Body of Work

I should be mowing the lawn, really, but I want to try to sketch out some thoughts first.

Yesterday was a good day for me, body-image wise. Today hasn’t started out as one.

There’s no rhyme or reason to it, as far as I can tell. Sometimes it changes, for better or worse, in the middle of things. It shifts on the fly.

I should note that this is progress. It used to be all bad, all the time, no matter what.

Then, for a while, it got weird: like, sometimes I could look at my body and think, “Yes, this is a good and functional and rather nice-looking purpose-specific kind of body, but it doesn’t look like my body.[1]”

  1. I don’t mean I think this on a rational level. I mean, really, on the level of instinctive identity perception, in the sense most disconnected from questions of philosophy, there’s just no there there. There’s no conscious analysis involved, just an unconscious, “Nope.”

How do I explain that concept? For me, I think part of it stems from some fundamental disconnect in the neural circuitry that drives identity-related connections. When I look in the mirror, I don’t feel any sense that I’m looking at myself, really.

I mean, rationally, I know that I am. But the circuit that says, “Ohai! That’s me!” doesn’t really seem to fire. (Sometimes this results in me staring into the mirror for a really long time, trying to figure things out.) I don’t know if this is anything at all like what many people experience, but a few conversations and a fair bit of reading have indicated to me that it’s kind of weird[2].

  1. Please note that “weird” is a word I use without any value judgment. I actually rather like it. To me, it just means “strange” or “unusual,” sometimes “uncanny,” but without the additional sense of “…and offensive or repugnant.”

If you’ve ever seen a recent picture of yourself in which you don’t actually recognize yourself until someone points out to you, “Hey, that’s you!”, that might be a similar phenomenon (though, really, I’m not sure).

Curiously, the effect is diminished in class when I observe myself in the mirror and correct myself accordingly.

Yup, it’s long, so here’s a more tag:

My hypothesis is that the difference comes down to the neural feedback loops involved: like, theoretically, what might be missing (or, at any rate, not working to spec) in the first place is a feedback loop that tells me, “You are looking at yourself.” (This would be consistent, really, with the fact that I’m pretty far out on the prosopagnosia scale.)


…said my brain NEVER.

Perhaps, then, observing the movement of my body and correcting it from within the same body opens a different feedback loop; one that confirms I am, in fact, looking at myself.

Dancing seems to help—maybe because it means I spend a lot of time with that secondary feedback system engaged?

So there’s basically a level on which my sense of what my body looks like doesn’t update on a daily basis, but instead persists for long periods without any input from reality. It’s like the three-dimensional modeling software that makes the whole thing go keeps failing to update, sometimes for years at a stretch, and as a result the model is just completely wrong.

(Like, basically, remember the whole Apple Maps debacle?)

For a long time, I was walking around with a version of my brain’s 3D modeling software that used my body at age 13 as its set of parameters.

Now that I’m thinking about it, that kind of makes sense. I stopped dancing around then for a long time; stopped doing things that involved staring at myself in a mirror for hours at a stretch. I didn’t want to look at my body, so the external feedback loop didn’t really get any regular input for a really long time. I didn’t even have a mirror in my bedroom.

Nothing new was added to the parameters, so the old model persisted.

Anyway, at this point, after three and a halfish years of staring into a mirror for hours every week again, there are moments that I  think, “This is a nice-looking purpose-specific kind of body that looks like my body.”

…Which, in turn, suggests that the software has updated, or at any rate is updating.

And yet.

There are still days that I look at my body in the mirror and am repulsed by it. On some of those days, I’m rational enough to know that something weird is happening that’s interfering with my perception of reality; that there’s a precognitive or cognitive error happening somewhere that causes me to actually perceive a distorted image[3].

  1. The trip from sensation to perception is a long and strange one that, particularly with regard to visual input, takes place (at least, we’re pretty sure) across multiple pathways simultaneously. This can result in what is known in the literature[4] as “all kinds of crazy shizzle.”
  2. Okay, so they don’t really call it that in the literature. BUT THEY SHOULD.

On some days, I’m not that rational. On some days, it makes sense that the dimensions—yea, the very proportions—of my body have magically changed overnight, or that whatever I saw yesterday must clearly have been RONG.

