Plain oatmeal with sliced tomato and black pepper.
Coffee with cream.
Five spoonfuls of peanut butter and half a bag of grapes.
Ten years ago, this was my daily diet.
As a young dancer, I had some serious issues with food, but not in the sense that most dancers have issues with food. I was a socially awkward band-nerd ballerina, and my coping mechanism for getting through high school was usually ice cream.
I'm 5'9", and by the age of 18, I was tipping the scale at around 188 pounds. Not too bad for a normal college freshman, but devastating for a girl who has to spend her whole day standing in front of a mirror in pink tights.
I was "talked to" on several occasions about my weight. These aren't easily forgettable conversations:
"You know, Lauren, you'll never get a job in dance unless you lose weight..."
"I don't think I can lift her... she's too big for me."
...and my favorite:
"I'm surprised how high you can jump considering how big you are."
Photo by John Jelinek
I remember finding my college audition form during a late-night sneak through the Dean's office with some friends. Clearly written across the top was "OVERWEIGHT" in big, capital letters. Beneath it was scribbled "$3,000," indicating the amount of the scholarship I was receiving.
So the people at my school saw me as fat and talented. I guess there are worse things...
Eventually, I realized that there were a few changes I could make to my diet to hopefully prevent me from having to buy plus-sized leotards. It started by cutting out white bread and regular soda. I saw measurable improvement, and after six months or so of careful and healthy attention to what I was eating I had lost about 25 pounds.
Neat! I was finally getting positive attention from my teachers and peers. I transferred to a different school, moved to the city and started seeing a career in dance as a real possibility. But a combination of an extremely limited budget, living in an apartment and cooking for myself --along with some serious body image issues -- sent me on a weight loss spiral.
Hence, the daily intake of nothing more than oatmeal, grapes and peanut butter.
I was desperate to do anything that would allow my body to lose more weight, including adding excessive amounts of exercise. After dancing all day, I would wake up in the middle of the night and go to the gym in my building for three-mile runs. I was consumed by what my body looked like, isolating myself from friends and family and literally driving myself crazy. And the kicker was everyone told me I looked fantastic.
At a weight of about 135 pounds, the bottom fell out. I got injured, and sporadic training and depression caused me to put on weight, and quickly. It also got me fired from a dance company. Seems as though they liked me better at my svelter weight, since the reason I was given for being released was "not looking good in the costume."
As Eating Disorders Awareness month draws to a close, I share this personal story not to draw attention to me or to what I went through, but to throw it out there that dancers who struggle with eating and body image aren't alone, and no two stories are the same. My problem was not anorexia, but a food addiction, which wasn't really understood by anyone around me (including me). I never received a diagnosis, never sought help or treatment of any kind, and it's taken nearly 10 years to rebuild my hostile relationships with both food and dance.
As our field evolves, maybe there's a place for a dancer like me that wasn't there when I was growing up. The teachers and directors around me saw that I had talent, and believed in me enough to pick me, hire me and give me a scholarship. But ultimately, they didn't know what to do with me, or understand that I don't fit in a mold (or an old tutu that some stick-thin girl wore 25 years ago). Looking back now, I think these adults were trying to help me, and I'm sure that they felt equally mortified by our conversations. But to imagine that I was oblivious to my size was naïve on their part, and congratulating a period of rapid weight loss without digging deeper is ultimately imprudent.
I see my current stature (healthy weight, still tall) as an opportunity rather than a crutch. At both my heaviest AND my lightest, I was doing a disservice to dance because I was focused on my appearance above the movement. The world is just beginning to recognize dancers as athletes, and what I'd like to impart to dancers of any age or size is that it's not about altering your bodies to fit dance, it's about altering dance to fit your bodies. It's about fit vs. unfit, not fat vs. thin, and a dancer of any weight who moves with integrity, passion, athleticism and a full range of motion is simply unstoppable.
Author's Note: This article first appeared on The Dance Training Project as part of a monthly series of personal stories about disordered eating behaviors among dancers. For more information about The Dance Training Project, visit http://danceproject.ca