From age 4 to 14, I lived and breathed ballet. Something about the lavish costumes, pre-performance butterflies, and melodious music enthralled me. (Plus, I’ve always been a sucker for any excuse to wear glittery makeup.) But looking back, I realize that ballet was so much more than just a glamorous hobby. It gave me something that I’ve carried with me throughout my life: Believe it or not, I have ballet to thank for making me the feminist I am today. Here, I’ll explain.
When I was 3, my mom signed me up for dance lessons, where I learned a hodgepodge of genres: tap, jazz, and ballet, to name a few. After a couple weeks, my dance teacher told my mom she thought I should focus solely on ballet, and the rest is history. For 10 years, I dedicated my life to lengthy classes several days a week, summer dance programs, and my favorite part: The Nutcracker and spring showcase. The ballet studio became my home away from home. At the same time, I was experiencing all the awkward and cringe-worthy moments of growing up—middle school dances, first kisses, braces, acne, the works. My body was changing, and I was slowly being shaped into who I would become. I was getting taller and becoming curvier, which naturally meant that I was gaining weight.
This was around the same time I started becoming aware of the beauty standards that society had unwillingly forced upon us. Thin was considered beautiful, and anything else wasn’t. Dancing had always made me feel confident, which helped me deal with those pressures. It was easy to compare myself to thinner dancers or celebrities I saw on magazine covers (Mandy Moore was my idol). Being a preteen girl (or boy) is tough even without the scrutiny and pressures to look a certain way. I was at the age when almost every young girl in American culture starts to develop self-esteem issues. But contrary to popular belief, ballet helped me become an exception.
I’ve always had thighs and curves, but through ballet, I actually learned that that’s okay.
When people think of a ballerina, typically images of slender, gazelle-like women come to mind, perhaps someone who resembles Natalie Portman à la Black Swan. Ballet dancers are often thought to be underweight, with a severe eating disorder. I was aware of these stereotypes (which are at least somewhat true; a 2014 study revealed that ballet dancers have a three-times-higher risk of suffering from an eating disorder), but the thing for me is I’ve never been, nor will I ever be, stick skinny. No matter how much my weight fluctuates, I will never have a thigh gap. I’ve always had thighs and curves, but through ballet, I actually learned that that’s okay.
Throughout the 10 years I spent at my ballet academy, I had the privilege of seeing women of all shapes and sizes glide across the stage with grace. I remember one dancer in particular who was known to be one of the best ballerinas at the academy. She was much older than me and had incredible talent and stage presence. What made her stand out to me (besides her obvious skill) was that she didn’t have the stereotypical ballerina body, just like me. She had boobs, hips, and curves. And the way her body was built actually made her dancing better. Stronger. More expressive. Having her as a role model helped me understand from early on that bodies come in all forms, and even if they don’t fit the lusted-after mold that society wants them in, that is okay. It’s more than okay.
I learned what if felt like to have confidence and feel beautiful at an age when it’s easy to feel the opposite.
Since I got to dance with and befriend so many girls of all shapes, sizes, races, and ethnicities, ballet strengthened the respect I had for all women. I got to see firsthand how strong and capable we really are, which is part of the reason I’m the feminist I am today. Ballet may be known to be frail, but in reality, it’s badass. I felt fearless whenever I danced. It gave me strength. I learned what if felt like to have confidence and feel beautiful at an age when it’s easy to feel the opposite. Turns out you don’t have to fit the stereotypical mold that society made for us in order to do what you love. Strange as it sounds, ballet helped me feel like that was true all along.
Arcelus J, Witcomb GL, Mitchell A. Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2014;22(2):92–101. doi:10.1002/erv.2271