This post originally appeared on my tinyletter, Where is my Mind?
My daughter has wanted to do ballet since she was old enough to know what ballet was. When she was five and about to start kindergarten, a ballet studio opened up in the tiny town we lived in. We drove past the window front and while she couldn’t read, she could recognize the figure of a ballerina, pink and in a tutu, in coupé, up on pointe, arms in fifth position.
Of course neither of us knew this terminology yet, but she saw that figure in the window and declared, I want to go there.
She has always been physically precocious. She crawled early, climbed early, walked early. She mastered climbing to the very top of the park’s jungle gym, a structure meant for much older kids, and it showed when she would simple crawl off the side of the top when she wanted to get down. We always caught her and she would eagerly climb up again. She took to ballet immediately, loving the structure and the exactness of the movements, always in a hurry to learn more moves, to improve, to move up a level.
My daughter comes alive when she dances. It is her hyperfocus. I have never seen her concentrate so intensely than when she dances. While other girls are a mix of nervous and scared on stage, clearly showing it in their faces, my daughter smiles so widely, it lights up the stage. She picks up choreography quickly and can make others feel at ease with it.
On the relative eve of our next move, I have started looking for a new ballet studio for her. She has been frustrated by the school she has been to, the level they are at. She wants to be pushed, to be challenged. I found a company, one that looked professional and complete. Good teachers, excellent credentials. We went to “audition” and to find out where she should be placed. I had already warned my daughter that she may be behind kids her own age, but, like in Lexington, if she worked hard and mastered the required skills, she would move up quickly.
I wasn’t expecting the director to ask my daughter to leave the room while we talked and for her to tell me that my daughter needed to lose weight.
I’m currently 40-50 pounds overweight. The long commute to and from work has taken a toll on my body, as well as the stress that has come along with it. I had been drinking more. I had been eating worse, too tired when I get home from work to cook anything particularly healthy or balanced. I sat there, my overweight self, listening to this woman telling me my daughter needed to lose weight and interrogating me about her eating habits. I was too stunned to do anything, to say anything, beyond answering her questions in a perfunctory manor, my cheeks burning, my eyes welling up with tears.
My swim coaches had always commented on my weight. I am short and stout, curvy, and I have always had a healthy appetite. One coach, when I was much younger, told a couple of older swimmers on the team (in front of me and a few other younger teammates) that they should start having sex with each other in order to lose weight. I had coaches measure my body fat, weight me, make me keep a food journal, and outright call me out in front of the whole team about my performance being linked to my weight.
If they could see me now.
Everyone used to make comments in my family about my eating, if I really needed that second or third helping, if I wanted to hold the potatoes, or forgo dessert. The one time I did successfully lose weight in college, I was then hounded if I had an eating disorder. I went back to swim masters at my lower weight and could no longer swim distance. After a year and some extra weight from PhD stress, I could swim distance freestyle again, near the same times I did when I was swimming full time.
I am ashamed to say that I wept with relief my my daughter was born long and lean, with thigh muscles already defined in her legs from all the kicking she did while she was in my womb. She used to be able to still wear her 18mo dresses when she was three because she was so thin she could still zip them up as fancy tops. She had an appetite like me, but a metabolism to match it. We keep good food in the house that both kids know they can access when they are hungry. They eat when they are hungry, the stop when they are full. Both kids, when their blood sugar gets too low, start feeling sick, so often, when they start complaining, the first thing I say to them is to eat a little something and then see how they feel. 99% of the time, they were hungry.
I try not to talk about my weight. I talk about good, healthy food choices, and being healthy through being active. I talk about clothes that look good and fit regardless of the number on the label. I talk about being strong, and my daughter brags about how many push-ups and sit-ups she can do for her fitness tests. How she flexes her arms and some of the kids at school call her man-arms and she loves it. She is strong. Both my kids are strong. But she is also 11, almost 12, and you can see her body is starting to go through the natural changes that a girl’s body goes through.
When she was a baby, occasionally, she got a little belly, which we would kiss and tickle. And almost as soon as we noticed it, it was gone, and none of her clothes fit anymore, length-wise. She would store and then grow. We figure this is what is going on, that she is getting ready not just to grow, but to change.
But even if she isn’t, she doesn’t need to lose weight.
I sat there, in that room, being lectured on the importance of having a certain body type to be successful in ballet while my daughter watched Nutcracker rehearsals, immediately enchanted by the skill of the dancers. I heard the owner of the dance studio tell me that she had a lot of catching up to do, that she was going to be put on pointe immediately, that if she worked at it, she may be accepted into the main school next fall, but for now, she was to go to a offsite studio, to brush up on her skills. I nodded along, because I still didn’t know what to say.
When we left, I let slip that we would have to buy her pointe shoes, and that was it. Her dream has always been to be up on pointe, and she was thrilled. She didn’t even care that she would have to go to another site for the rest of the year. She raved about the dancers she saw rehearsing. I didn’t ask her if she noticed anything about them, how they all looked the same, in terms of their physique. I certainly didn’t tell her what the director had told me about her weight, about how she looks.
From there, we went to her studio here, for more Nutcracker rehearsals. Picking her up, the small studio held so many little (and not so little) ballerinas of different shapes and sizes, heights and ages and color. They are happy – happy to be dancing, happy to be together, happy to be doing The Nutcracker again for another holiday season.
I harbor no illusions about my daughter’s future ballet prospects. I don’t believe that becoming a pro is the only reason to do anything, that making the Olympics is the only reason to swim. Even if I had lost weight when I was younger, I wouldn’t have made the Olympics. Maybe I would have made Nationals, but then what? I swam because I loved to swim. I coach because I still love swimming. I want my daughter to do ballet because it makes her happy and though she may not even be the best, I want to give her the chance to be the best she can be.
I think of Misty Copeland’s first commercial for Under Armour, where a young girl reads the rejection letter Misty Copeland received when she was 13 and wanted to start dancing. She was told she was too old, that her body wasn’t right for ballet. I especially like the line where she is told she could be a professional dancer…in Las Vegas. And yet, now she is a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater.
I harbor no illusions about my daughter’s future in ballet. But she loves it. I want her to keep loving it. I want her to be her best.
I don’t know how to do that right now. I don’t even know if it’s possible. I can coach my swimmers of all shapes and sizes, I can reprimand the teammates who would try to body shame, but when it comes to my daughter, I am at the mercy of the teacher and the other students at the school, not to mention the dance moms.
So I’m still looking for a dance studio. It is going to break her heart, now that she has her mind set on this one. But I’m hoping that disappointment will fade faster than a lifetime of body issues this school will probably cause.