off properly. However, 19-plus hours of travel have a way of taking it out of you and although I passed out around 9:30pm last night, the last thing I was inclined to do was “bound” anywhere.
I finally managed to pep talk myself out of my sheets at 9:45am and made it out my door for 10. Anyone who knows, knows that you need to get to Ecstatic Dance early and queue up for a ticket. I was not confident I’d left in enough time, but upon arrival I was met by a woman with too many teeth and given my elusive numbered sticky note, which ensured me a spot.
With time to kill I selected a medium-sized coconut to help replenish the fluids which had been sucked from my body as I hurtled through the air in a tin can, watching bad movies and inhaling other people’s farts. Once it had been skilfully cracked open I tentatively teetered over to an empty spot on the ground and plopped myself down trying not to spill the contents of my coconut over the leathery old man and an impossibly beautiful and young woman who were chatting next to me. This is a dynamic you get used to quickly in Ubud. The percentage of poorly ageing men harbouring erections in tye-dyed harem trousers is dwarfed only by the number of young, damaged women with daddy issues seeking coddling.
I eavesdropped, with little interest, as he asked her about her “art” and then “how do you see the world?” Careful not to get their verbal masturbatory fluid in my coconut I joined the conversation when he struggled with his French, both saving and cockblocking him at once. Sorry, not sorry. After predatory grandad split I continued speaking with the sweet, and actually very interesting, French woman for a bit before the beat began to throb gently above us, cuing all dancers that it was time to get ecstatic.
For those who don’t know, Ecstatic Dance is like a big day rave, but without any fun drugs. There’s a lot of white dreadlocks and bindis on show and clothing is optional. If someone steps in a puddle of sweat it’s not uncommon to see them rub it on their face or lick it. Really. The only rule is that you can’t speak, but you are encouraged to touch, which creates a very strange environment where consent needs to be made clear though facial expressions and reciprocal contact only, which in my case is usually a swift “accidental” fist to the dick. Whoopsie.
Ecstatic Dance is a place where there is little regard for personal space or personal hygiene. You can be enjoying a wonderfully solo jam-out session in your little bit of the room and then some, usually topless, pungent cunt will declare, through the medium of dance, that your part of the room is now theirs. It is not a place where people behave. Assholes who feel they deserve more space in this world also feel somehow entitled to more space on the dance floor. In this way, Ecstatic Dance is a microcosm of our society and all that is wrong with it.
However, like society itself, there are also lovely people and moments of rare beauty. Like the women who stick two gloriously meaty fingers up to Western beauty standards and stomp the floor, wearing practically nothing, their thick thighs all aquiver. The fathers who bring their wee ones, kitted in protective headphones and not quite confident enough to walk alone yet, and hold them close to their chest as they dip, dive and gracefully navigate the countless undulating bodies around them with ease. There are many sweaty hugs exchanged, that linger far too long for my liking, but seem to make the participants jubilant in their collective cocoon. To every darkness a light, a yin to the yang.
Speaking of light, the attendees are unsurprisingly white af. This particular Sunday morning sesh is held at the Yoga Barn, which is a glaring pillar of white privilege on the island of Bali. Classes are expensive, elite and although they offer a reduced rate for locals, it is exceedingly rare to see any in attendance. The tribal beats that are played are done so by a DJ who looks and sounds like he just stepped off the plane from California and told us all not to worry about the volcano threatening to imminently erupt because “he’s got us.” Cool. Everyone calm down, the DJ from Yoga Barn’s got us and it’s all going to be fine.
I mock only because this is the kind of shit that Ubud peddles to those with big enough bank accounts to come here in search of the kind of “spiritualism” sold in Eat, Pray Love. Those who are desperately seeking anything and who will ascribe meaning to the most trivial of experiences because they are all signs from the universe. This “community”, this “safety net” is comprised of incredibly vulnerable people who have come here looking for answers, acceptance and respite from something, which usually turns out to be themselves. People who think that the collective good vibes being sent out by a dance studio filed with tourists can somehow save the island of Bali from an impending natural disaster are the same people who believe that writhing around on the floor with a sweaty, stinky, stranger is somehow “spiritual” or “divine.” They use words like “conscious” to describe the ingredients of their lunches and tell you as often as you let them that they prefer to engage with “activated” people only.
It’s this kind of language and attitude that makes me unable to love Bali the way so many do. I’m a huge fan of “live and let live” but when that way of life is destructive and dangerous I’d prefer not to take part and I believe at some point complacency becomes complicity. I can’t ignore all the crazy because it’s fucking crazy. This is why, when I saw the thinnest person I’d ever seen in my life today, I couldn’t just look away. Partly because I was morbidly curious and partly because I know CPR and genuinely felt this girl might fall through her own ass at any minute and I’d have to resuscitate her.
Bali, and more specifically Ubud, is a hotbed of anorexic activity. My body dysmorphia goes into overdrive when I’m here, which is why it’s so rare to see me out in anything form fitting. I am a BEAST and it is impossible for me not to compare my body to everyone else’s when they’re clad in spandex, forcing you to bear witness to the fact that they are doing yoga 100 times a day and existing only on green juice. Bali sells itself as a destination for health and wellbeing, but I’ve never been in the company of so many unhealthy people. I used to work with girls with eating disorders, so I know what to look for, but you don’t even need to to look here. Swing a hula hoop and you’re guaranteed to hit a few right in their starving mouths.
That girl today could have been 20 or 50. She was ageless in her thinness. Her hair was pulled into a patchy ponytail and the shorts, which hung loosely on the wire hanger of her hips, were designed for a child. She was in front of me, so when she lifted up her arms I saw every bone in her pelvis and lumbar spine. Her skin was like cling film stretched across the picked-over remains of a turkey carcass on Thanksgiving, serving no purpose but to keep the dog from eating it. She moved awkwardly in her body because it was barely supporting her, she didn’t sweat because her body had nothing more to give. I watched her out of fear, but I saw that other girls, not quite as emaciated as her but getting there, were watching her and licking their chops with jealousy.
I wanted to approach her and ask if she was OK, but she is in the right place for people to be telling her that not only is she OK, she’s aspirational. She’s the fucking dream. I have no solutions or suggestions. I have no answers or insight. I am not trying to skinny shame, this is not about being skinny, this is about being unwell. This is about watching people compete in a competition they can’t win. Because what they want to be doesn’t exist, it can’t survive.
And to you, whoever you are who is reading this, you are enough. Cake is just fucking cake and you will still be you if you eat it.