On other days, I’m so horribly rational as to be able to say to myself, “If what you perceive on the bad days is false, then what you perceive on the good days is also false[5]. So, in short, the reality is clearly that you only think you look like a princely swan or something, when in reality you look like an ungraceful hippopotamus[6] attempting to do petit allegro.”

  1. Of course, this is fundamentally true at its most basic level (qv: the Buddha, with that “all perception is illusion” thing, but also neuroscience). It’s just that my on bad days my brain adds this element of, “You think you’re hot stuff? WELL, YOU’RE NOT. Pthhhhhhbbbthhhtht.”
  2. I’m not, by the way, body-shaming hippopotami, here (and, honestly, they’re surprisingly graceful in reality, especially in the water!). More, I’m trying to express the level of disconnect my Bad Day Reasoning assumes. And also, hippopotami really aren’t great at petit allegro, but mainly because they all have literal biscuits for feet.

Dem biscuits, though. (By Kabbachi, via Wikimedia Commons.)


So yesterday was a good day.

I glanced at myself in the mirror at one point and my brain flashed over to its Mental Image Search for “danseur”[6] and decided that I (which is to say, more accurately, “the boy in the mirror”) fit the search parameters reasonably well[7].

  1. Again, not really a conscious, cognitive process: just that instantaneous category-comparison thing that, in my case, happens to be very visual.
  2. Yeah, this is problematic as hell. I’m still percolating and percolating and percolating (yet) a(nother) post about the problem of being simultaneously opposed to the prescriptive idea of “what a dancer looks like” and also a reasonably decent representative of said prescriptive idea, and all the complicated conflicts and feels that result.

Partly this is because the internal modeling software has, in theory, finally updated its parameters. Partly it’s because my sample of “what dancers looks like” no longer goes:

n=”David Hallberg”

Like, this guy exists:


Alex Wong, ganked via Tumblr … photo credits to follow once I find them :/

…And he’s a straight-up mesomorph of the classical school in defiance of the rule that says “danseur=ectomorph”. (Whereas I am sort of a mes…ecto…morph; my body can’t make up its mind. No big shock there; my mind can’t make up its mind, either.)

(In related news, how did I not know about Erik Cavanaugh?)

And today is not such a good day. This morning, I got out of bed, glanced at myself in the mirror, and my brain went, WHYYYYYYYY. WHY DO YOU EVEN TRY.

(It didn’t even use question marks, because it was being a dick. I guess the lesson is that sometimes brains think they’re dicks, just like sometimes dicks think they’re brains?)


So, in the end, things continue to evolve (newsflash there, amirite? #hashtagtheonlyconstantischangehashtaghashtag).

The body of any dancer is the accumulation of countless days of work; untold hours staring into the abyss that is the mirror in the studio. The body of this dancer is the accumulation of countless days of work; untold hours staring into the abyss that is the mirror in the studio.

I used to be afraid that dancing would make my body image problems worse, because I’d have to spend so much time, like, looking at myself.

Instead, it seems generally to have the opposite effect. I spend less time hating my body than I used to, perhaps because my brain is no longer using an incredibly outdated three-dimensional map.

My brain has begun to say, “Oh, yes, this is what Metown looks like,” rather than, “Metown is tiny! This can’t be Metown!”

Still, though, there are days that something, somewhere goes wrong. Do we revert to an earlier version of the map? Is it just the cognitive cloud of depression that makes everything look terrible and ugly?

Recently I spent three weeks internally lamenting (by which, of course, I really mean hating) my stumpy legs, even though there is nothing that empirically indicates that I have stumpy legs. Proportionally speaking, on an empirical basis, my legs are longer than average for my height, but not wildly so. There are dancers with longer legs than mine. There are also dancers with shorter legs than mine. There are also dancers with fewer legs than I have.

The problem of that kind of thinking is that it’s a rabbit hole with no end.

Besides, I shouldn’t care.

But sometimes part of me does.

Anyway, what I have learned over the past few years is that it is possible to wait these cognitive errors out. They can feel almost unbearable, of course, while they persist—the “stumpy legs” error was really hellish, for some reason (oh, right: because ballet).

