Dancers have always been portrayed as impossibly thin, bones protruding in the likeness of a swan that glides across the stage effortlessly. We are delicate, sensitive, impossibly strong (contrarily), and beautiful. I was aware of these expectations since I first began dancing at the age of 6 but at the time, I didn't give them much thought. I met these expectations when I was a child but, because all of my meals were monitored and controlled by my parents, I did not have the opportunity to binge or eat poorly. I didn’t think about “weight” because I never had the opportunity to abuse my metabolism.
I had parents who were very engaged in my health and who oversaw all of my meals and snacks. We always ate as a family (home cooked meals) and with our family being vegetarian, eating properly was very clearly discussed, stressed upon, and outlined. Even now, my siblings and I can all recite what to eat first if you want a snack (fruit, vegetables or a complex carbohydrate), what components are necessary for a complete meal (vegetable, protein, and a complex carbohydrate), and that, as vegetarians, we had the added responsibility of taking supplements for the nutrients we do not receive from meat.
As a child my body was small, my bone structure petite. Everyone commented saying "you look like a dancer" but this all stopped when I hit puberty - it was a difficult time for me. Suddenly, I started gaining the weight that my womanly body needed without the height I would later acquire. Because of anorexia I find myself doing a lot of the growing I should have done at 16 now at 19. I felt the difference of the added weight, but being a perfectionist, I told myself I was getting lazy and just picked up the pace. I loved it at first.
A few things happened around the same time that perpetrated my downward spiral. One of my friends developed an eating disorder. One day while walking along the edge of the playground of our elementary school she stopped and asked me if I thought I was fat. I didn't think so but the thought had never crossed my mind. My parents closely monitored us electronically so I never had the chance to develop negativity towards my body from tv, commercials, or celebrities. My friend told me that she thought she was fat and explained the "thigh gap rule": if I could stand up straight with my feet together but my thighs couldn't touch, then I wasn't fat. Her thighs touched. Mine did but just barely, and if I pulled myself up tall and twisted my hips slightly, they moved farther apart still. I was worried. The thought that I could become "fat" so quickly was shocking to me. I wondered if others were conscious of this and thought that I was fat. However, this was a friend who wasn't quite my friend yet and I wanted to fit in. As the months passed and we continued to spend time together, I agreed to go on diets with her, which propelled her disorder and mine. I remember the day she asked me how to make yourself throw up. I had read it in a book and after she promised she would not do it, I told her how. I spoke to the school counsellor about what was happening because I was scared. I needed support. In the end, I got none and I lost all my friends. I felt embarrassed and ashamed for having spoken to a guidance counsellor especially when I was given a stern look and dismissed.
I had always been a hyper sensitive and anxious child. The term "anxiety" however, never became a part of my vocabulary until much later. Anxiety, coupled with a perfectionist attitude, hyper sensitivity, and friend issues left me struggling for something I could actively control. I felt enormous stress to perform at a top level at all times. Stress came from everywhere and I felt a constant need for extrinsic approval. With that, I entered a new world of hidden secrets, shame, and constant self judgment. I thought these could only make me better. Meanwhile, I was a workout junky and obsessed with the "killer burn" we all expect after shredding it on the stairmaster. But that feeling did not come the way it used to. This, more then anything, perpetuated my desire to lose weight. Another instigator was my feelings of contempt towards the aspect of womanhood. I despised the term and I feared anything slightly "womanly". Thighs, hips, acne, greasy hair, discovering and accepting my new body were all aspects that I rejected and refused. I associated acceptance with weakness. This became a trend in my following years. I could not accept my body's automatic responses: fatigue, hunger, anger... I had to fight against the enemy. My body had betrayed me at puberty so it was no longer to be relied upon. I did away with natural instinct and let my mind dictate my actions.
Everything went alright for awhile. I cut down on what I ate - never eating full meals, at first. I started eliminating certain food groups from my diet. It started as a way for me to take control and be responsible for myself. I began asserting my independence by biking everywhere, packing my own lunches, making my own meals, planning my own schedule, setting my alarm instead of relying on a parent waking me. The issue was that it didn’t stop there. There was always something more I could do. I began feeling my muscles work only after an hour of continual grand jetés and burpees. I started waiting longer to eat between meals, and eating less and less at each scheduled meal. I became obsessed with muscle gain and "fat" (or what I perceived to be fat) gain. I learned that if I wanted my muscles to perform I had to continuously work to activate them. Every place I went became an opportunity for me to workout. It came to a point where I did not want to leave the house or go to events because it would interfere with my plans to workout.
