Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hello, I'm a dancer

This post was written for the Body Image Carnival, hosted by Breastfeeding Moms Unite! and Maman A Droit and taking place April 12-18.

Talking recently about how I'm not a dancer inspired me to write this essay on how I am a dancer. Funny how things spark in our minds that way.

Here I am rocking a plus-size leotard and not even wincing over the contradictions in that term.
I picked up the general education catalog and read it again. "Very Beginning Ballet for Adults," it said. And on the website: "All ages and sizes welcome."

I considered. I dithered. I asked advice. I tentatively suggested that friends should join me. They laughed nervously and declined.

Finally, I emailed the instructor. "Were you serious about all ages and sizes?" I asked.

"Yes," she wrote back to assure me. "Come and see."

So I did. In my mid-twenties, several (tens of) pounds past what I considered in my teens to be too fat to take ballet, I signed myself up for a ballet class, a dream deferred and finally achieved.

I went on my first diet when I was nine years old, on the prodding of a friend a year older, a lot more sophisticated apparently, and a few pounds sturdier. Even in elementary school, I had always known I was bigger than the other girls in class.

It's astonishing to me now to look back at pictures of myself from that time, pre-puberty, with my skinny thighs and flat torso. I have no idea how I knew even then that I was fat or destined to be, but there were barometers, and I was, even as a normal-size kid, bigger than the skinny girls. The pretty girls.

My mom was plus-size, sometimes dieting and sometimes not bothering. I always liked her for who she was as well as how she looked, but I knew she was bigger than most of the other moms — and I knew I would end up looking just like her.

Puberty struck, and I started reading books on eating disorders, the better to coach myself into one. I wasn't disciplined enough for anorexia. I tried bulimia but couldn't find my mysteriously departed gag reflex. I wondered later if God had been protecting me from going down that road. I tried other stupid ideas, like chewing food but then spitting it out into the toilet. That lasted approximately one cookie before I gave up in disgust. I once broke a scale when it angered me beyond acceptance, then sheepishly tucked it away in a corner so my parents wouldn't know I had done it and skulked to the PX to buy a new one.

But the worst toll of my obsession with thinness at all costs was what it did to my perceptions of other people. I started seeing people as only collections of repulsive fat rolls or enviable concaves. I could immediately size someone up and rank whether this person was thinner or fatter than I was. If thinner, I burned with jealousy and assumed a reciprocal disdain. If fatter, I felt smug and superior. It was a terrible way to interact with the human race, and it was rotting me from the inside.

I repented and resolved to move on.

But it's hard. It's hard in this culture of thin-is-in and fat-is-gross to be someone who stands a full-figured 5-foot-9, someone with "big bones" and childbearing hips, with a bust and curves and substance.

I went to my first ballet class in an oversize t-shirt and leggings, dismissing the breezy dress code suggestion that "any color leotard" would be fine. I looked around and started doing my sizing up, almost as an automatic defense mechanism. Yes, there were a variety of sizes, and it was not all waifish sixteen-year-olds as I had feared. But, I noted as well, I was in fact the largest person in the room. I gazed at myself in the mirror, half a head above most of the dancers, with thick round arms and stocky thighs and a powerful sports bra underneath holding my considerable bust in place in preparation for any jumping we might do. Not for me were the skimpy strappy leotards and boy shorts coverups.

And then our instructor came in. She was middle-aged, with beautiful white hair pulled back. Her physique was athletic but stout.

She opened her mouth. "All right, dancers! Let's begin."

I stopped my sizing up in wonder. "Dancers!"

She had called me a dancer. At this size, at this age, here I was, becoming what I wanted to be.

And, more, everyone here — lanky and stocky, middle-aged and college student, male and female — was a dancer along with me. We were more than our bodies, and we were using our bodies to transcend what the culture would say about us, about our worth. We were writing our own identity.

I don't yet have a daughter, and I don't know if I ever will. Not having been raised a boy, I don't know what the expectations and cultural weights will be like for Mikko as he grows. He's always been large, and I assume, genetics and upbringing being what they are, he always will be.

I hope my dancing through his childhood will keep his mind open to bodies being judged not just for how they compare to an idealized shape — but for the person inside, and for the identity they have chosen. I am a dancer, and I hope he will find his own label to prize.

This post is participating in the Body Image Carnival being hosted by Melodie at Breastfeeding Moms Unite! and MamanADroit who will be posting articles on themes pertaining to body image all week! Make sure you check out their blogs everyday between April 12-18 for links to other participants' posts as well as product reviews, a giveaway, and some links to research, information and resources pertaining to body image.


