Please note, this post contains details of a journey through negative body image and disordered eating. If you’re triggered by that subject matter, please do not read.

It starts…

It started when I was 13. I’m not sure I had much awareness of my body shape before then, except that I was sometimes called “skinny.” It seemed that it was considered a good thing, so I remember taking it as a positive.

When I was 13, I went away to my first Summer Intensive. I ate the way my newfound friends did. It was a lot more food than I was used to, but I had never danced as much as I was either.

I definitely gained weight. My body had changed. I was prepubescent, so a few more inches of height were coming my way. In the meantime, I had just added bulk, and one of my regular teachers let me know.

A turning point

One of my first days back at my year-round studio, I was sitting outside a class observing before my own class started. My teacher patted me on the thigh and said, “that wasn’t there before.”

That was a turning point in my life. From that moment on, no matter my weight, my thighs were too big. I no longer considered myself “skinny,” even if someone else said it.

My thighs were fat. Therefore, I was fat.

At the time, I made the goal to never get above 100 lbs and decided on a low fat diet to achieve that aim. I’d only eat foods that had 3g of fat or less. This meant cereal, an english muffin with jelly for lunch, and whatever my family was having for dinner.

In order to keep any disordered eating habits secret, I kept up appearances at dinner.

I lost the weight I had gained at my summer intensive. I also decided that all future summer intensives were opportunities to lose weight.

It becomes an obsession

The feelings around my body were pretty much all negative. My worth was dictated by the number on the scale. In my teens, I started stepping on the scale obsessively throughout the day. The pain I felt each time I saw the number (that I was never happy with) radiated throughout each day.

dancer body image

My efforts to “restrict” were quickly dashed by the feelings of deprivation. I became an on-and-off binge eater switching off between “restricting” (being “good”) and binging (being “bad”).

Throughout my teens and early 20’s, my weight fluctuated. It never got dangerously low, so I somehow avoided any official Eating Disorder diagnosis, though one was clearly there.

During that time, I didn’t see anything good about my body. I didn’t appreciate my hyperextension or bendy feet because I was too busy hating everything I saw in the mirror.

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When I went away to college, I was faced with the dichotomy of being a dance major with a lot of non-dance friends. For me, drinking and disordered eating had a hard time coexisting. If I drank too much, I’d lose control and end up eating. Still in the restrict-binge cycle, it was easy to fall back into extremes.

My sophomore year, I was injured and didn’t dance for a semester. I gained a lot of weight and weighed more than I ever had (though technically still at a healthy BMI). This led to more drinking (to dampen the pain and self-loathing), more eating, and lots of negative thoughts.

That summer, my goal was to lose the weight I had gained and then some. I wanted to return to school looking thinner than they had ever seen me. With more disordered eating practices, I succeeded.

It didn’t last.

Knowing only extremes, I had gone on an unsustainable raw-vegan diet. Somehow, with the ups and downs in food intake and the high level of activity I was able to maintain a low weight (though not as low as I wanted) and got my first professional job.

The body I wanted

Dancing professionally brought a new level of stress. Coping with the pressure of trying to prove myself while hating my body moved things to a breaking point.

I was burning out and felt powerless to stop it.

negative body image

When I looked in the mirror, while I felt there was improvement, technically, too much was still too large.

I was convinced that the problem with my dancing was my body. If only I were thinner, I would get the job or the part. It was validation. I wanted “them” to tell me I was good enough…worthy.

Never enough

I reached a goal weight my second year dancing professionally, so I lowered my goal….In the moment it still wasn’t clear to me that no number would make me happy.

As I continued pursuing dance professionally, my negative body image was one of the most consistent things. It threaded its way throughout my journey stealing joy from moments that should have been satisfying.

An end, almost

After a pretty bad foot/ankle injury that I struggled to come back from, I stopped dancing. Cold turkey. I went from grinding in the studio 6 days a week to nothing.

 I started taking yoga classes. Listening to what the instructors said, I actually began to appreciate the capabilities of my body.

The absence of a mirror was a gift.

The other big thing that happened was I stopped caring what other people thought. When I stopped seeking external validation, I was able to truly take care of myself.

Over time, I stopped dieting. To heal my relationship with food and my body, I allowed all foods. None were “bad.” It was all just food.

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For the last 7 years, if you asked me, I’d have said my body image issues were resolved. I honestly stopped hating my body. In fact, I love my body and myself.…I’m perfectly imperfect and totally unique.

The evolution

In all honesty, there were moments when a negative thought would pop up. However, I became a true pro at squashing them upon arrival.

Then, last fall, I got pregnant with my first child. Something we had planned for (though it didn’t happen right away). Throughout pregnancy, I welcomed the physical changes. I was (mostly) ok with the scale going up knowing that I was growing a human.

dancer positive body image

It was after my daughter arrived that some body issues resurfaced.

It’s worth noting, that with pregnancy and postpartum, there’s a lot going on. Physically, emotionally, spiritually—you’re firing on all cylinders. And for the most part, I was able to remind myself– you just birthed a human,” and “it took 9 months of pregnancy to get here; your body won’t bounce back overnight.”

But, I also googled, “how long does it take loose skin to tighten?” more times than I’d like to admit.

Ultimately, I knew that the foundations of body positivity that I had been setting for the last 7 years would support me through this new phase. Walking the walk in the principles of healthy eating + positive body image that I work through with each of my clients will support me in finding peace as my body and the way I view it continue to evolve.

One of the things I focus on with dancers is gratitude. I’m so grateful to have my beautiful baby, I’d choose her over abs any day of the week.

What’s next?

For you, if you relate to my experience, I’d love to hear from you. How has your body image evolved? If you’re struggling, know there is a way out. As dark as you might feel at times, the light has a way of finding its way in. I’d love to support you on your journey to body positivity.

Focus on what’s going well. Practice gratitude. Seek support.

For me, I can accept that my relationship with my body image will continue to evolve. I plan to model body positivity and self love for my daughter in hopes that she’ll be able to avoid some of the pain of negative body image.…I recognize what a challenge this will be, but I’m fully committed.

Do your best to see yourself in a positive light, it leads to a life of endless possibilities.

The Evolution of Body Image
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Jess Spinner

Jess is a former professional ballet dancer turned Holistic Health, Nutrition, and Lifestyle Coach for high level dancers. She founded The Whole Dancer in 2015 after identifying a greater need for balance, wellness and support in the dance world. Since The Whole Dancer was founded, Jess has worked with 100's of dancers worldwide at top companies and schools. She has been featured in or written for Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Pointe Magazine, and Dance Spirit Magazine.

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