Dance was my ultimate priority. All of this effort was in the name of dance. I wanted to excel, I wanted to be that swan. I desired to become the dancer on shows such as dance moms. Most of the time, the pressure came from comparing myself to the younger girls around me. I had the blessing of dancing in a small studio where I received mostly private and semi private lessons. Unfortunately, the students I danced with were all much younger. This meant that the only bodies I was exposed to were eight to twelve year old girls. My expectation of how I was supposed to look, came from the image of a preadolescent girl. But this didn't change when I started dancing at other studios. Most, if not all the girls, I saw at the time were VERY petite but the elite dancers around me were all bony and thin. I wanted to be the best I could be.
I remember one day I entered my kitchen to find my sister and one of her friends eating lunch at the kitchen table. I made small talk and watched with eagle eyes every care free bite and every mouthful they took. Then began one of my many daily painful torments: meal times. My mother sat across from me as I sat in my chair, shaking, racking my brain for places to hide my untouched food. Excuses poured out of my mouth like confetti. I began complaining that the girls didn’t have to eat this much as I finished another nibble of food. “But I ate as much as Rose did”, I cried. My mother looked at me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen. “Love, she’s 9. You can’t compare yourself to a 9 year old.” I think that’s when it really sank in.
My parents were incredible. However unjust, unrelenting, and challenging I thought their constant scrutiny and surveillance, they acted solely out of love. They understood that anorexia, the monster that was inhabiting their daughter was not the root issue. Anorexia is a hard topic because what can be said when the most basic need to being alive - eating - is refused? I remember the night that I was taken to the hospital. It was late at night and they had to drag me from the house. I still shake thinking about how petrified I was, how much I cried, and how much hate I exuded. Nothing can get better until you decide that you will start trying. For me, change did not happen that night. I sunk deeper into myself and my rituals of avoiding food.
For me, I began eating more when I was dancing in a National Competition. I ate for my mother then. Later, I would start eating for myself, but that would take awhile. Self love did not become a relevant word to me until a year or more into my recovery. Nothing can change until you decide that you are going to let it. I still go through phases of wishing I did not have to eat but I have to wonder: does the whole world really have it wrong? Do my friends, parents, partner, doctors, and specialist really have it wrong? The only way you can find out is through experimenting with your own process.
Once I had healthy control over my eating and exercise habits again, I recovered more rapidly. In the end before I began recovery I had no energy to socialise, to volunteer, to travel, to give my complete attention to anything including dance. I had no energy to live. All the things I wanted to do with my life I had no energy left for. Recovery is long and hard. Once I started my professional dance training program and was surrounded by dancers of all shapes and sizes (equally talented), I allowed myself to completely give in to my natural urges for the first time since I was 16. Three years after the monster first appeared in my head, I began enjoying life completely again. Anxiety is still a relevant issue for me, and because of the way it has manifested, I am more aware of it than before. I now have tools that I employ, as well as certain people I reach out to. When the anxiety starts to build I take a moment and ask myself “why?”.
Having the experience I have now and knowing what it is like to feel so low and desperate, I never would have continued on with my self harm or harmful thinking. I would never have let those abusive thoughts seep into my subconscious and blur my vision. Living with that second voice in my head that questions every bite of food I take and every move I make is a consequence of ignorance. My disorder stemmed from a larger issue of anxiety. Being unwilling to verbalize my thoughts and notice destructive patterns in myself led me to this new version of myself - one where I live with two voices that conduct my actions. True, that voice might never disappear completely, but now I have power over it where once it had power over me. It's time I stopped apologizing for my size. It's time we all did. It’s time I stopped apologizing for eating and it’s time to stop holding myself under constant scrutiny. It’s time I stopped blocking out all of the support and love I have around me because I feel “unworthy”. At the time, I couldn’t accept any praise or encouragement. But it’s time. It’s time to breathe. It’s time to begin to build a real relationship with my body. I've come to learn that acceptance can be the greatest challenge of all and the ultimate challenge that life throws our way. "I dare you", it laughs maliciously. I take a deep breath and let it out shakily. And I let myself simply lie still.