A personal story of how I lost myself in the mirrors, eating disorders, and the mental allusion of body dysmorphia.
Photography by: Rhi Lee Photography
When I was little I thought of the Prima ballet dancers as my idols. No one looked like me but, I wanted to look like them. As a child I grew up in a predominantly black dance academy in Atlanta,GA. From the summer before high school till the summer before senior year of high school I attended Dance Theatre of Harlem and that is where I learned that many other dancers did look like me.
As a child growing up, I was slender looking to my peers and others, but in the ballet world the way I looked wasn't the norm. I was not great nor good but average. Once I got to an age where my dancing was seen as advanced, the view of my body changed. I was a young woman with a short neck, big head, short torso, long legs, and big breasts that just kept on growing with age. In ballet I had the ideal body, minus the big boobs of course.
At the age of 16 and being looked at more and more I started to watch what I ate because where was all that food going to go? It was not extreme but it was something I became aware of.
The years went by and it was now time for me to go off to college. I stopped attending Dance Theatre of Harlem during the summers and got ready for a new step towards my dance future. College for me was fun to begin with but that quickly came to an end. While in school I became the black girl who excelled in ballet but for some reason was punsihed for it. I started to try and change the one thing I thought was the issue, my food intake. I liked my body but I did not love it. I would see nothing but girls getting attention because of their skin tone but I also thought of them to be much skinnier than me. Now...it's time to let the cat out of the bag. I silently went through binge eating, anorexia, and a long span of bulimia and even until this day I am not sure if others noticed.
At school we were seen as adults, so you took care of yourself and did what was needed to be done. I thought I was so much bigger than the girls next to me but did not know how to deal with it. I remember ordering a triple cheeseburger during tap and eating it before rehearsal. A teacher looked disgusted by the food and says ”are you going to eat all of that, right now?” He was not wrong but it made me feel worse. So, time went on and I tried to understand why I still did not like how I looked. So, what next? You get graded on health, dance, and apperance basically. There were teachers that were more upfront and abrasive with the conversation and others more discreet or tight lipped. Either way, it was uncomfortable. No one openly said I was gaining weight because I was not. I was skinny and naturally muscular, it was just in my head.
During my time as a growing teenager at Dance Theatre of Harlem every summer my weight was never spoken of, well not to me atleast. I was a dancer that they saw promise in after sometime but I was still very young. I could eat street hotdogs, Wimpy's burgers, and other egregious foods I should not have been and go to rehearsal like it was nothing. I have known that Miss Virginia Johnson is not shy about having those conversations or Mr. Mitchell showing his concern but it never was a conversation I had. I was tiny, muscular, and talented.
Back to college. After awhile I started changing my diet time and time again. Pescatarian, vegetarian, chicken, no chicken, always seafood, but now back to strictly pescatarian. After awhile I found myself surving off of the yellow red bulls and king size reecees cups in our school cafe during long nights of rehearsal. My body was craving sugar and sustenance. Again, I was never sure if anyone noticed but I sure was moving as if nothing was wrong.
I do believe there is one thing that played a big factor in my body image problems, me being the minority of the ballet program. Being the only black girl in ballet, the eyes are on you to typically mess up or shock someone with how you can execute something so well. I was kicked out of dances for being too dark but they kept the light skin girl in the back. Those small things played a part but in the end it was my mental disability that kept it going.
Freshman year we all get placed in levels of ballet, pointe, pas de deux, jazz, and modern. I placed in the highest levels for ballet, pointe, and pas de deux but low for modern, and jazz was just who needed what. For pointe and pas de deux there were four of us who placed higher and started sharing class with upperclassman. Pas de duex was my favorite class until an upperclassman scoffed and rolled his eyes when having to partner with me but then once we finished the Grand Pas from Nutcracker looks at me pleasently surprised. Teachers would hint at my muscularity being a bit much in the beginning and when I was removed from Serenade (my favorite ballet) for "not being the right fit," the mental games begun. With many teachers side eyeing me for just being more advanced and black, I started side eyeing myself.
How as a young dancer do you battle body dysmorphia? Is it enivitable in this art form? How do you recover without loosing yourself completely? At the age of twenty-seven I do not have any of the answers but I can share my experience. I have been told after college I need to slim down and sometimes that was true and I am okay with that. It is how we go about slimming down and providing the correct help. In all, I can say I still struggle with the way I see my body but more than anything I now love my body and that's the difference.
The pictures I look at today I viewed with a skewed lense back then. I looked great but something told me I gained 5 plus pounds every other day. My advice to any young person that relates to this is that it will be okay, nothing is perfect, and you are beautiful. As dancers we are constantly in the mirror, being critiqued, and told about our bodies but never about how to process the mental breakdown that tends to follow. Some of us do not learn until very late in life and unfortunately, some do not at all. Talk to someone, be prepared to hear the truth, and understand above all you are more than a tendu or a dance reel. Lets give a normal narrative to talking about our struggles with body dysmorphia because who knows who it will help.