Training for Ballet Made Me Realize That Healthy Body Image Isn’t Just About Weight

We all have different insecurities.
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We all have different insecurities.

My ballet teacher handed me the semester evaluation, and my eyes quickly scanned the sheet. “Ask me if you have any questions,” he said as I was still processing all the information.

The evaluation: Unacceptable Ballet Body.

As I read these words, my dance history flashed before me. I had spent seven years training at a preprofessional level in this art. Ballet had been my whole life up until this point. When I was 15, my family moved overseas to Japan, and I continued my training in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the training was not what I needed to become a professional ballerina. After an extended audition process, I was accepted to a residential ballet program in the United States, while my family remained in Japan. Even though I was 16 and would be halfway around the world from my family, I was willing to do anything for my dream to dance professionally.

But the romantic, fairy-tale version of ballet I had was brought into a harsh light as I stood before a horrible evaluation—physically drained and emotionally raw from years of being told that I just wasn’t good enough.

As a dancer, I always had insecurities about my body—looking at myself in the mirror in a leotard and tights left every flaw exposed. But what exactly did “unacceptable” mean? My shoulders were not flat, and my lower back curved. I am tall, much taller than most ballet dancers, and I was not born with hyperextended knees, another desirable but unnecessary attribute for ballet dancers. One of my teachers told me that every dancer should have hyperextended knees. In order to achieve this desired look, she would set my leg on the barre, push my kneecap down, and simultaneously lift my foot off the barre. Not only did I end up with an injury, but the experience also damaged my self-esteem.

Attempting to achieve a specific and mostly unattainable body type was something I had faced my entire ballet career. But realizing that my insecurities warranted the label of an “unacceptable body” at the fragile age of 16 was almost unbearable. As a teenager, I only saw in myself what my instructors saw—something that needed improvement.

When I was 17, I told my mom that I was leaving my program and moving “home,” back to Japan with my family. “It’s over,” I told her. “I’ll never be able to look at my back again.”

When I said those words, I truly believed them. Years of mirrored classrooms where your reflection was unavoidable meant years of me focused on that imperfect curve in my lower back. It was a flaw I couldn’t escape. Every day after I quit, I would put my hair into a bun and look in the mirror but avoid looking at my back.

Slowly over time I regained some of my confidence. It sounds silly to some, but the littlest things can become huge when you face the same criticisms day in and day out. It took time, but I can look at my back now. Still, it’s somewhat like a scar that reminds me of my painful pursuit of perfection.

I didn’t think much about the correlation between my insecurities and a healthy body image until I got to college. Every year, my sorority has a week dedicated to ending “fat talk.” We call it “Fat Talk Free Week.” While our campaign is specific to the weight-related esteem crisis, the point of it is much more widely applicable. Exact statistics vary, but many women struggle with maintaining a healthy body image. One of my favorite parts of the campaign last fall was when one of the original Dove Real Beauty models, Stacy Nadeau, came to speak.

Nadeau was able to relate to many women because her overall takeaway was simple and all-encompassing: Love yourself. Period. Nadeau didn’t lump insecurities into a stagnant, monolithic group. She acknowledged that women are different, and each woman’s perception of her body is different. But she also helped us see the importance of learning to love yourself, flaws and all.

What I’ve learned since leaving ballet is that a healthy body image is a multifaceted issue. As I put myself in more uplifting environments, the negative messages I received in the ballet world began to lose their significance. Having a week on campus devoted to bringing body image issues out of the dark and into the light of public conversation helped me see my feelings of insecurity for what they were. And I learned to let them go. I realized that even though I had healed physically, shoving those insecurities aside and pretending they didn’t exist anymore wasn’t healthy either. Talking about them in the open with other women who experienced body insecurity on different levels helped diminish that interior voice holding me back from self-acceptance.

We all have our insecurities—and that’s normal. The point is that we are all different, and we’re all beautiful in our uniqueness. Whether, like me, you’re struggling to overcome deeply embedded feelings of doubt, or you’re just having an off week and feeling down on yourself, know that you can talk about it, and you’re not alone. We can work together to build each other up and let every woman know that she is enough.

Photo Credit: Carly Webber