The rule, I guess, of having survived various things is that you learn that they won’t necessarily kill you, even when they feel like they will.

If you sit long enough with the voice that says, You shouldn’t dance; you have no business dancing; why do you even try?, eventually you’ll hear what’s underneath it. If you sit long enough with those voices, eventually you’ll hear what’s underneath them.

If you sit long enough with all of it, eventually they’ll shut up for a while and let you get back to work.

So I go forth into this Not Very Good Day fully knowing that tomorrow could be better.

It could, of course, also be worse—but if it is, I’ll probably survive that, too.


PS: If you’re currently struggling with body image issues, or indeed if you have ever struggled with them, I highly highly highly highly recommend Ijeoma Oluo’s thoughtful article, “You Don’t Have To Love Your Body” over at The Establishment.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2017/05/26, in balllet, life, mental health and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. The funny thing is: I have never been body-shamed in dance class (apart from the body-shaming I did to myself), and my body screams “farm girl” (and not “dancer”) all over the place. Dance class taught me to work with the body I have instead of wishing for another one. Strange. Or weird, as you said.

    • I’ve noticed a similar tone in my classes—the goal isn’t to create a fleet of identical bodies, but to use each body to its best potential, conformity be dashed 🙂 I really hope that what we see in our classes represents a sea-change in the way the world imagines the meaning of the phrase “dancers’ bodies.”

  2. I managed to hate the size of my rib cage the other day. It’s kinda niche as a concern? The hilarious thing is that I look OK at the gym but worry in the studio.

    That said, Thursday night was down to thinking I looked OK en face but when I lifted my gaze to 11 or 1 o’clock in the prescribed manner I kept thinking “Jesus, I hate that arrogant bastard! Who does he think he is?”

    • That’s a really interesting point—context does some weird stuff, doesn’t it?

      I want to say something intelligent about the other point, too, but I spent the whole night dreaming about go-kart races in the Mines of Moria and my brain apparently isn’t ready to brain that well yet.

  3. Very interesting read! Crazy shizzle is the only way to describe our brains. (Should anyone disagree, please refer to books by Oliver Sacks, for a start.)
    I have had my fair share of body image issues. Losing some weight and then getting into dance has solved most of them so far. Sometimes, I still feel like a beached manatee, although I do consciously realise that has no basis in reality. Ironically, I find all kinds of body types attractive, but when looking in the mirror, my brain sometime goes “YOU’RE FAT AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD”. None of it is true, but it gets to you.
    “What dancers look like” is extremely relative. My graceful, athletic ballet teacher that I aspire to looks chubby next to several of her company peers. All of them are great dancers and beautiful. I wish our brains would stop comparing so much.

    • I ❤ Oliver Sacks! His books were the original wellspring of my obsession with brains!

      Also, I hear you about the "Everyone looks great in all kinds of shapes and sizes EXCEPT ME" thing. That's exactly where I live so much of the time. It makes it hard to explain sometimes. People be like, "But wait, I thought you were totally into fluffy dudes?" And I'm like, "That isn't how this works!" etc.

      Also, yes, brains with all their comparing need to chill out (ironically, autocorrupt wanted that to read "fill out").

  4. Great post!
    So many relatable points, both in your post and in the comments! From not recognizing oneself in the mirror or (especially in my case) a photograph; having a default perception that is years out of date; having good days and bad days (and of course, the logical thoughts that if the perception of the bad days is not real, then neither is that of the good days…); the idea that other people can look great in their body types, just not *me*, and don’t look like how a dancer looks etc. Anyway, I also have my fair share of weird… and to me weird is more like interesting or different…except when it gets too much…
    And I think I stared at that picture for like 10 minutes…

    • Thank you! I’m so glad it makes sense, to be honest—I feel like I’ve spent half my life trying to figure out how to explain this to myself, and it’s been so frustrating trying to put a finger on it, so to speak. Meanwhile, I think probably a lot of us experience this sort of thing, but there’s an assumption that we all judge other people and ourselves by the same metrics, and those of us who are like, “Body positivity is for everyone*! *Except me,” get lost in the shuffle.

      BTW, I found a version of the picture of Andy Wong in full living color. Can’t decide which I like more, but either way I really love how it defies expectations!

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