Unknown said...

This is so beautiful Lauren. Conversely I was an accomplished ballerina when I was young and then I went to college and my freshmen 15 turned into 50. I was a dancer but I can't do that anymore, right? Thanks for making me think differently! I love dancing. Besides just letting go of my size hangups just using our bodies to express art is a powerful form of self love.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

This is a lovely story, thank you for sharing it.

As for me, I do have a daughter. She is currently 5-years-old and quite satisfied with herself. But I fear the day that changes. I really hope that it doesn't.

Unknown said...

I had a little chuckle at your 'I tried anorexia and bulemia', because that's exactly what I said in my entry for the Body Image Carnival

Luschka said...

This is such a beautiful post. It really resonated with me on so many levels. I am the same, I'm head and shoulders taller than any other girl I know, and in recent years I'm a lot fatter than them too. I still grimace when I see a photo of myself next to my girl friends. And my baby is shaping up to be the same. I was bulimic in high school - hence the fat now, I believe. And like you, when I look back, I had beautiful legs, skinny arms and a lanky form - I was just bigger in build than the other girls, not fat . I wish someone had told me, and if they had, I wish I'd have listened. Great post - so valuable.

Dionna @Code Name: Mama said...

Trying out eating disorders must be par for the course for many teenage girls - I did, and I know several of my friends did too.
I have heard several of my mama friends w/daughters talking about their worries over their daughters' body image - that it makes them uncomfortable when people compliment their girls' looks or hair or cute clothes, because their daughters are so much more. It's not something I think about as much for a boy, but like you, I do want to make sure Kieran grows up with a healthy self-image. I'm sure boys go through very similar crises in their teen years.
(And now I've been rambling so long that I forgot what else I wanted to say. So I'll just say - lovely post, and you rock for taking dance!)

Jenny said...

This is a beautiful, inspiring post. I was a five-year-old dance class dropout. Around here, it seems like you have to decide to dance at a really young age or you're way behind your age group. By the time I got home from school and after-school care/babysitter's, I was too tired to do another thing. My best time of day is morning/early afternoon so, actually, I never learned to do much of anything. I have recently resolved to forget the fact that I'm a grown-up and just learn the things I want to learn regardless. For instance, my mom and I are taking a pottery class together because I always wanted to learn wheel throwing. However, learning to dance would take a lot more courage than learning to make mugs. I once went to see a family member's belly dancing performance and it was awesome. I wished so much that I could do that, but these women all had their midsections totally exposed and I had stretch marks! Fat! Sagginess! Hmm. I am going to have to look into this adult all-sizes-welcome dance class thing. I seriously admire you for doing it.

Amber, The Unlikely Mama said...

I miss dancing. I miss feeling like my body would do what I wanted it to. What I miss most, is not caring what other people thought of it. I'm all too hyper aware of how I look in the mirror reflection. Maybe I should just close my eyes and feel the beat more often :-)

seekingmother said...

This is a beautifully realized piece. I was always a skinny dancer, very skinny, and ate as much as I wanted. Foes and friends alike would come up to me and grab hold of my wrists and accuse me of an eating disorder even as a child. No one wanted me to sit on their laps as they said I was too boney. I tried throughout my childhood to gain weight and never could. I stopped dancing in my teens after a series of injuries, took it up in college somewhat seriously and have now been absent from it for many years. Now I am not so skinny but also not as flexible or young or energetic or skilled. This has been keeping me from trying it again. I feared that in comparison to my best days, any effort would not measure up. You have really inspired me to rethink things as well as reminded me that none of us are truly ever satisfied with where we're at as teenagers. It can be a rough road to it's better to dance our journey and appreciate that we can.

allison said...

I never would have guessed any of this about you from your other posts. Reading about eating disorders the better to coach myself into one -- sheer genius. You look awesome in that plus sized leotard. And I've done that 'where am I on the fat scale here' thing a lot. And I also look back at pictures of me and wonder why I didn't just appreciate how much smaller I was then than I am now. Now I'm trying really hard to focus on eating well and exercising so I'll feel better and be healthier, not to lose weight. Bet you're wondering how that's workin' out for me, huh? :)

Betsy B. Honest said...

I love that you've taken up ballet as a grown-up! A grown-up mom! I did the same thing with hockey and it has been awesome. I've always wanted to play but I was a girl, and there was no such thing as girl's hockey, just figure skating. I was such a terrible figure skater but what is there to do when you live in a wasteland that's frozen for 8 months of every year?

Anyway, this just makes me go Yay!

It's a beautiful post.

Michelle @ The Parent Vortex said...

