How Dance, Body Image, & Mental Health Helped My Friendships Grow Stronger
March 3, 2020
I love ballet. I love watching it on TV and live in person. I love the magic of the performance, the costumes, the scenery, the music, and the story of ballets. When I was young, I wanted to take ballet lessons not to become a ballerina but because I thought it would be fun. Although I didn’t take them due to a lack of money, I had friends that did. And a few of them stuck with ballet and dancing to become professional level dancers. Years later, they are no longer professional dancers but are still my friends and saw me through tough spots in my life and was my support system during my health crisis.
Although I don’t want to be a ballerina and my interest in taking ballet lessons is gone, I still follow people online who are dances. One of those people is Kathryn Morgan. Kathryn was a principle dancer for New York City Ballet before suffering becoming ill and quitting ballet for many years. Last year, she has returned to ballet and now currently works as a principle dancer for the Miami City Ballet. Recently, she posted this video on her YouTube channel that addressed in a different way my current body image problems and reminded me of my friend’s old body image problems while they were dancers.
The video, called “REAL TALK: My “Today Show” Appearance I Body Image & Mental Health in Ballet”, talks about her recent appearance and interview on the Today Show and the brief discussion in the interview about body image and mental health in ballet. After watching the video, I was flooded with memories of my friends that had body image problems while dancing and my own current struggles with body image.
When I was in my teens, I was diagnosed with an antibiotic resistant infection. Around the same time, my friends and I went to college. My friends studied various subjects for degrees, but they also studied dance. The loved dancing and, even though my family didn’t have the money for me to take dance lessons, taking them in college was a way for me to learn how to dance while earning college credits I needed. Around this time, some of my friends began to tell me about their body image problems and that they came from directors that wouldn’t give them parts because they were “overweight”.
I knew their weight and they were not overweight. They were, in fact, a healthy weight for their height. They had energy and stamina to dance. They were more graceful than the other female dancers that were thin and their precision was far better because their bodies were athletic and strong. Still they struggled with the comments by others about how they will never “make it” as a dancer unless they looked like an emaciated version of themselves. As they struggled to peruse their passion for dance, specifically ballet, I began to realize they began to focus more on their weight and how their body looks like instead of how well they danced. I knew my friends for years prior to college, so to see them so discouraged and frustrated because their passion turned into a self destructive torture was outrageous and heartbreaking to watch.
After taking a few classes, I had to stop because my infection resulted in benign tumors that limited my movement and affected my joints and nerve endings. After I stopped taking classes, my friends did as well. When I saw they stopped taking classes, I thought it was because they had enough of the teacher in the class and their weight shaming comments. After talking to them more, I learned it was not because they didn’t like the teacher. It was because they gave up on dancing completely. I was stunned. Although the teachers that taught dance in my college would never change, I thought they would join a studio for people who did not have the money (We were college students, so money was extra tight) to take formal classes. But they did not. And they did not want to continue dancing anymore. I was always supportive of my friends no matter where life took them, but quitting something that they enjoyed just because of body image? Nope. Never.
Even though I knew they could never dance for a living, I knew letting go of something they enjoyed because of body image was something that would haunt them forever. They did not develop eating disorders, but they did develop unhealthy thoughts about themselves. No matter what they would do for a living, the damage to their body image would haunt them forever. I knew this because I suffered from body image problems myself because of my benign tumors. They were obvious and made me look overweight. It upset me to look at myself in the mirror, but it hurt even more to hear people I thought were my friends make comments about how “fat” I got. It was something I tried to brush off, but I noticed and remembered. And so did my friends.
After the damage done to our body image, we began to work together to overcome our insecurities. We encouraged each other by complementing each other on things we did have control over. We did this to make sure we let each other know the choices we made are excellent and are valued. We complemented each other on each other’s looks. If someone got a new pair of glasses or hair cut, we’d complement them. But the most important thing we did was change the way we addressed things we didn’t like about each other. Because we were so sensitive, saying “That shirt doesn’t look good on you” isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s painful. So, what we would say is “The shirt’s cut looks really good on you, but I think if it came in a different color you would look better.” Addressing each other this way made us look at each other in a different way. We no longer thought about ourselves and instead looked at each other, what made them physically attractive, and what we could do to encourage them to bring out their best side.
This was not easy. We were wounded young women, scared stiff trying to make it in the world while healing by being surrounded by others who shared the same wounds. It was a recipe for disaster, but for my friends and I, we learned that each and every one of us had a deep seeded motivation to reclaim our lives after someone or something wounded our image of ourselves. Even though dance damaged our body image of ourselves, we reclaimed it by removing ourselves from the situation that caused the pain and surrounding ourselves with others who did not want to wound, but uplift the people around them and hoped for the same in return.
It’s been over ten years since I was in college, but my friends and I are still friends. The way we talk about each other is still the same way we started to talk to each other to uplift each other, except it’s more polished and natural. We trust each other’s opinion no matter if it’s with clothes or with serious life problems. I’m so happy we have healed so much from those horrible days of pain and self torture because of someone else’s problems with the way our bodies looked like. We don’t dance like we used to, but we do occasionally dance. We don’t do it professionally, but it’s for fun. We don’t care about precision, grace, and if we look good doing it. It’s just fun now. And that’s the way we’d like to keep it.