When I went to my first ballet class at age six, I knew I wanted to stay. I saw ballet as a way to make myself feel feminine, grown up, and graceful. And so, for about two more years, I stayed in weekly dance classes. It never once occurred to me to give it up and try something new-- that is, until I was taught by a particular ballet teacher, who I'll refer to as Miss Jessica.
Miss Jessica was highly trained, highly skilled, and highly not suited to work with children in the slightest. All I wanted each class was to gain an ounce of her approval. I was terrified of her to the point that I felt physically sick with dread and often tried to make excuses to my parents to not go to class. I felt weak and stressed, physically and mentally. Far more problematic than her cynical demeanor, however, was her tendency to make comments about our bodies, constantly telling us that we needed to get rid of our bellies if we wanted to look good on stage.
During barre exercises, Miss Jessica often went around to tell us to suck in our stomachs, but never explained how to using dance tools and terminology. Rather than disciplining our body form as dancers, she asked us to alter our body features, often using insults and mockery. So, we danced anxiously, holding our breath and never really quite knowing how to dance the right way. The skinniest girls in the class were her favorites, often regardless of their actual dance ability.
While rehearsing for our spring recital one class, Miss Jessica picked about five of us from the group to do the choreography while our classmates watched. At the end of our rehearsal, she stood silently for a moment before turning to them and instructing them to boo us. And they did. And it was humiliating. In a strange rush, I became all too aware of how my body looked in the mirror and how my stomach protrudes ever so slightly from my royal blue leotard. I had never really seen myself as a chubby girl until I noticed that the select girls I had just danced with were the ones who received the same degrading comments about our bodies time and time again.
In retrospect, I realize that ballet teachers are culturally known to approach their classes with strictness and discipline. It's logical and even respectable that they are able to do so, and to correct the dance technique of their students is undeniably important-- but I was eight years old, and she critiqued my body size far more than she did my dance ability. And, when push comes to shove, her body-shaming of my classmates and I is what drove me to quit dancing.
As I got older, I wished more and more that I could go back to dance. But by the time I realized that my weight and body type had no real effect on my ability to learn dance, it was already too late to find a beginner class for people my age. I've thought a lot about how, had my confidence not been shot down by an adult in my formative years, I could be an experienced dancer by now. I regret quitting and I resent the fact that my experience with Miss Jessica stopped me from doing something I now wish I had grown up doing-- and all because I had some baby fat when I was eight.
There are plenty of dancers of all genders, body types, and skill levels who are body shamed by their instructors, and it is simply not okay. What constitutes a healthy dancer or athlete is not at all contingent on if someone meets one specific body standard, and there are certainly more professional ways to address a dancer's body than intimidating them into "fixing" it. It hasn't been until very recently that I was able to start dancing again, and I've been blown away by what a different world it is to learn dance alongside body positive peers and under the direction of body positive instructors. It's no longer a source of insecurity, but, rather, one of empowerment.
Far beyond the realm of dance or athletic activities, we should be sensitive in how we talk to children about health and body image. Ultimately, we can't expect to produce an empowered generation of individuals if we allow outdated practices and attitudes to tear them down from the start.