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How Ballet and Body Dysmorphic Disorder Dance Together

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

The dance world is truly one of the most difficult to be involved in. It’s intense, it’s demanding and it takes both an emotional and physical toll. When you see a ballerina twirling gracefully across the stage, you don’t see the years of training she has dedicated her whole life to, or the months of nonstop rehearsals for that one performance, or the fatigue she is feeling but is not allowed to show. You don’t see the past injuries that have held her back, the critiques that have brought her to tears, or the insecurities she faces each day.

No matter a dancer’s predisposition to mental health issues, the emotional toll is unavoidable. The pressure is beyond intense. I became exposed to it early on, and my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) latched onto it right away.

Dancers often feel they are being held to nearly impossible standards. There is an ideal height, weight, body type and set of characteristics they feel the need to achieve. I remember being a young girl and wanting to look like the famous Russian ballerinas, who represented that ideal. They are known for being the greatest in the world. Everyone at my ballet school worshipped them. They were medium height and very thin, with long limbs, pale skin and delicate features. And they all looked alike. Ballet companies strive for a uniform look. Not having the right look could be crushing.

With that strict vision in my head, one I thought I needed to achieve in order to follow my passion, I started to obsess over my appearance. I was tall for my age, with olive skin, a harsh nose, and unruly hair I could never put into the “perfect” bun. My arms were disproportionately long, and I had mild scoliosis, making my shoulders uneven. Even though I was naturally thin, and knew this, I still felt like my thighs and waist were never small enough. When all of these “imperfections” overwhelmed me, just the sight of myself in the mirror could almost bring me to tears. Of course, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) takes all these “flaws” and amplifies them to the point where they are all you can possibly think about.

A common symptom of BDD is constantly comparing your appearance to others. And of course, when I was surrounded by other dancers in a room with mirrored walls, that was impossible not to do. I envied the girls with longer legs, better feet and greater flexibility. I studied each movement to see how I could perfect my own, but the anxiety this brought on was debilitating. I began to hate my appearance and myself.

I always looked unhappy when I danced. It wasn’t because I hated dancing, as my teacher must have thought. It was because all I could ever think about was how awful I thought I was. I looked in the mirror constantly, not because I was vain, but because I was trying to see if staring at my reflection hard enough might change it. I had trouble paying attention, and therefore could never quite get the steps right because my obsessive thoughts were too loud. My teacher caught me looking at the clock too many times; she didn’t know why I was always counting down the minutes to the end of class.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who struggled with insecurities. All the girls had them, and were vocal about them. Discussing weight and diets was frequent. We all knew which leotards made us look “better.” We all knew which parts of the mirror made us look longer and leaner, and which made us look squatter.

With no diagnosis at the time and no treatment, I couldn’t handle this anymore. I gave up ballet, the passion I had committed myself to and was going to dedicate my life to. Of course, my BDD didn’t just disappear, and my OCD soon exploded into the new ruling force in my life. When I look back on my dance years now, I see years full of pain I don’t want anyone else to endure. I still love ballet, even though I can no longer do it myself. It’s a beautiful art form, and it’s invigorating to perform. But I want young dancers and those living with BDD alike to know what I wish I knew then: you do not have to conform to unrealistic standards in order do something you love. You do not have to have a specific set of features to be beautiful, and you do not have to let your insecurities control you.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

Originally published: March 1, 2018
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