As a dancer, many of us have a love/hate relationship with our bodies. We want better feet, longer legs, smaller chests, better flexibility. We often love what our bodies help us to achieve and revel in its strengths, but it’s the weaknesses that we focus on. We spend hours looking in the mirror repeating exercise after exercise, trying to reach the ideal, but aren’t always taught that it’s unattainable. For the passionate perfectionists out there like myself, that’s a hard pill to swallow. That pursuit of perfection starts us on a journey that can force us to create unhealthy habits that can sometimes lead us down a dangerous path. Though the folly of our youth (and often this industry) may tell us otherwise, in time many of us learn to love and embrace our imperfections just as much as our strengths. Here’s my story. so far.
I grew up a bit of a chunkster as a child. I was born 3 months premature – 2lbs, 9oz. to be exact – but my genes told a VERY different story. My body type is endomorphic – meaning that I have wide bone structure and gain both muscle and fat very easily. Because of this, it can be a challenge to keep up a lean physique. As a kid, my jeans were labeled “husky” and my shirts were size XL or XXL. I was taller than most in my class, but despite all that, there was no denying that I was “large”, “big-boned”, “heavy framed”, or whatever sugar-coated moniker one likes to give it. I didn’t receive too much ridicule nor was the butt of many jokes about it, but I was never really comfortable with the size I was. I grew up being taught that my clothes should be larger to disguise my body and when shopping, I found all the “cool” clothes were not in my size. When I purchased what I liked and wore it, others told me that the clothes on my body were “too tight” (which was often their own aesthetic) leading me to develop the thinking that my size was not what others would find desirable.
Middle school and high school brought the bulk of experiences that led me to think that my worth was tied to how I looked. As my body began to grow and change, people would comment with a chuckle and nudge, “Oh you’re getting a little big there…”, “You better watch all that food” or “You’ll end up big like Smith boys always do…”. After discovering dance and performance and seeing every company and performance I could get my hands on, I noticed there weren’t many dancers who looked like I did. Their world was one of form-fitting shirts (or no shirts..gahhh) and tights or worse (was he really wearing just a dance belt onstage?!?!) After one of my very first performances, someone close to me told me after that the costume I was in “made me look fat” and “you can’t be a dnacer if you look like that…”. It was then that I started to realize that I didn’t look the best in these garments.. As I saw other male dancers and how different my body was from theirs, I figured I needed to make a change. They were dancing in companies with graceful lines and lithe frames, pretty much doing the things I wanted to do, so in order for me to have opportunities like that, I must look like them.
It was into high school that I really tried to do something different. I thought better eating on top of the high level of dance activity I already maintained would do the trick. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard and started restricting my food intake. When I did eat, better eating consisted of counting calories, soup for lunch, and maybe a side salad for dinner. Skipping breakfast & dinners during the week and decent amount of fast food bingeing on the weekend helped too. Though I tried, I could never bring myself to purge as I always thought it was so dangerous. It eventually progressed to the point that I would consume paper to avoid calories in real food. Those red and white Stacker-2 pills and little brown tablets labeled ‘all natural herbal laxative’ were good friends to me back then also. My weight fluctuated a lot during those years, but I always thought I was doing the right thing, but I still never liked what I saw in the mirror. I inherently knew that my habits were bad, but I felt like I was making leeway toward looking like the guys that I admired. These habits continued after I graduated from high school and progressed into college, but in time I grew out of some of them. Good yes, but I never adopted any base lifestyle changes that could actually set me on the right path to better health.
In college, the sheer amount of dancing I did kept me in okay shape. Dancing 8-10 hours a day does wonders when your diet consists of 7-11 Big Gulp’s nearly everyday with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s as a Friday afternoon chaser! Throughout those years, I enjoyed success dancing in companies, but constantly felt like I let choreographers and directors down by not being the dancer that they could put in the tiny top (or no top at all) for their pieces. As the “big guy”, I was relegated to lifting and had the easy costume or pants and a t-shirt. Those old thoughts bubbled back up to the surface and that feeling eventually began to worm its way into my mind during class and rehearsals when I felt like my body limited me when I executed movement. I’d leave class or rehearsal feeling a bit downtrodden and upset, feeling like I was unprofessional by not being the ideal they were looking for. To this day I’m still challenged with those thoughts from time to time, but instead of falling back into those old habits, I take a moment to recognize why I feel that way, then reach for a better thought about myself, something that will fortify me and not break me down.
Thankfully, I’ve found a better head space about my body and how I feel about it. Though I still internally cringe when someone calls me “stocky” or when the attractive guy in the tank top walks into the room, I make REAL healthier decisions about what to eat and have adopted supplemental exercise on top of my regular schedule of dance. I’ve changed many of my eating habits, learned about when and why I eat what I do, and what I can do when I fall off that track. I have an awesome trainer who pushes me to reach my goals and keeps me working hard during and in between our sessions all so that I can finally reach a place where I’m happy with my body and how it looks when I see it move. Though I hope the changes can be seen physically, I put much more stock in how I feel and look rather than what shows on the scale or what others may say. It will be a continual journey, but now that I’ve started, I refuse to stop.