Happiest and Healthiest: My personal struggle with body image

From ballet to running: finding myself in the place without mirrors

From my very first day of dance as a three-year-old, I relished in all that ballet had to offer. It was an art form that, as so many others similarly do, placed me as its artist above the world of the mundane and everyday each time I entered the studio and stood before the mirror. In fact, it had its roots in such transcendence. Ballet, my teacher said, found its first purpose in the entertainment of kings and queens. Common folk, ordinary save their exceptional capacities for grace and balance, joined court jesters and troubadours in the departure of their humble homes to instead make livelier the palaces and ballrooms of royalty. One canonical sequence of leaps even paid homage to this history in its gestures: tombé, pas de bourré, glissade, saut de chat. To the king, to the queen, run-run, and leap.

That was also why, my instructor said, the presentation of ballet was so important. This was not a casual, lowly dance to be performed quietly in the gathering spaces of society. This was high art – an example of true beauty and femininity for those noble enough to witness it. To express true reverence to ballet as art, it must be done correctly.

Gradually, but with every bit of gusto expected of an enthusiastic new pupil, I learned exactly how to create that perfect picture with my body. I learned about lines and how essential they were to depict extension and grace, tracing the long edge from my toes, to my hip, to my torso ever so slightly inclined, to my fingertips. I learned that the direction of my gaze, the tilt of my head, could make that line stretch even further, provided my neck was not scrunched and my shoulders were pressed down into the space of my back. I learned that exertion was normal, but that revealing any countenance other than pure ease was unacceptable. My rib cage was to remain as narrow as possible, my breath was to stay soft and unhurried, and my brow was to rest smooth on my forehead. Through this, I was a warrior in my pain and in my focus, but an actress in my refusal to disclose such labor, constantly verifying that statement through the mirror.

To this day, I can hear my instructor’s voice. Imagine: if I were to take a picture of you right now, how would you look? The audience can see everything. The stage is designed that way. In a perfect auditorium, the lights will be so bright that you won’t be able to see past the conductor’s head, but the entirety of the audience will be able to see every single bit of you. Every snapshot, every second, is important. I know it hurts, but they don’t care, I don’t care – they don’t want to see that. They want the sparkle, the beauty, the elegance that only you ladies have. Give it to them.

Several years, or lifetimes, later, pink satin slid between my fingertips, smooth like butter until the crusted, caramelized end, burnt to prevent fraying. It was joined with its twin into a swift knot tucked deftly under the windings that snaked around my ankle. I stood achingly, slowly but firmly pressing each foot over the hard box of the shoe, joints creaking like old, well-trodden floorboards. The gel under the tips of my toes squished and molded under my weight, leaving too much space between my feet and the floor, an instructor had chastised. But I reasoned that a bit of extra space was a price I was willing to pay for toes that, unlike those of other girls using lamb’s wool, did not bleed. There were other spaces that I was more worried about, spaces that I did not have, spaces that were less empty than those of the girls around me.

I made my way to the center of the floor, readjusting myself amongst dozens of other slim bodies to find a place with an adequate view of myself in the mirror. As the instructor demonstrated the combination, I watched with only minimal attention, instead enraptured by the image of myself forever gazing back through that crystal-clear glass. An image with thighs that touched, with arms that touched my waist, with bulges that squeezed out between my leotard straps to even touch one another.

You want to be tiny; it’s to your advantage.

My gaze shifted to meet the eyes of my classmates. For an instant, I felt my heart thump harder in my chest with the sudden, unexpected intimacy of eye contact. But it subsided just as quickly when I realized that they, too, were mesmerized by their own reflections. The only difference was that they had more of the spaces that I lacked – the spaces that I thought I once had.

Filing out of the long line of curtsies to thank their instructor, I shuffled to the bathroom, watching but not feeling my feet as they hurried, replaying all that I could have done better that hour. The door swung open silently and I stepped inside, stopping at the sink to adjust my hair, which had been whipped out of its initial coil throughout the course of the class. The salty taste of metal danced on my tongue as I held a few bobby pins between my teeth, hands working to tame my hair all the while. Then, there was an awful noise. Despite the natural numbness in my feet, I realized that the lack of feeling had suddenly surged to my hips as well, taking my body hostage and frozen in place. I grimaced and my stomach twisted on its own accord, recoiling in response to the retches and sloshes I heard from the toilet behind me.

Does she think she’s alone?

My lips parted and I hiccupped a bit of air in preparation to say something, to announce my presence, to ask if whoever was in the stall was okay. But no sound emerged. Disoriented and wheeling in a fun house of alternate endings, I pivoted sharply and noiselessly, a blur of movement rushing out of the door to the sound of wet coughs echoing against polished surfaces.

I sat and stretched for the next few moments, making small talk with my friends and sipping cool water from a bottle. When they returned to floor, every position remained filled. Every pair of eyes was still locked, unwavering, on their images, in search of spaces that were never vast enough to make them no longer exist.

…the elegance that only ladies have.

They say it takes 21 days to break a habit. That might be true for fingernail-biting or pimple-popping, or nervous leg-bouncing, but what if all of that biting and popping and bouncing is nothing more tangible than a voice (your voice?) in your head?

I learned, so slowly that it was only in retrospect, that breaking a habit of thoughts took a lifetime. Not a lifetime in the sense that it couldn’t be done, but in the sense that by the time I overcame my own formidable power, I had changed so much that it seemed as if I had been rewired into an entirely different mind. This new mind also came with a refurbished body, a body that was objectively no different from the body I’d started with. But at the same time, it was changed completely.

I was running now, running with all my might, legs pumping against the concrete, muscles and joints humbly absorbing the impact that I demanded of them. The occasionally pungent, but nonetheless cleansing, city air rushed down my throat and into my lungs, both of which gratefully accepted it and stretched wide as if grinning in my chest. Like pendulums, my arms swung from my hips to just high enough that I could catch a glimpse of them before rushing down again. They were less happy with me, still grumbling after the work I had asked of them yesterday, despite knowing it was for their own good.

Rounding a corner, my steps grew louder and I approached a dark vehicle parked on the side of the street. I turned my head ever so slightly and peered out of one eye so as to not diminish the momentum carrying me forward. In the reflection of the car windows, I caught a lightning-fast image of myself – with monster muscles to which I tended and adored, with enough confidence to fill every space in the room, and without any notions of perfection. And dammit, I was beautiful.

I smiled and let my legs reach out longer in front of me. I was still running, but I was already there, alive and at home in the place without mirrors.

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Katherine Carbonell
Hi everyone! I’m Katie, a Junior majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology and minoring in Economics. Some of you may know me as the Ambassador of CHAARG, a college aged women’s health and fitness organization. My column will focus on this passion of mine and will highlight issues concerning physical health, body image, and diet on campus and in the surrounding Nashville area.

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