This is what I overheard amongst the ballerinas today. 11-year-olds should not be worrying about flabby arms, especially since not one of the 10 preteen girls included in this conversation are fat or had flabby arms. My heart sunk and my stomach turned as I realized if these lean, dancers think they’re fat, what if all little girls think they’re fat? I didn’t say a word because I was speechless.
Every Wednesday, I take my daughters to ballet. They were in class when I heard the girls talking. This has been my routine for nearly 8 years. At least 4 classes a week, I am surrounded by a plethora of beautiful, young, graceful, strong and lean girls (ages 3 and up). It’s always been a place of positivity and the focus is on the dance moves, not the size of the dancer’s ass. Why would it be?
My girls have danced with the city ballet practically since the moment they could tell me that was what they wanted to do but I went in with my eyes open. I’ve heard the horror stories of ballerinas who are malnourished and have eating disorders. I know these are brought on by the constant focus on body and weight that is necessary for any athlete.
Having battled severe eating disorders myself, I promised myself a few things 1) I would never negative talk in front of my girls 2) I would do everything in my power to instill high self-confidence and positive body image and 3) if they were ever involved in a situation where someone made weight the focus, I’d pull my daughters out because it’s not worth it. I won’t allow anyone to undo the self-esteem that I’ve spent years building.
Perfection is not achievable, mostly because it’s a moving target, and no girl should feel that her self-worth has anything to do with her weight. Only in ballet, like many sports, it is hard to be in top performance form if your body is not at its absolute best so even if there isn’t a blatant focus and criticism of body size and shape, it’s there, lurking like the boogie man just waiting to destroy your daughter’s self-confidence. I know it and, apparently, so do these girls. How could they not living in a world where thigh gaps and bikini bridges are aspirations.
I wanted to grab those girls and hug them and shout to them, “No! Your arms are not flabby. You are perfect. Your body is strong and beautiful and amazing. It is what moves you on the stage. It is what moves you in the world. Your body is what makes you….YOU!” I wanted to, like I wished someone would’ve done to me the first time I looked in the mirror and saw my 12-year-old body and saw imperfection in perfection. But I couldn’t because I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t supposed to hear that. They aren’t my daughters.
At that moment, I was too busy praying that my daughter, just inside the classroom, didn’t hear this slightly older ballerina who she looks up to calling herself “flabby” and “fat.” Because if you’ve ever been involved in the dance world, you know, there is nothing a tiny ballerina looks up to more than a bigger one, even if it’s only by a level. I held my breath and waited to see if she mentioned anything. She didn’t.
You see, little girls are like sponges; they absorb everything that they see and hear and once they know it, they can’t unknow it. They keep it and pick at it like a scab. I know this is true because my own daughters have even began to pick up on subtle cues, ones that I don’t even know I’m doing. They know how to decipher a hint and they can figure things out. They are not oblivious. I went home last night and began to think of all the ways I hint at my dissatisfaction with my own body; long sighs in the mirror, tugging at my shirt, tiny fits of rage when trying on clothes in the dressing room. I can’t do that anymore. They’re too smart. If they’re unhealthy or think they are fat, I feel like it’s my personal parenting fail.
I feel terrible that I didn’t grab those little girls and tell them how perfect and strong and amazing they are. I had to do something so I emailed the Director of the Ballet (a mom of two small girls, a ballerina and a friend) and I told her what had happened because I feel like going silent makes me a part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution.