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.
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.