For a decade I suffered from bulimia. During my recovery, I came to know Merryl Bear, the director of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC). She had heard that I was a dancer with the National Ballet Company of Canada and asked if I would choreograph and perform a dance based on my recovery at their upcoming conference. I said yes even though the prospect of being open about my struggles scared me.
Creating the dance solo was a challenge because the subject was still raw. I felt so vulnerable. Finally, after months of rehearsal, I waited backstage at the theatre where the conference was being held. My hands clenched into fists and my shoulders tightened in an effort to collect the strength to walk on stage. This would be the first time I admitted publicly that I suffered from an eating disorder, and doing so took all the muscle I had. A large empty mirror frame stood at center-stage, waiting for me; the partner that would give meaning to my performance. I breathed in and took a step into the light. As I did so I heard someone in the theatre gasp and say, “She’s so thin!” Her tone was sharp and brittle. I wondered if this audience member thought I was part of the problem, and that just by standing there on stage my size was encouraging people to starve and dislike their bodies. I took another step towards the mirror frame. Further murmurs of judgments about my size rippled through the theatre. My body froze. I felt that I didn’t belong here, that I was too thin to be spokesperson for positive body image.
I was immobilised not just by a feeling of not being accepted but also by the irony of my situation, because just one hour ago I had been made to feel shamefully overweight.
The theatre where the NEDIC conference took place was across the street from another theatre, where I was dancing in the premiere performance of The National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo & Juliet. During intermission, I had run across the street to perform at the NEDIC conference.
My required performance weight at the National Ballet Company was bone thin. This was not my choice but the weight required of me to keep my job. For the past five years I had struggled to maintain this unnatural shape. I was told that, because of my “large breasts” (I was a B cup size), I had to be even thinner than the other girls. Those of us with “large breasts” were so ashamed of our womanly curves that we would bind our chests for performances.
Our ballet rehearsal mistress frequently told me that I would lose a role unless I dropped weight. I was constantly on a starvation diet. Then after dieting intensely for days, a famished “creature” would seize control, and an intense desire to eat would overcome my willpower. In a trance-like state, I would binge on all the foods my strict diet denied me. Emerging from my daze, I would try to erase the calories through various methods of purging.
And yet somehow, my struggles with eating were not the worst part. That honor went to the hatred I felt towards my body, and the shame I internalized for not having the willpower to maintain my starvation diet. I often slept on the bathroom floor fighting the urge to find relief through self-harming. I would lie like that on the cold tiles until morning because the comfort of my bed seemed too indulgent for someone who was such a failure. One morning, after a particularly traumatic night, I scraped myself off the bathroom floor and I looked in the mirror at my sunken eyes. I saw in them that I was dying — a soul death that would eventually result in a physical death if I stayed on the path I was on.
I chose life. I found an eating disorder therapist and began the recovery process. I spoke with the ballet company, telling them I was in recovery from an eating disorder and might gain weight, but that I would try to get back to my performance weight as quickly as possible. Shortly after this, the company went on tour to Washington, D.C. After we returned, the artistic director told me I had been far too fat to appear onstage, but due to so many dancers being injured, they were forced to keep me in the performance lineup. As a result, he informed me, I had embarrassed the nation of Canada on the international stage!
By the time of the Romeo & Juliet premiere, I had been told that I was fired because of my weight. They allowed me to finish up the last months of my contract, but only cast me in parts that called for long dresses to hide my “overly large” legs.
So there I was, onstage at the NEDIC conference, with legs that were apparently “too thin”. Eight feet in front of me, my mirror frame beckoned me to join it in a dance. My legs felt unsure of their identity and refused to move. Across the street I was too big, and now I was too small. I wondered at what point in crossing the street this change had occurred. Was it when I walked by the yellow car, or when I had to stop to let the bus pass by? I almost laughed. I was both too fat and too thin, simultaneously. There was no winning. I had been searching for body acceptance externally, and I realised in that moment that it did not exist out there. The ludicrousness of the situation gave me clarity, and in a flash I realised that the only place I could find self-acceptance was within myself. My body naturally settled upon this size when I stopped starving myself and it felt right for me. Feeling rushed back into my legs. I took a step forward, followed by another. The murmurs about my body quieted. I reached up to touch the mirror frame and on cue, the music started. It was time to tell my story.
And tell my story I did. The steps I took on that stage changed me. I went on to perform my mirror frame piece for fifteen years in various high schools and eating disorder treatment centres across Canada. My healing dance resonated with and gave inspiration to people who suffered from eating disorders and body image issues. In the post-performance chats, I promoted body acceptance not only as acceptance of larger sizes, but as acceptance of the healthy range of sizes we all come in.
You get to choose how you feel about your body – not others. Healthy bodies come in a vast range of sizes, from big to small and everything in-between. Society will always have and promote different, constantly changing opinions on what the ‘perfect size’ is. I have learned the hard way that there is no right size beyond the one that you were born to be.