Ballet and Body Image

Body image is a pretty tough topic to actually address. We can talk the talk about loving ourselves, no matter the size, and seeking health instead of the perfect bikini body. Walking the walk becomes pretty difficult when photoshopped celebrities are on every magazine, and real-life mirrors are everywhere in our lives, showing us up-close and personal flaws we mentally exaggerate instead of retouch.

The other day I read this Open Letter to Bikini Season. A very forthcoming mom writes about her four-year old who cries because a jacket makes her look fat. This girl is four! Thank goodness for her mom, who has the vulnerability to cry and the fortitude to tell her daughter and the world that something is very wrong in that scenario.

One morning on the way to church as a kid, I pulled down the mirror above the passenger seat and looked at myself. I turned to my mom and told her I had all of her features – her nose, her eyebrows, her strong jaw – and that I hated them. To my mom’s credit, she laughed and said thank you (sarcastically) for my compliments. Now, those things are what I love about myself because they distinguish me from everyone else. My imperfections make me unique.

As I got older, the ballet gods granted a teacher who encouraged positive body images. That’s quite a task in a room where mirrors surround you; you are always looking at yourself to correct tiny minutia of technique – and always in tight, unforgiving clothing! It’s no wonder dancers are susceptible to dysmorphia.

I was lucky. I was blessed with slender limbs and high arches. But another dancer in my school was not so fortunate. Don’t get me wrong, she had an absolutely beautiful body, one that most women would envy. But in 7th grade, clothed in a black leotard and not-so-flattering pink tights with mirrors everywhere, she didn’t see it that way. Her hips were too wide; her boobs were too big. She had matured much earlier than the other girls in our class, and she was a perfectionist. Her lines were curvy, not toothpick straight, and she could not handle it.

She was my carpool buddy to ballet, and slowly she stopped ordering milkshakes. She started wearing different clothes, and her music got a little angrier. Her hip bones started showing through her leotard, but they were still wide in her eyes. She was not thin enough. She starved herself to the point of hospitalization, rehab, and the list goes on. I visited her in the hospital. She had a feeding tube and translucent skin, and the doctors said, psychologically, she wasn’t budging. She refused to acknowledge that she was killing herself.

She and I don’t talk anymore; she left our school and quit ballet. I have seen her about twice though, and she looks pretty healthy. And she’s alive. I don’t know if she is happy when she looks in the mirror now, but I know others who have struggled with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, and it is SO HARD to overcome. I don’t know if some of them will ever completely overcome it.

It scared me in 7th grade that someone so young would resort to such drastic measures to look different. But this is relatively common – up to 24 million people in the U.S. suffer from eating disorders.

After reading the letter from that brave mom, I took away her message about our bodies being a vessel. Our bodies can DO amazing things – run, jump, kiss, dance, play – and we can experience amazing things through the function of our bodies. We see with our eyes, touch with our fingers, run with our legs, bear children in our bellies, and the list goes on forever. Why do we focus so much on appearance instead of function? So many of us only exercise to look good naked, instead of perform well – why is that? Is this all media, all a Westernized culture influencing us to evaluate ourselves this way? What can we do to stop it?

Scars are a phenomenal example of this, at least to me. I scar incredibly easily. My legs are covered with them, from injuries big and small, memorable and completely minute. My lip has a scar from jumping – and falling off – a bed as a five-year old, and my thumb has one right on the knuckle from who knows what. A professional photographer could erase those.

But what are scars if not evidence of life?

I have survived being hit by a truck, sure, and that explains lots of them. But I have also mountain biked, and played in ponds and jumped on beds and gotten burned by exhaust fumes on a motorcycle in Rwanda. I have lived in this body, and my body is evidence of that life, with my scars, my calluses, my muscles… and my fat. I’ve indulged, and that’s living, too!

Until next time,


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