by Reeve Currie
Runestone, volume 3
by Reeve Currie
When I was a dancer, I wore my bruises like a badge. If someone noticed, I took it as a compliment. I worked hard to be able to twist and turn and make it look easy. Bloody feet, beaten into submission so that you couldn’t see the pain it took to cross the stage, pirouette after pirouette. Classes spent pushing my legs just a bit farther, holding my arms just so, always on the beat, never letting a pulled muscle or blistered ankle keep me from moving forward. In pointe class, dancing in shoes that help you stand directly on your toes, I would hobble and jump, balancing on one leg, flexing my back muscles so I wouldn’t fall over, straining my neck to see my image in the mirror. Sucking in my tummy and tucking my butt, crossing the room in combinations designed to kill you, collapsing against the barre, hating the torture and exhaustion, loving the pain. Sweaty and sticky, I’d pry off my shoes and dab my bloody feet. Blisters on my toes, ankles rubbed raw, bleeding toenails—the sign of a successful class. Due to one fateful class, my pinky toenails continue to fall off to this day.
My body was my tool, and I spent time making it look pleasing so that when others paid to watch me on stage, I disappeared into the background, letting the dance captivate them.
In a ballet school that prided itself on taking “every body, no matter what size,” only the thin, long-limbed girls got lead parts and solos. It was an unspoken rule that if you were a bit too plump or your feet too big that you wouldn’t be leading any sections. Your boobs couldn’t be too big or they’d draw attention away from the fluid movement of the body—if you jumped and they bounced, that was too big. Big boobs added too much weight and could swing your balance this way or that and make it hard to leap high or move quickly. Your arms and legs couldn’t be too long or you’d look gawky, which was even worse than having big boobs. Like a teenager going through puberty who doesn’t fit inside her new body, arms would bend awkwardly and legs would shoot out at random, creating the look of a boozy flamingo on stilts—not the ideal ballerina.
As a dancer, my body was other people’s property. Instructors had free reign to grab my legs, tuck an elbow, poke a rib, twist a stubborn foot into place. Classes were filled with instructions and critiques. Nothing cruel, but nothing was off limits. Your arm is drooping, turn out from your hips, stretch your neck farther, squeeze your butt, turn out! Always the chanting to turn out. We were trained to inhale up into our ribs so that our stomachs didn’t fill with air when we breathed, making us look fat.
After class, we’d compare bodies in the full-length mirrors. If other dancers could count my ribs, that was a good thing. We’d compare bulges around our bra straps and sweat stains down our backs. We’d ooh and ahh over Julia losing inches off her thighs and remind Sarah that she could recover from a cheat day by eating carrots. We’d celebrate when Emma bought a new leotard because her old one was now too big, and we’d plan a lunch date before a show where we would eat all of the carbs we wanted.
Comments on my weight were normal—if I had lost or gained, if my leotard looked a bit too tight. I worked my body to please instructors and audiences, to gain admiration from other ballerinas, to achieve more in performances, to feel satisfied in leaping higher, dancing longer. It wasn’t until I quit dancing, after a rough fall semester filled with sickness and tears, that I started to notice my body was still available for discussion. Although it has become more common in society for overweight people to stand up and say, Hey, just because I’m fat doesn’t mean you get to talk about my body, it doesn’t seem to be the same for “the skinnies.” Being skinny is seen as a good thing, better than being fat, and fits the social ideals for “beauty.” People assume that you want it pointed out and that they have free reign to comment on your skin.
Since I quit dancing, I’ve found other ways to stay physically fit and am more toned and fit now that the pressure is gone. Without the voices telling me to do better, aim higher, I’ve found my own voice, my own way of moving that’s more than exercise, but has no standard forced upon it.
In yoga class, where flexibility doesn’t matter, I’m often told to stop pushing my body to turn out (turn out, turn out). At one class next to two older ladies who had a hard time getting down on one knee, I hear, “Look at that skinny young thing!”
The younger of the two, more bold, a black woman with long dangly earrings and tassels at the ends of her pants, leans over. “You are one twisty pretzel!”
“Thank you.” I nod in her direction without meeting her gaze.
Her friend joins in. “We look like two old grannies next to you doin’ your thing.”
Laughter ripples through the back of the room. No one is trying to make fun, but they notice their own insecurities next to what they view as a better body. I don’t want them to feel less of a woman because they’re not five-foot-two and slender, so I quickly interject, “Oh, you two look great!” hoping to end the conversation. They mean well, but I’ll try to roll my mat out on the other side of the room in next week’s class.
Maybe because other women feel like I must be completely satisfied with my body since it seems to fit the desired image portrayed in the media, they feel that I’m open to commentary. Perhaps it makes them feel better to make comments such as, “You won’t look like that forever” or “I remember when I was young and flexible,” discounting that I have insecurities too, that I have bruises on my soul from trying to fit in, blending the edges and corners of my body to disappear next to yours.
I’m not ripped, I only lift eight-pound dumbbells when I work out, and I don’t mind my boyfriend offering to carry a heavy suitcase. But I know my body, its imperfections and weaknesses, as well as its strength. Helping a friend and her family move across town, I show up on an early Saturday morning and join in the throng of neighbors and friends, carrying thirty-six years of life out the door and into trucks and vans, backseats and laps. Reaching down to lift heavy boxes, men bolt over, telling me it’s too dangerous, let them take it. I try to help carry a bed frame out and am quickly moved aside. I don’t want to hurt myself now, do I?
My body is still noticed, much as it was when I danced, but the instructors and friends who I trusted to talk about my appearance are not the ones telling me I’m weak, too thin. Now it’s a student next to me in class, a mom across from me in the studio, a stranger online. I’ve learned to turn my head the other way when someone makes a comment on my weight, my skinny arms, how small my thighs are. Instead, I trust the image reflected to me by my best friends, my boyfriend; those who will be honest with me and those who find me beautiful no matter how much I weigh.
I enjoy working my body on my own now, getting to truly know my muscles, stubborn shoulders, bumpy nose. I walk out of a yoga class sweaty, exhausted, exhilarated. I eat pasta when I want, sometimes for lunch and dinner. I’m gentle on myself and sleep in on Saturdays. My boyfriend squeezes my bicep, admiring the slowly growing muscle, but I have the same extra skin on my tummy as every other woman. I still get bruises, mostly from falling in class or tripping over my own feet, but I don’t need them anymore.
Sometimes, if I listen close, I can still hear the everlasting chant of turn out, turn out, turn out!
Reeve Currie is a senior majoring in journalism with a minor in photography. Previously published in the Star Tribune and online with Minnesota Bride, she loves to write about life, books, and relationships. A lover of creative non-fiction, Reeve hopes to work for a newspaper or women’s magazine upon graduating. You can find Reeve writing on her blog, Girl on the Verge.