Category Archives: body positive

Stiff

So I realized a few exercises into barre tonight that I had eaten lunch way, way too early. 

Oops. 

By end of class I was both bonking hard and sweating like an unfit racehorse. I couldn’t get enough air moving through my nose to do that nifty breathing exercise I use to slow my heart rate, so I sweated far more than was actually necessary.

I was also stiff in a way that I initially interpreted as ordinary fatigue, but later realized was the result of my muscles flipping me the bird every time I asked them to do anything. That’s what I get for not feeding them enough.   

Still, excepting the repeat of one of our later pirouette exercises, during which I glanced at the mirror and immediately forgot which leg I was supposed to be on and semi-froze (seriously, WAT), things went reasonably well, with some really nice moments into the bargain. 

I don’t think I danced as beautifully, overall, as I did yesterday, but it was still a nice improvement in terms of freedom and musicality compared with what I’ve been doing lately (read: ever). 

I also kept having that weird experience of being flummoxed by frank masculinity of my body. Honestly, I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get used to that. I’m slowly becoming okay with it, though: I am not a delicate little waif-twink, but I am graceful and occasionally even elegant. 

I don’t think I ever really did the math on that. As horses go, maybe I’m basically like a Friesian: strong-boned and muscular and powerful, but also graceful and elegant. I suspect on some level I’ve codified a dancer’s grace and elegance as those of an Akhal-Teke or a young Thoroughbred, but that’s not the only possibility. Trakheners and Friesians and Dutch warmbloods are also graceful and elegant. So are the baroque Spanish breeds.

I’m built for classical dressage: the restrained power of the passage and the piaffe; the explosive brilliance of the airs above the ground. 

I used to believe that the sheer mass of my body undermined the effect of adagio and so forth. Now I’m beginning to see that a powerful build lends its own magic to balances and développés and penchés. 

So there’s that.

Anyway, I’m exhausted. Tomorrow should be good, though.  

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:
Read the rest of this entry

Just Monday: A Meditation 

I wrote on Friday about gratitude, and also about the company of fire ants living in my throat. 

I was in denial. I knew that the fire ants (which had first made themselves known on Tuesday) were probably the opening salvo in the battle with another respiratory infection, but for various reasons, I didn’t want them to be.

I didn’t want to acknowledge the nature of my fire ants because, frankly, it’s frustrating to be sick. 

Health-wise, for me, this has been a phenomenally good year. I have gone months at a stretch without getting seriously ill. I have recovered from things more quickly than I expected to. I have actually had a couple minor viral illnesses that didn’t lead to secondary infections.

When I put it like that, though, it feels like a pretty low bar.

I’m a bit of an anomaly — or, rather, I’m something that America’s approach to health, which remains firmly rooted in Puritan ideals, doesn’t know how to place. On paper, when I’m not ill, I seem pretty robust. Tons of exercise, good basic diet, excellent vital stats. Allergies and asthma, of course, but I live in the Ohio River Valley. I have even mostly learned to listen to my body, my wonderful and obedient body that will allow me to push it ludicrously, when it asks me to rest.

According to the American ideal, I should be and stay as healthy as a horse (which, frankly, is an idiom that can’t have been coined by a horse person). But I’m not, and I don’t. 

I am still someone whose immune system, for reasons nobody understands, just isn’t that great. I catch things that are, for other people, innocent little colds, and they go rogue. I am terribly prone to secondary infections. I get sicker than other people and I take longer to get well. 

It’s worse when I don’t take care of myself or acknowledge the limitations that circumscribe my choices (I can ride my bike hard in cold weather if I’m willing to pay the price in terms of respiratory problems that inevitably lead to infections; I can adopt a schedule that approaches typical American busy-ness if I’m willing to acknowledge that my immune system will respond by going on strike). 

But it is what it is even when I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself. This is my reality.

~

This weekend I talked with Denis about some of the ways in which I’ve historically felt conflicted about my body, and how I’m beginning to understand that I need to stop looking at it from a dualistic, one-or-the-other point of view.

Maybe the same can be said for my health. 

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of it as either-or, and start thinking of it as and.

Like, maybe I should take care of myself as best I can, enjoy the periods in which I stay well for an unusually long time, and gracefully accept that I’m still going to be prone to infections that will, from time to time, knock me flat for longer than they should. Maybe I should try to accept that one does not invalidate the other, and to be kinder to myself about all of this. 

As a dancer, it’s hard to accept any of these conditions. As a dancer, and as a human being, I find it easy to accept my gifts and hard to accept my handicaps.

One set of conditions propels me forward; another holds me back. I am inclined to forget that this trade-off is universal — everyone’s tally sheet has entries in both columns. Maybe my peers in the studio don’t have immunity challenges that can keep them from dancing for weeks at a time, but they have other struggles. Maybe those struggles don’t affect their lives as dancers, but they hit somewhere. 

