Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dance and Body Image

You never realize how white you are until you accidentally stand under a brighter light than the rest of the troupe. Fire & Gold Bellydance, photo by Pedro Romano (I think).

From time to time I see surveys about how belly dance has affected a woman's self esteem or body image. For me, the answers vary from day to day. Sometimes dance builds me up and I feel like the most beautiful, wonderful person in the world. Other times it tears me down and I feel like a failure who should definitely wear a bag over her head.

Dance also changes what I love and hate about myself. On a normal day, I'm not too fond of my belly fat, and often I hate how it looks in photographs of me dancing. But when I do a big Egyptian shimmy and it jiggles all over and makes the movement look like an earthquake? Then I kind of love it. On a normal day, I am happy being fair-skinned, but on a day when everyone else I'm dancing with has a tan, I feel really out of place and awkward... especially when my spot in the formation puts me under a light that shouts "HEY LOOK HER BELLY IS SO WHITE!"

Some things never change, of course. I always love my hair (long! red! just thick enough!), and I always hate my teeth (overbite! yellowness! ugh!). And I always feel just a little too tall even if most of the troupe is the same height as me (I'm not tall, just limb-y), and like I am going to take someone out with my fingernails during a spin.

Body image was much on my mind yesterday as I looked at proofs from out photo shoot and mused about what I loved and hated about my body, and how I looked compared to other members of my troupe (ladies, I think you're all more gorgeous than me, so no worrying that I told myself "Well at least I look better than XXX." I would never think that about you). Then my family came over and our conversation took an interesting turn.

True fact: As a young man entering the Air Force, my dad was 6'2 and 107 pounds. That is not a typo. One hundred and seven. At six foot two. As a full grown adult. I expressed amazement. I knew my Dad had been skinny, but I didn't know how little he had weighed back then. And let's be honest with ourselves here: I'm 5'6"ish and I don't think I've weighed 107 or less as an adult.

So my Dad started telling a string of one-liners about how skinny he was, finishing with "I've heard them all, and told most of them about myself." And it made me think about being a skinny teenager (back before I developed the curves that ensure I will never be 107), and how no one ever said any of those jokes about me. No, all skinny teenage girls get is well-meaning adults (usually older women) telling you to eat more. I got told I didn't eat enough to sustain a bird, which was pretty ridiculous because I ate until I didn't feel hungry any more, and then I ran around and biked and was a generally active girl, so obviously I was fueling myself well.

For teenage girls and adult women, the general expectation or goal is skinniness. Especially for teens, when we haven't finished developing. Our peers find other things to tease us about (for me, it was my teeth, no wonder I hate them). It's not until we become adults that skinny suddenly becomes a sin. The media holds up airbrushed images and stick-thin models, sure, but your Facebook friends constantly post memes declaring that "real women have curves" and "it wouldn't be fair to the other women if I was this awesome and skinny." They build themselves up while tearing others down. I feel like I've talked about this before, though.

I have never been more aware of my body than I have been since I became a dancer. Sometimes it's a wonderful awareness, the soreness of abs well-worked in class, the admiration of arms that creative beautiful lines. And other times it's looking at a picture of myself at the bottom of an undulation and going "great. I look pregnant. I hope no one in my family gets the wrong idea." And it's painful sometimes, that constant worry of whether I'll be able to make progress as a pro while I have braces, the question of whether I need to make serious diet changes or just run more, the possibility that weight loss will mean smaller breasts and suddenly I need to remake all my tribal bras.

I feel like this will always be a complicated relationship, this threesome between my body, dance and I. It will only get worse as I age, and my knees get creakier and my face gets lined. It's something I just have to accept, and just remember not to let the struggle ruin the things that I love about dance.          


  1. Thank you so much for baring yourself as you did in this post. You so eloquently voiced the conflict that I think many women have in that dance makes them feel good sometimes, but other times they look around at who they're dancing with and feel self-conscious. "I feel like this will always be a complicated relationship, this threesome between my body, dance and I." Yet another example why it's so important to develop a tight sisterhood in dance that builds each other up.

    1. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful response! I love your last line... Yes, if we build each other up, it's easier to feel better about ourselves!


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