Taking Up Space; Living in and Loving My Changing Body
In dance, we are taught to take up space on the floor; not within our bodies.
We are pressured to extend our legs a bit longer.
Reach our arms an inch farther.
Take steps a touch bigger.
We use up the whole stage. This makes the dance more interesting to watch. Yet, when it comes to the space we take up while stationary, we are pressured to be small. Now, this isn’t all studios, and it isn’t all teachers, but it is part of the mental culture of the art. “She has a beautiful body,” I hear someone say about the skinniest young woman after ballet class. I roll my eyes because, aren’t all bodies beautiful? The comment sticks in my head. What do they think of my body?
As a child, taking up minimum space was easy to achieve. I was naturally always the smallest in dance class, by a long shot. Plus, I was dancing and exercising almost every day as part of a competition team. Thus, I was the shortest, skinniest, lightest, and most petite in every context. This meant I was often in the front row for formations, and I was usually the one lifted by the other dancers. Not surprisingly, smallness became part of my identity. I wasn’t just little; I was The Little One. I was cute because I was petite. It was the first thing people noticed about me when I walked into a room full of new people at a dance competition. Being Little is what made me special.
This identity bled beyond dance class into other aspects of my life. In school, when we lined up in height order for class photos, I instantly went to the end. When friends and I played games giving each other piggy back rides, I was never lifting, always lifted. And when we ate, I didn’t give a second thought to sweets because I was so small.
I am twenty-four now and, when I look around at my adult dance class, I am no longer the smallest. Sometimes, I’m not even in the middle, but I am one of the biggest. I have no idea how, but I grew to average height for a woman in the US. Due to puberty, less exercise, genetics, and chance, my body acquired a greater percentage of fat. My once flat chest, flat for longer than any other girls in dance or friends at school, now has taken shape. My once lean belly, with just ribs sticking out, now has pudge and rolls, especially when I bend over to stretch. My once-muscular behind that allowed me to jump so high now has even more curve.
I didn’t notice these changes as they happened gradually; instead, I noticed them as if I woke up one day in a new body. I tried on a pair of jeans I hadn’t worn for a while and was shocked that I couldn’t even pull them up to my waist. It was like my eyes finally opened and recognized that I looked different. Yet, instead of getting rid of the pants and buying new ones, I folded them and put them back in my drawer under the false sense that they might fit again in the future, as if puberty might undo itself.
Suffice it to say, these changes require adjusting both how I move my body physically and how I see my body mentally. This became especially true when I went on psychotropic medications just over a year ago, and I gained weight again. I was just starting to get used to my post-puberty physique, when the changes picked up once more.
Sometimes I find myself questioning if I should ask my doctor to go off one of the medications that is particularly known for causing weight gain. Part of me wants to be smaller again, so when I look around the room at dance class and “rank” everyone’s bodies by size in my mind, I am back on the other end. But without this medication, my depression and borderline personality disorder would likely return. Before the meds, I was chronically suicidal, and I was frequently hospitalized. I don’t want to want to die again. So to be thinner, or to want to die, that is the question. It might seem like it should have an obvious answer, but it doesn’t.
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I worry that my new shape will affect how my dancing is perceived. I’ve always been a very technical dancer, focused on the little details. I’m cognizant of where I place my arms, where I turn my head, how I use my core, and how I center my weight. But will this extra attention and precision go unnoticed or unappreciated because of the added weight on my frame? Will teachers and fellow students be able to see past my curves to see the strong dancer underneath? Or will they just see me as “the large one” now? Deep down, I know this probably isn’t true. The others in the room have complimented my technique; they have encouraged me to lead combinations in class. And they probably aren’t doing this by looking past my curves, but by watching my body dance as a whole. The real question is, can I still see the strong dancer within?
When I look at myself in the wall of mirrors lining the studio, everything is laid out for my eyes to digest. The canvas shoes, the pink tights, and the elastic leotard all hug and define every inch. You can pull your tights up a little higher to flatten your belly, but tights shift as you move. You can buy shoes with a sewn arch to help define your pointed foot, but that won’t make your feet stronger. There’s just not much you can hide in a leotard and tights. Add stage lights, and you’re on display for the world to judge.
I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and I don’t claim to have one. Yet, it’s still easy to get caught up in this frame of mind. “Should I try to lose weight? What would be the fastest way?” “Are the meds really worth it?” “Would I be seen as a better dancer if I was skinnier again?” I start to ask myself these questions, until I notice I’m not paying attention in class and have missed learning the next combination. I quickly push the thoughts down, bring my attention back to my work, and hope my movement will scatter the thoughts into oblivion. And, for a while it does, but the thoughts and questions have always come back. They are unbeaten so, if anything, they just come back stronger.
I want to be someone who loves all body types, my own included, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss being so small. Before, I thought thinness was an achievement or at least a stroke of good fortune. Morphing shapes seemed like someone else’s fault, until it happened to me. So many years of thinking this way made these ideas in my mind sticky. What will happen as my body continues to age and change?
I know that, if I were to tell others I sometimes feel large; many people would give me an odd look. Objectively, I know I’m a healthy weight for my height, and there are loads of people who weigh more than me. But what you have to understand is that I am coming from a place where for my entire childhood and adolescence, close to twenty years, I was beyond incredibly small. It was who I was. All that time and all those comments from others making petite sound positive can become internalized and mess with someone’s brain. Also, it’s not the size of the body that really matters. It’s the thoughts and emotions about your own body that have the kind of impact I’m talking about.
I want to be able to write that I’ve worked through all of this. For now, I have at least decided to continue with my medication and to try to stop comparing how much space I take up in class. Mental stability is worth the weight gain, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never bring it up with my doctor. It’ll still take time and work before I have made my peace with physical growth and always embrace my ever-changing body as beautiful. Sure, sometimes I am able to be in this mindset. I love when my ballet teacher sees me execute a perfect turn or when I feel strong leaping high off the floor. Nothing can make me feel more beautiful. But this is not always the case. I am still very much in the throes of these thought patterns and identity crises.
What I can say is this: at the end of the day, we are each given one body. That, at least, is unarguable. This one body is ours to keep or reject, protect or harm, foster or neglect, and love or hate. Sometimes we may want to make changes, and that can be okay. Other times, it might be best to focus on making peace, though peace isn’t always possible. Whether or not you believe me and whether or not I believe myself, every body at every stage is inherently good. Let me say that once more for good measure: every body is inherently good. Every body is also imperfect to someone, whether or not that someone is you. But it is your one body, nonetheless. You have to sit in its skin. So, a nod of appreciation from me to you and your body. May we all find peace and be able to focus on the dance.
Oh, and for the love of all bodies out there, please keep your comments about someone else’s body, whether you think it’s a compliment or an insult, to yourself.