I began dancing when I was 4 years old.
My great-aunt owned our dance studio, so for the girls in my family, dance was non-negotiable.
The first few years of ballet we just had to go for one hour a week, and let’s be honest, you don’t do a whole lot of ballet when you’re 4 and 5 years old. It’s like cat herding. The fact that they were able to keep us all in the same room at the same time was a pretty impressive accomplishment.
My older sister started 3 years before me, so for the first few years, I always went to her class too. I watched her dance with her peers and with one of our cousins, I watched their feet, their new tricks. I would imagine how in 3 years I would look just like her. I would be graceful, balanced, thin and my great-aunt would shower me with the same praise she did my sister and cousin.
But as time passed, I didn’t turn into my sister.
While she grew boobs and a tiny waist, I grew out. I didn’t get the good body or the great balance. I was the chubby girl who couldn’t hold her releve without tipping a little. I was the chubby girl that gave 100%, but always came up short.
My great-aunt began to notice that I was chubby and made it a point to remind me of it regularly. When it was nearly time to start ballet on pointe, she told me that I either needed to lose 10 pounds, or wait a year. I was 10.
I had to wait a year.
I picked up extra ballet classes in hopes of improving my technique, of winning the favor of my great-aunt. The extra classes turned into extra opportunities for her to criticize me. To criticize my size, to remind me that I was not graceful like my sister or my cousin, both of which carried on the family tradition of becoming dance instructors for the younger kids.
Each week I prepared myself, I put on my invisible armor which was dented from the last class’s slightly veiled insults. “Oh Katie, well, I guess that’s better than last time.” Or “Katie, you know that you would be able to do that even easier with less weight.” Sometimes she said it only to me, sometimes she stopped the music and hurled the words at me in front of all the other girls in my class.
I tried to quit, but my mom, who was so well intentioned, told me to keep trying. I kept trying, and to my credit, I did improve. For 14 years I went to ballet, the last few years spending over 8 hours a week in that studio, being told I was not graceful, being denied solos, becoming the first person in my family to not be offered a job to teach there.
At the end of my 14th year, I went away to college.
When I went to watch the dance recital the the next summer I was 60 pounds lighter, I hadn’t had a period in 10 months and I was dangerously underweight. I was out of control.
I was starving myself.
I was anorexic.
I can’t give ballet all the credit for the anorexia, because truthfully it was initiated by a need to control something in my life because I was spiraling into depression I couldn’t climb out of. So I counted calories, and by counted, I mean obsessed over them, I controlled them. I started running. I exercised twice a day.
And the weight fell off.
But when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a thin girl. I saw the chubby 10 year old who wasn’t allowed to start pointe with her peers. I saw the ungraceful girl who couldn’t keep up, who wasn’t good enough.
It has been 9 years since I quit ballet and 9 years since my first bout with an eating disorder. I say first because eating disorders aren’t like the flu, they don’t just go away. They sit under the surface waiting to re-emerge, to re-devastate your self-confidence.
I am older now, stronger maybe, but I still see a chubby girl in the mirror. When I gain 5 pounds, I can’t see anything besides failure. When my weight goes above 135 pounds, I literally cannot stop the thoughts of starving myself, of going to any length to be thinner.
To be the graceful ballerina that I always imagined I’d grow up to be.
To be what I couldn’t be all those years ago.