6 Ballet Dancers on What It’s Like to Grow Up Surrounded by Mirrors

Like most children I grew up spending about six hours a day within a classroom.

But unlike most classrooms, mine was covered wall to wall with mirrors.

I was a dancer — homeschooled, and throughout the ups and downs of adolescence and puberty, I critically and constantly watched my body evolve and change from all angles. I watched myself get some baby fat, grow a whole foot taller, lose that baby fat, break out with acne, bloat from my very first period. I remember my dance teacher knew about my period before my mom did, because I got it in ballet class.

Most girls, like I did, really start to take dance seriously around the age of 9 or 10. This is also the age when our bodies begin to go through the most insane changes ever. Hello — boobs overnight, angry pimples, blushing problems, and body odor. In the ballet world, these changes are coupled with a competitive environment centered around the capabilities of the body. Ballet is a practice that traditionally idolizes a thin waif-like figure. This is a body type that only a small percentage of girls actually naturally have, and so it is certainly a recipe for body image issues and disordered eating.

Greta Gleissner, LCSW, is the cofounder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, a nationwide meal support and coaching program that provides services alongside treatment programs and outpatient providers. She also comes from a background of professional dance.

“The two most vulnerable times to develop an eating disorder [are] around puberty and around the transition from adolescence to young adulthood,” she told Galore. “Adolescence is such a time of uncertainty — Who am I? What’s happening to my body? The most tangible way to have some semblance of control — particularly for a dancer — is to manipulate the body through disordered eating or an eating disorder.”

And being surrounded by mirrors doesn’t help.

“The constant scrutiny of looking at one’s body in the mirror dressed in a leotard and tights,” Greta says, “trying to perfect every body line and position certainly can contribute to poor body image and body dysmorphia. The more you focus on something the more it grows. As a dancer I would hone in one one body part and it would be all I could think about. Moreover, if I was not performing up to my own standards in class, that would send me straight into the mirror to self-hatred and body shaming “

I could totally sympathize with Greta’s experiences. There’s no hiding in front of a mirror if you ate too much the night before.

I am a type A perfectionist, and in ballet there are no sweatshirts or sweatpants. You can’t avoid a mirror. You have to wake up at 8 a.m., pull on a tight black leotard and unforgiving pink tights, and be confronted with any bloat from a 360-degree mirrored and cruel perspective. 

Throughout this struggle, I felt completely alone. There is an insidious stigmatization about having a problem with food. Society demands that girls are simultaneously supposed to be “effortlessly thin” and have huge healthy and-non restrictive appetites.  Obviously, these aren’t often naturally connected. When I reached out years later to some of my friends and dance acquaintances to talk about these issues, I felt as if they were telling my story right back to me, their experiences were so similar. I think it’s really important for other girls to know we aren’t alone. Here are some of their stories.

~ Rowan’s Story ~

“I think dance is partially what caused the disorder. Not the dancing in itself, but the ways we would go about it, the leotards and pink tights, the wall to wall mirrors, as well as the way our teachers praise the thinner girls with positions more towards the front of the stage, or solo performances. Probably and hopefully unknowingly on their part. I assume they just picked the dancers they thought were most beautiful and most skilled, but especially in ballet those were the almost always the thinnest girls. I doubt they picked by weight on purpose. If you look at any prima ballerina, they are all very thin and muscular. I think that look is just something conditioned into you.

I remember during my thinnest time my dance teacher would make comments about how lovely my body was. I was especially obsessed with my thighs and my waist. I hated the part of my leg where it met my body, the inside of my thigh there. It always felt too flabby for me. As for my waist I was obsessed with achieving a 22 inch waist, like a famous ballerina. I can’t remember her name now, but she looked so delicate and dainty. I think I got close, like 23 inches at one point. My trick to controlling my eating without much pain was medication.

~Anonymous Story ~

I started taking dance classes when I was 13, which is late. Especially for ballet. But I fell completely in love with it. Eventually my parents decided to homeschool me so I could pursue a future in ballet. I had the perfect body type and the perfect feet.

During this time, my dance teachers spoke of me as an example student with a lot of potential. I began to audition for summer intensive and ballet school programs. It was really great for a while, but then when I was about 15 I had to quit. When I was finally  able to resume dance classes (over two years later) I had lost a lot of ground. At this point, I knew my chances of becoming a professional dancer were slim. I still wanted to dance though. I was so passionate about this part of my life.

During the time that I had been away, however, my body had changed. I was far from being the ideal ballerina type. My breasts, in particular, had gone from an A cup to a double D. It never even occurred to me that this would be an issue, but it was. I found that my teachers and classmates no longer took me seriously, even as I began to make up some of ground I had lost.