I love how the way we use our bodies carries so much more meaning than simply how they look or what size they are. A body as a means of expression, a tool for a discipline like yoga or dance, or even as a source of new life is so much more powerful than x number of inches or y number of pounds.

also, after watching the "graduate" ballet dancers while waiting for my daughter's art class to finish, I became inspired to take up ballet myself. such grace! I haven't yet followed through and actually taken a class though. You are inspiring me to actually do it! :) thanks for that.

Melodie said...

Gosh this is so beautiful Lauren. You've inspired me to someday get my own butt in gear and do something like that for myself. I took dance classes when I was little and hated them. I felt sick every Wednesday night to the point that I even threw up some nights. After three years my mom finally took me out. I hated being the tallest and the worst dancer there. But in reality I LOVE to dance! I've heard of dance classes for adults and that you don't have to have background to join. I've always though "yeah right" in my head. But maybe I should check them out...

Sybil Runs Things said...

Ooooo, lovely post. Being a very tall gal with the, err, child-bearing hips, it definitely resonated with me. I definitely admire your dedication to being a dancer!

Not sure why, but even though I have two daughters I never really gave much thought to body image issues in relation to them. My main one growing up, which will also likely be theirs, is height. I lamented it, as will they, but alas, there is nothing to be done about it. The issue was more that there were no boys who were taller than me. And no clothes fit me correctly.

I mostly feel lucky that my girls are growing up the children of parents who now know how to be tall and can pass our wisdom on to our girls.

Lisa C said...

Body image issues are certainly not exclusive to larger girls. I was skinny, but when puberty hit and I developed a natural feminine softness, I thought I was getting fat. I sized everyone up to, just like you described. I envied the skinny ones, and briefly tried out eating disorders (had too much of a conscience to go through with it). One day in high school I saw myself in a mirror standing next to a girl who I thought was the skinniest in the class (too skinny, I thought)...and saw I was thinner than her. That's when I realized how messed up I was to be obsessed with being thin.

Even now, I'm occasionally briefly jealous of a woman's body, but for the most part, I'm over it. I just want to be healthy.

And you SO do not need to be thin to be beautiful! My best friend has always been overweight and she got all the boyfriends and I didn't. I only wish that girls weren't so often hurt by our culture and the media in this way.

Lindsay said...

Great post! I ran college track and was the biggest(well roundest anyway-I was actually one of the shortest too) runner on the team and felt so self-conscious in the little spandex shorts and tanks we had to wear. I wonder who decided spandex was an appropriate material for sports apparel?
Anyway, brava for doing ballet even if you aren't a pre-teen with no figure :) it makes me want to be brave too!

Lauren Wayne said...

Thank you, everyone, for the warm comments! Somewhat paradoxically, I've been feeling really down on myself this week, so it's been good to hear your voices. I urge any of you who are wondering whether to try ballet or some other dance to check the studios near you for adult or drop-in classes or adult education catalogs for listings. If it makes you more comfortable, email the instructor first to chat or drop by to observe a class and make sure it's right for you. The best part of adult education, I've found, is the relaxed atmosphere. You don't get berated for wearing or doing the "wrong" thing, because you're more a client than just a student.

Paige: I hope you find a way to get back into dance if you want to! There are always "former" ballerinas in my adult classes who've found their way back.

mamapoekie & Dionna: We were in good (?) company! I seriously checked out all the books I could find at our local library (not many), as this was (gasp) before the internet era. (Probably a good thing in retrospect!)

Jenny: I also have taken hat-making and watercolor classes, and Sam's done cartooning and African drumming. I love the freedom of adult education! You don't have to please anyone but yourself. Maybe you could do a different type of dancing as a baby step, like ballroom.

allison: Probably to the same degree it's working for me? :)

Betsy: I remember being mystified by why my aunts all suddenly started an indoor soccer league for moms, but now I get it.

mamamilkers: I once was walking home with my date from a junior high dance and reveling in the feel of his arm across my shoulders when he stopped and asked if we could switch because he was getting a crick in his neck. Ah, the romance of a tall girl!

seekingmother & Lisa C: Thanks for pointing out that skinny has its problems as well. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could all love our own bodies and others'? My husband has the best perspective on beauty — he truly sees kind people as (outwardly) beautiful and mean people as ugly. It's astonishing to me, but I've tested it several times over and it's how he views people. I want his eyes!

Maman A Droit: I could never get over those skimpy volleyball shorts. Whose idea were those?? I was terrible at volleyball anyway but would never have signed up knowing I'd have to wear something like that. Very interesting article on sexy women's sport clothes here, by the way.

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