I feel like there’s a profound lesson in not clinging to phenomena here — both in the sense of not clinging to the phenomena of health or illness and in that of not clinging to the phenomenon of dancerness. I’m not sure how how to put those thoughts into words, though.

~

We live in a culture that treats illness like it treats fatness — which is to say, as a question of moral failure. 

People who rarely or never get sick tend to announce that status with a kind of prideful tone that suggests that they are somehow morally superior, even if in the same breath they say, “…and i don’t do any of that health-nut BS,” and scarf down a Whopper and half a bag of Cheetos. People like me, on the other hand, and regarded with a degree of suspicion, even (maybe especially) if our lifestyles should produce unequivocal good health. 

When I find myself forced to explain that I get sick easily and that my immune system just kinda doesn’t do its job very well, I almost always receive a bunch of advice about what I “should” be doing to fix it. I get get tired of explaining that I’ve basically tried everything; that, yes, it’s worse when I don’t take care of myself but it’s never going to be normal; and that much of what people suggest is complete crap founded in pseudoscience (I do try to be polite about that). 

I get tired of explaining why n=1 makes a great basis for an anecdote but a poor basis for an axiom. I get tired of re-asserting the fact that neither goji berries nor a strict Mediterranean diet will “cure” me.

I get tired of the implicit and usually-unexamined assumption that anyone who isn’t a shining paragon of good health probably just just isn’t trying hard enough, or isn’t trying the right things. Sometimes that may be true, but often it’s not. 

My crappy immune system isn’t the result of poor habits or poor morals. It’s the result of poor genes — with the caveat that the same set of genes that saddled me with this burden has also given  me the gifts of talent, strength, flexibility, coordination, off-the-chart spatial processing, a powerful musical sense, and the intelligence to use all of those things to make art.

This, by the way, keeps me humble. 

I know that my crappy immune system is not a question of effort or a measure of moral turpitude. By that same stick, I can see that the things that make a good dancer are, likewise, random gifts. Morally speaking, they do not make me a better person. In fact, morally speaking, they have sometimes made me a worse person — a less compassionate person; a more self-aggrandizing person. Thank G-d for crappy immune systems and for ballet, both of which are really good at teaching us humility when nothing else will.  

I try to make the most I can out of the gifts I’ve been given, but sometimes the things in the “debit” column get in the way. I suspect this is true for most of us.

Most of us are just muddling by ,trying to do the best we can, fairly often saying to ourselves about about many things, “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I…”

On which note, I’ll close, because I’m hoping to go back to sleep for an hour or two. 

I’m still working my way through this particular thicket, though. More later, perhaps.

Wild Wednesday: Missing the Moment

But first, Killer Class.

This morning, I took a shower for once (to clarify: it’s not that I don’t wash myself; I just don’t usually shower in the morning). While showering, I found myself thinking, “Gee, we haven’t done saut de basque in a while. It would be really cool to do saut de basque.”

Apparently, the Divine Killer B read my mind, because we not only did SO MUCH PETIT ALLEGRO (which I managed mostly to do right), but we did an awesome grand allegro combination with sauts de basque and cabrioles.

So, basically, it was an awesome day. I also learned, by the by, that I’ve been over-crossing my arabesques, which makes my penché glitchy. Killer B came over at one point and was like, “Try not to overcross,” and moved my foot over, and then it was like, “OHAI, FLOOR!” So that was awesome, too.

On the other hand, I really missed the bus on what could’ve been a meaningful thing at DanceTeam practice.

One of the girls, who is actually a really awesome dancer when she gets out of her own way (with which, being middle-schoolers, they all struggle), randomly said while I was drilling some choreography with her and her friend in a breakout group, “I feel so fat.”

Aaaaaaand, I totally dropped the ball.

There are so, so many meaningful things I could’ve said — and while it’s true that probably none of them would’ve taken hold immediately, it’s important to hear those messages.

I could’ve said, “Don’t worry, there’s no one right body for dance,” or “The right body for dance is whatever body you’ve got” (though that one can sound a touch judgmental) or “All kinds of bodies are beautiful” (though, honestly, that might be a bridge too far for someone who’s in seventh grade and wrestle with all the stuff that people wrestle at that age). I could’ve pointed her to some amazing dancers that are shaped like she is, if I wasn’t so terrible at remembering names :/ (1)

  1. Honestly, I am stunnnnnned that I’m actually remembering the names of ALL my DanceTeam girls; it’s a bleeding miracle.

Instead, I sort of choked and said, “You look fine!” and then, over the course of the conversation, reiterated the things that I think are great about her dancing — she has attitude for days and she’s really expressive, which means she has awesome stage presence; that she’s naturally a great mover for the kind of dance we’re working on.

Maybe I should’ve just asked, “What makes you say that?” and tried to listen, but on the other hand, we were trying to get a lot of choreography tightened up in not very much time.

