Around that same time and in a rare occurrence of joiner-hood, my mother agreed to buy me some ballet lessons. I didn’t necessarily want to do ballet exactly but I wanted to dance and that seemed to be the only kind of dance on offer to a little girl at the time. The first day in class, I noticed that my belly stuck out MUCH farther than anyone else’s. In fact, it was the second time in my life I felt fat (the first is a story for another time).
It was a painful feeling. I don’t particularly remember any of the girl’s teasing me exactly but for some reason, I have a memory of my instructor’s face being disapproving. No words. Just a look. I remember too, looking around at all of these whisps of girls with their flat – in some cases, concave! -- bellies and their long necks and their toothpick legs with thigh gaps a mile wide and knowing that everything about me was wrong. I did not belong. One of these things was not like the other.
I’m not sure how I came up with the greatest lie I’ve ever told but I do remember that it came to me suddenly and felt absolutely right. When my mother picked me up after the second or third lesson, I sat in the back of the car and told her what seemed to me like a hilarious story: The instructor – in front of everyone – had laughed out loud and told me that my belly looked as if I had swallowed a basketball then the whole class laughed at me, along with her. As I told this story – which was a complete invention of my hurting little girl brain – I laughed like it was the greatest joke I’d ever heard. My mother laughed too. It made her angry with my instructor but, for whatever reason, she thought it was hysterically funny. And, I KNEW that she would. I knew that was the reaction I would get. That’s why I told it. I remember over the next several weeks and months, I got to retell that “joke” a million times. My mother would remind me of it from time to time even into my early adulthood. She would laugh and laugh. Whoever else was hearing the story would laugh and laugh.
And every single time, it hurt.
It’s weird and you probably don’t get it. If I was hurting, why would I joke? If I was a child, why would I have to tell a made-up story instead of just telling my mother the truth about how uncomfortable I was?
In my little girl’s brain, the shame of being “the big girl” in what seemed like a sea of waifs didn’t stop at size, it was compounded by the fact that I felt shame at all. It felt like feeling sorry for myself which I was not allowed to do. It felt like caring too much about myself which I was not allowed to do. My size – particularly at that age – felt like it was something I had absolutely no control over. I had no control over the other girls’ sizes. I had no control over the disapproving look on the skinny dance instructor’s face. But SOMEHOW I had gained enough sophisticated language use and understanding of my mother’s psyche to know that if I turned my horrible discomfort and self-hatred into a JOKE that made my instructor look like a raging bitch and me like an ugly, little fat girl that I’d never have to go back to that class again, no matter how much my mother paid for it. And I didn’t. I just had to endure telling the I-swallowed-a-basketball-whole joke about a hundred bazillion times. I wasn’t allowed to share my real feelings but I was allowed to make a joke of myself and my pain.
I have always wanted to dance. After the basketball-in-the-belly ballet class, I didn’t much. Not until… I discovered – at too young an age – drinking and dance clubs. And both were like a portal to another world.
As I got older though, that behavior, was no longer sustainable. So, I found yoga trance dance videos and danced through my pregnancies in my living room. I found Zumba. I found Break the Chain – a choreographed dance for the One Billion Rising movement. I dance in my living room, my dining room, my bedroom. I mean… I put on workout clothes, I clear a space, I crank up the music and I dance my ass off – belly and all!
I haven’t exactly put it all together yet: The relationship between body shame and dance and liberation and my particularly intimate history of growing up in a body shaming household and family. All I can say for sure right now is despite the heaps and heaps of body shame that have been packed upon my body since I was a baby, there has been a dancer inside of me that has refused to stop moving. She seems to dance in fire and light. She refuses to believe that I am not allowed to dance. She forgives the little girl who made the joke that took her away from ballet lessons. She is beginning to convince me that my body is not a joke. And even though, for the most part, I have hidden her away from the world as much as possible, I am beginning to see that she is the wisest, deepest, most authentic piece of myself. SHE will be the reason I survive the rest of my life… as she is probably the reason I have survived this long.
Whatever this fatphobic, health-obsessed, body-shaming world tells us, the shape and size of our bodies does not determine whether we get to feel the liberation of dance – or any other kind of movement. Not when we are children. Not when we are teenagers. Not when we are grown-ass adults. We are allowed to dance. We are allowed to move. We are allowed to exist without apology or shame in this world.
Dance your asses off, Teamies!