One boy, in particular, often commented on my breast size. He even suggested that I get a breast reduction. I had always been comfortable with my body, but I began to hate looking in the mirror. My breasts turned into a burden. I found myself constantly comparing my body to the bodies of others around me and it made me feel so ugly. My dance teachers remained neutral on the matter, and they treated me completely differently than they had before.

I worked really hard during those few years, but It seemed as though my body type prevented me from feeling successful. So I eventually quit.  I think that my body image was very much altered by my experience as a dancer. I still miss the body type I had before I quit for the first time, but the more I have distanced myself from that world, the better I have felt about myself.”

~ Abby’s Story~

I thought that by eating less, I would fit in to the romanticized world of an incredibly thin dancers. Also, I was in a lower level because I started dance late, so I thought I would advance through levels faster if I were thinner. And I remember once a dance teacher commenting on how “slim” I was when trying on a costume and it was an affirmation that continuing my pattern of disordered eating was working. I think when your body is developing and you are a part of a body-centric activity, you attach your new developing body to your self-worth as a dancer.

So, I ended up having to go to a mental health inpatient unit and stopped dancing and doing musical theatre. I’m only just now coming forward with it because I think there’s this generalization that all people with eating issues are underweight, but that’s not true.

~ India’s Story ~

I got boobs and started “developing” when I was literally like 8 years old which was way ahead of all my dance friends, obviously, because it was ridiculously young.

Most of the girls I danced with were (and still are) very naturally skinny and lanky, not curvy, with smaller boobs. And honestly, I feel like this is still the typical ballerina body, so it made sense that they stuck with dance for so long, because a lot of them were built for it.

But not me. I had size 36DDD boobs when I was in middle school. I’ve always had big muscular thighs. It sucked. I felt like this odd girl out with huge boobs and curves that always had to have costumes custom made bigger and wear two bras under my leotard in class, and it just sucked because i was all of a sudden being set apart from the girls I had always felt comfortable with forever because I had a different body. And while no one at my studio bullied me for it or anything, I kind of always felt like I was being subconsciously edged away from dance because as I got older I started to be less comfortable navigating a body type that wasn’t and still isn’t very much represented or associated with dancers, especially ballet.

~ Anonymous Story ~

I created this whole idea that I wanted to be the perfect everything, especially the perfect daughter to my parents because before that I was acting like a little rebel and hurt them so badly. I spent the next years trying to be the little miss perfect who was in ballet and church every day for years.

Back then I knew I was getting into trouble but I never accepted the fact that it was an eating disorder. I started by throwing up once or twice which ended up being a every day, all day thing.

I used to throw up three to six times a day and count every single calorie to the point that I couldn’t even chew gum because I knew it was 15 calories. Even an apple was too much for me. The food deprivation, mixed with five to nine hours of dancing daily, led me to lose a lot of weight and I got addicted to that feeling.

I used to measure every part of my body every night. I started off with a 24-inch waist and in no time I had a 21-inch waist.

It went on for a couple years until I realized that what I was doing was the opposite of what I believed as a religious person. I was destroying myself, so I started working to get out of that addiction. It took me months of crying alone in my bed, trying to hold on to whatever was physically possible to not run to the bathroom to throw up. Cause as a bulimic, whatever you eat no matter how small, your body rejects it the moment it goes in. It becomes impossible to eat anything without suffering.

Then, thank god I started going out with a guy who took my mind off my body. Little by little I started being able to eat again, this is without anyone knowing, all by myself all alone. I even remember it well, the first time after years that I was able to eat a whole sandwich without taking any parts off, not even the crusts. I know that this will be something that I will have to work on my entire life no matter how much I grow and mature, its simply there.

So how do we move forward to make dance a safer space for young women? I believe general consciousness that these issues exist and are very dangerous is crucial. Some of my teachers would encourage us to watch our diet, or sometimes more subtly “be sure that our spring recital costumes would still fit us in three months.” This is a high demand for girls that are undergoing a time in their adolescence where they can grow larger breasts or hips in just a few weeks, and trying to halt or slow one’s growing is incredibly dangerous mentally and physically.

An old friend and classmate of mine, Emily Villeneuve, is studying nutrition and has gone back into ballet classes to try and change the attitude some girls have towards food.

“I stress the importance of eating LOTS of whole foods to fuel the body for optimal performance,” she said. “Dance burns through energy so quickly. Making the statement that food = energy helps to frame eating in a positive light.”

I’m not sure I see ballet’s harsh standards being put completely to rest anytime soon, but dance studios should make sure that their classes and teachers have a general awareness about these pressures, as well as keep an eye on students they think might be struggling. Dance is a beautiful practice, and should be a safe space for all shapes and sizes. Dancers are athletes- proper nutrition is essential to performance.

If you find yourself struggling from any of these issues, as a dancer or simply a person, please don’t feel ashamed to reach out to a friend, parent, teacher, or help line. You are not alone, no matter how you feel.

Gimme More Health

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