I was the fat ballerina in my class. I was just eight years old when my body image first started being an issue. I started to notice how other people treated me because of the size of it. I took ballet classes for many years as a child. I had always loved the art of dance and the precise movements and carefully practiced routines. It was my dream to dance on pointe and be as graceful as the dancers I’d seen in the book on ballet my grandmother had given me.
My first ballet teacher really loved what she did. I wish I could remember her name because she treated all of us with kindness and compassion. Not once did I feel out of place or like I didn’t belong there. It wasn’t until her replacement Marlene* stepped in that my love for ballet started to take a turn.
The Replacement Teacher
Marlene was the complete opposite of my first teacher. She was loud, commanding, and didn’t have that soft radiant gentleness about her that I’d grown so accustomed to. She was always screeching “Suck it in!” while we pliéd at the barre. She would walk by with a rolled up magazine in her hand and smack our butts and bellies. TAP TAP TAP. Like a dog getting bopped on the snout when it had an accident on the carpet.
It didn’t take me long to notice that I got smacked with the latest Cosmopolitan magazine far more often than the rest of my classmates. I became painfully aware of how different their bodies seemed to float along the studio floor during practice. My tight bodysuit was unforgiving made me feel incredibly self conscious. During class I snuck looks at the rest of them and wonder why they seemed to have it so easy.
Suck it in
I started to tense my stomach as hard as I possibly could at home after practice. I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and hunch my shoulders forward to make my collarbones more prominent. Just to look a little bit smaller. To look more like my classmates, to look more like a ballerina. I had never seen a fat ballerina up on stage. I also knew that I was the fat ballerina in my class. Marleene made sure I knew that.
Marlene rarely picked on any of them. She had her favourites that she always put front and centre. That happens in any kind of organized performative movement. I’m sure they were much stronger dancers than me. Being stuck to the back for most of the performances felt like I was meant to be hidden. That didn’t help my self-esteem much, either.
I was told that I wanted to quit ballet, I had to do it myself. The day that I finally did it I was around eleven or twelve years old. At the top of a winding metal staircase was a small room outside of the dance studio. My mother, me, and Marlene were all crammed together outside of the closed studio door. Music floated out under the crack of the door from the class before mine. I had my hands pressed between my back and the cold white painted cement wall behind me. I choked out the words that I wanted to quit to the teacher I hated. I definitely lied about the reason when she asked why I wanted to quit. In reality, she had made me and my body feel so unwelcome that I didn’t want to be there anymore.
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