The “Fat” Ballerina
When I was younger, I wanted to become a ballerina. Unfortunately, I was too fat.
I loved ballet and as my ballet teachers liked to put it,
“You have so much potential, Denise. If only you lost a little weight.”
At age 10, I started to hate my body. I hated that you couldn’t see my hip bones under my leotard. I hated that the waistband of my tights always pinched my waist so it looked like I had a second stomach. I hated that my boobs were big enough to bounce all over the place. I hated it all so much that while everyone wore a leotard to class, I’d always try to wear a shirt on top of my leotard to cover as much as I could.
When I was 13, I joined my ballet class in Shanghai for a workshop. Two mortifying moments stand out.
The first was a pas de deux exercise where all the girls were paired up with men from the Shanghai Ballet Company to experience couple dancing. As all the tiny girls got paired up, my ballet teacher said loudly,
“We need a bigger guy for Denise.”
The second was when I was leaving the hotel with my dad and we passed by my teacher’s room. We stopped to say hello and naturally, because there really aren’t other things to talk about, they started talking about my weight. Eager to make a joke out of the situation, my dad piped in and said,
“Maybe if there was a Fat Swan Lake production, Denise can star in it.”
By the time I was 15 I just stopped showing up to ballet class.
Maybe it was because I didn’t want to wear leotards anymore. Or maybe I was fed up with being called fat every Sunday afternoon. It was probably both. But I knew for sure it wasn’t because I stopped loving dance. I had just let words come in between me and dance.
For a while, I lived my life with this lens. I believed people when they said I had potential, but in my head, I also believed I could only achieve that potential if I could shrink my body just a little bit more. I became sensitive to words about my body that slipped so easily out of everyone’s mouth. I stopped eating, I criticized the way I looked, I feigned confidence when in actuality, I wasn’t impressed with myself at all.
One day, at the height of only eating 500–700 calories a day, I remember being at dance practice (I had now joined a hip hop dance team) and having my teammate tell me, “You have the cutest body, Denise!”
I looked at her like she was crazy.
If I could have manically laughed at that point in a socially acceptable manner, I probably would have. She said what I’ve always wanted to hear but any satisfaction I gained from hearing it quickly dissipated as I panicked at the thought of losing my “cute body”.
It all felt so inauthentic. I was exhausted. I was tired of watching my weight, watching what I ate, saying I wasn’t hungry, and most of all, disliking myself. I wasn’t making decisions for myself, I was chasing approval and permission to succeed. I made decisions based on what I thought would make me look the best in front of other people.
When I finally entered college, I decided to stop my obsession with food. It wasn’t easy. Unlearning 10 years of shame towards my body doesn’t happen over night. It requires patience, kindness, and most of all persistence. Because what you realize is that the voice that tells you you’re not good enough is persistent as hell. And if I wanted to stand a chance, I needed to be persistent too.
Nowadays, these insecurities still pop up. Sometimes about my weight, sometimes about the way I look, sometimes about the work I’m doing. It’s real, it happens.
But when it happens, I persistently push myself to tread boldly forward.
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