Dance has always held a special place in my heart. As a naturally quiet and reserved person, dance was how I expressed the pieces of myself I couldn’t through words. However, as my body image issues worsened in my early adolescent years, it became the thing I dreaded most, rather than what I looked forward to.
The idea of having to return to a place so hyper-focused on appearances, with mirrors trained to call attention to any mistake, was especially difficult when I was finally cleared to dance again as my body was physically healthy, and yet I was faced with the challenge of coming to terms with my new, heavier, yet much healthier, body. After giving up my eating disorder as my defining trait, I was desperately searching for an identity. Since I was eight years old, I was a dancer, a ballerina, and I longed for the security of being able to identify myself as such. Because, after all, in my mind at the time, who was I without it?
Once I set my mind on returning to dance, nothing would stop me. I am the kind of person who is very indecisive, but once I finally make a decision, good luck keeping me from following through. However, there are a few things I did to keep me on track with my recovery while engaging in an activity that proved very triggering in the past:
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
I first got rid of all of my old dance clothes. Leotards, tights, shorts, leggings, tank tops, shoes, you name it. The clothes reminded me of my sick body, and there was no room for my sick body in my ever-expanding life. Letting go of those clothes was cathartic as if I was letting go of the idea that I would ever fit into them again and accepting nothing less than complete recovery for myself.
I picked up my basket of old middle school leotards and tights, dumped it into a trash bag, and handed the trash bag to my mom to do with it as she saw fit. That way, there was no opportunity to dwell on what the clothing represented and I could safely and peacefully move forward, to bigger and better things, without the shadow of my eating disorder berating me for the weight I had gained.
From there, the “new” part came in. Mom and I ventured out to our favorite dance store and bought 4 black leotards (all with sizes I didn’t look at, or care about), a new pair of pale pink ballet slippers, and a pair of shiny pointe shoes that made me look and feel like a real ballerina.
Stepping into that pair of pointe shoes felt like stepping into a new phase of my life. In winding the elastic ribbons around my ankle and taking my first leap across the black marley dance floor, I was leaping out of my old life, one of hospital beds and NG tubes, and so much pain, into the new one, of college and friends and a future, the one with so much to offer.
COMMUNICATION (AND ACCEPTING HELP)
I believe that there is strength in admitting weakness, and one of my weaknesses is my complete and utter refusal to ask for help. I don’t like admitting that I can’t do everything on my own and that sometimes I need the support of others to hold myself up (and that’s okay!!). So in order to return to dance as the best version of myself, I stepped leaps and bounds out of my comfort zone and I reached out to the head of my dance studio to have a conversation with her about where I was, mentally and physically, and how she and the studio staff could best support me. Luckily, I have always had a very good relationship with my dance teachers and I have had a special bond with the head of my studio and we were able to come up with a plan we both felt comfortable with.
We decided that I would get special permission to wear either leggings or a ballet skirt over my leotard, even if the teacher would not normally allow it. We came up with a signal I could use if I started to feel overwhelmed or especially anxious and needed to take a moment to myself. These tactics, though small, made a world of difference in helping me ease into dance again and helping me feel heard and understood.
I worried that when I went back I would be judged for a lack of progress, that the differences between myself and my fellow dancers would be too palpable of a line to cross, that the distance my anxious brain had created between me and those around me would forever set me apart. However, with an abundance of hugs and private chats in the dance staff office, a few too many panic attacks as we all learned how to navigate these uncharted waters of dancing while recovering, and, of course, me pulling back the curtain that shielded me from all vulnerability, my mind was set (somewhat) at ease (it’s a process, we’re getting there), I felt comforted and supported, and I found strength in accepting help.
It can be hard to gain a little perspective, especially since every struggle that comes your way can feel monumental to you, no matter how small it may seem in comparison to what others are dealing with. However, one of the main ways I was able to go back to dance was by realizing how lucky I was to have the opportunity to go back at all.
I met a girl in treatment who, prior to her eating disorder, had been a serious ballerina, but her eating disorder wreaked havoc on her bone density and she suffered a broken back, an injury so serious she would never be able to return to dance. I was lucky to escape my eating disorder with my life, of course, but I was even luckier to return to full physical health with no long term consequences (that we know of, but the hope is to stay that way).
My gratitude didn’t appear all at once. It took starting dance for a couple months and then quitting again. It took fighting through anxiety bordering on panic. It took blood, sweat, and tears (mostly tears). But eventually, I was able to connect with this sense of gratitude when I stopped focusing on how I looked in the mirror and started focusing on how every moment made my body feel. I know, easier said than done, right?
I won’t tell you there is a moment when something “clicked” and suddenly I never looked at myself in the mirror and wanted to change everything, or at least something. Those days continued, and they continue today. However, now, when I look at myself in a leotard, I don’t deprive myself of nourishment my body needs to carry me through my daily life. I recognize that my body has been through so much and it never gave up on me, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. In fact, it gets stronger every day and that feeling, when I nail choreography or land a perfect pirouette is so much better than skinny feels.