This wasn’t the first time I’d run to the toilet to purge my body of my bad ballet technique and all the cake I’d eaten in my lifetime. And this wasn’t the first time I’d thought how stereotypical and stupid this whole routine is. But it wasn’t something I could control. Because, although every ballet school denies it, it’s there: the unhealthy body image and the neverending goal of an unachievable skinny.
I began dancing when I was two, and for years it was the best part of my day. By the time I was about 12, though, ballet had become a competitive obsession for me. I couldn’t stop comparing my body to those of my fellow dancers.
Our renowned teachers didn’t help, especially Ms. Morrison. A prima ballerina in her day, she had no qualms about telling us of the importance of having the thinnest waist, and during the summer months, she’d remind us it was bikini season anyway.
One afternoon, the nearby supermarket donated a large cake to the studio, because our summer intensive program always brought them a lot of business.
Cake for a ballet studio.
Ms. Morrison seemed just thrilled.
It was lunchtime when they brought the frosted goodness out, and the students’ conversations became a chorus of body-image complaints winding around the hipbones of girls who would never bleed in their underpants or breastfeed their children because they’d never have breasts.
When you’re that skinny, you literally stop menstruating.
I told myself I wouldn’t have a piece, because I’d had a whole yogurt container for lunch, and, though the cake was chocolate—my favorite—it wouldn’t be worth it. Not when I could finally see my ribs again.
That was when I heard her nasty voice.
“What are you doing?” Ms. Morrison spat.
My head whipped around to see my friend Alice stopped in her tracks, nervously throwing her eyes in every direction. She placed her piece of cake on the table. Like a small doe with large doe eyes avoiding her predator.
“Nothing. I’m n-not doing anything,” said the small bunhead.
Alice was just 14 years old at the time, wildly talented, and definitely Ms. Morrison’s favorite student.
Smirking, Ms. Morrison responded, “Good. That’s what I thought. If you want to be successful as a dancer, I don’t ever want to see you eating something like that again.” I watched her severe grey bun turn around and strut away to go brood somewhere else.
I suddenly felt nauseated, not in the making-myself-vomit way but in the did-I-really-just-witness-that way. Around me, no one else seemed to have noticed what had happened, but my vision was beginning to swim. Before I had a chance to recover, Alice came up to me.
“Hey, can you please go get me a piece of cake? I really want one, but I don’t want Ms. Morrison to see me, or she’ll yell at me,” she quietly said.
I guess, until that point, I’d been pretty numb to the criticisms from teachers about shape and size. Dance is all about the body, anyway, so naturally teachers comment on it, right? They always told me my body was my “instrument” and that I needed to “take care of it,” which meant never putting soda or sugar inside of it, only cigarette smoke and raw vegetables.
From the time we were about 12, all of us bunheads were checking the calories on every yogurt container, and counting every M&M, and going days or weeks without eating a real meal, because Ms. Morrison had told us that our arabesque had stopped improving but Janie’s had gotten really good. So we would take a closer look at Janie, and after class, we’d laugh and joke with Janie about school and boys and stupid geometry problems and the hot professional dancers who secretly had sex in the studio showers. But when we got home and found ourselves alone, we’d feel so envious of Janie, and we’d vow to dance better, harder, better, harder the next day.
Even if it meant dancing until blisters popped and pools of blood soaked through our satin shoes.
Even if it meant dancing until our bones stress-fractured and our bunions became unbearable.
Even if it meant throwing up every little thing we didn’t eat anyway.
Maybe this—ballerinas disillusioned with the dance world, with a completely inaccurate sense of their bodies—sounds like a cliché. But the enforcement of body dysmorphia was not as obvious as being hit across the bottom—although that did happen to me twice—or getting weighed weekly. It was the little things: snippets of pointed critiques and overheard judgements that built and built and built until they exploded in a deluge into the toilet.
It was also the constant comparisons to other dancers, to my friends, who, at the end of the day, were really just competition, because teachers will never put the “fat” girl in a Sugar Plum Fairy costume. And you sure as hell don’t want to be labeled that girl in your class.
I guess, in that moment, Alice cared more about being in a Sugar Plum Fairy costume than standing up to Ms. Morrison.
After watching Alice submit to Ms. Morrison, I found that my eyeballs were unexpectedly sweaty, so the only thing I could do was get one piece of cake for Alice and about three for myself, which I swallowed at an unparalleled rate and then regurgitated even faster, which, I guess, made me a hypocrite and just another cog in this bony, body-obsessed system. But I couldn’t help it, because, no matter how much I denied it to myself and everyone else, I still looked in the mirror and spent the majority of class comparing myself to every other person, every detail of me up against every detail of them. And I was always coming up short one way or another.
Watching Alice, a 14-year-old sack of bones, get scolded by Ms. Morrison just for eating, made me realize how just not okay all of this was.
I was sick of spending half my days with a mouth tasting like vomit and cigarette smoke.
I was sick of 12-month bikini season.
I was sick.
I feared that I had wasted all of those hungry, disciplined hours. That my hard work and all of that money were going to amount to nothing. But I needed to step away. Some time off, and maybe I could rediscover my passion for movement in a new environment. So instead of auditioning, I decided on college.
Ballet really is beautiful. And maybe some people don’t hate their bodies as acutely as I did back when I was a ballerina. Or they’ve learned to cope and overcome it. And that’s truly a wonderful thing for them.
As for Alice, as far as I know, she’s still dancing.
I’m still glad I quit.