On the other hand, it’s cool that some of the kids feel like they can say stuff like that around me, given that they really haven’t known me very long. It makes me feel like, against all odds, I’m doing okay making connections and putting them at ease (2).

  1. Probably the smartest thing I’ve done so far was to admit that I don’t know from Hip-Hop; that they get to teach me there.

Anyway, I’m going to have to think about this: how not to be caught off my guard the next time something like that comes up, and what to say that will be both concise and, in the long run, helpful. I’ll also check in with AS about that, since she (as an actual middle-school teacher) might have some insight.

So that’s it for now. I have to run off and suffer … erm, I mean, go back to Trapeze 3 after a not-really-intentional two-week break. Eeeeeeeek.

Friday Class: Moar Bolshoi; Less Balanchine

This morning’s class resulted in a deeply satisfying ballet conversation.

I received a specific note on my grand jeté — it basically went, “Everyone else: try for more up. Asher — you’ve got plenty of up, but there’s a little hitch at the top. Try to travel more.”

As is my habit, I summed this up — out loud, of course, because I’m a kinaesthetic learner, so the doing part of saying something helps — in an aphorism I’d be likely to remember:

Oh! More Bolshoi; less Balanchine. I keep putting too much Balanchine* into it.

One of my classmates, who teaches in Georgetown and makes quite a long trek several times a week, happened to be standing next to me and heard me and said, “Well, you’ve got the Bolshoi body.”

And my insides went:

happy-seal

Shamelessly ganked from memegenerator.net, of course.

Fortunately, my brain was working and I had the good grace to say, “Oh, thank you! I’ve been working on it!”

She then commented specifically on my “powerhouse” legs, and I said, “Yeah, I always felt weird about them until I saw a picture of Nijinksy, and then I was like, ‘Oh, well … okay.'”

Her reply? “And Nureyev!” (followed by some more specific details that were lost in the haze of being compared to Nureyev, because seriously, how often does that happen in the life of any danseur ignoble?).

And my insides went:

o-HAPPY-DOG-DAY-OF-HAPPINESS-facebook

Shamelessly stolen from the internet at large.

And then, apparently because I was in a good mood, I did the grand jetés beautifully on the repeat, and proceeded to do beautiful pas des chats Italiens (if you’re wondering what these look like, here’s a good video; maybe I should get Denis to record mine) and very serviceable grand assemblés en tournant after class, apparently just because I could?

This all came on the heels of a class that started out as a disaster (I just could. not. fall asleep last night, and then when I finally did [at 4 freaking 30 AM] I had this cinematically intense dream about being part of a resistance force attempting to throw off the shackles of a seriously oppressive, repressive totalitarian regime … basically, like the Death Eaters meet Sauron meet the Empire). Everything was going badly because I was feeling bad; accordingly, I felt worse and did worse.

Then, in the middle of barre, we all cracked up about something, and I realized that it wasn’t just me — we were all a mess; none of us could count or tendu or remember a combination to save our lives (even the phenomenal Ms. J was having trouble remembering her own combinations!).

Suddenly, the mood of the whole class lifted, and then we all did better, which basically says everything about how powerful our minds are.

By the time we got to rond-de-jambes, I actually garnered a “good!” (which is saying something, Ms. J is probably the single pickiest instructor on staff — which is, of course, why we love her. Also because she is really good at sorting out things like heads: apparently, today, I more rolling my eyes towards my hand than turning my head, heh).

I have done better adagio, better turns, and better terre-a-terre than I did today (and my petit allegro was summarily terrible), but it was still pretty good, and I managed to remember that ballet is all about moving the goal post — a year ago, I would’ve sacrificed a black goat at midnight to be able to do terre-a-terre like I did today. And I definitely wouldn’t have had beats — even lame ones — on just under four hours of sleep.

As far as I’m concerned, any day that includes good grand allegro, really good pas de chats Italiens, serviceable grand assemblés en tournant, and being compared to Nureyev (if only for my enormous thighs :P) is a damned fine day. I’ll take it.

This is probably something worth commenting on in the vein of body positivity.

I still struggle with my own body image sometimes. Not as much as I used to (which is to say: the struggle is no longer constant), but there’s a part of my brain that really believes that my body should basically be one of David Hallberg-ian dimensions.

Being compared to Nureyev cast things in a different light.

I still, somehow, think of my body as a big, square block. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a big, square block — I actually happen to find the big, square block body type very attractive.

It’s just that my brain is weird and experiences this tension between two parts of itself: one part that’s still going, “WTF, we cannot stop being an ectomorphic stick figure, that does not compute!” and another part that’s going, “Yeah, but we’re a big square block, have you looked in the mirror lately?”

And then I see pictures like the ones from last night and realize that both those parts are cray, and then someone compares me to Nureyev and I think, “Huh. It would be totally cool to reach a point at which I’d be okay with being built like Nureyev; in fact, it would be crazy not to be okay with that.”

Likewise, part of me has historically been kind of weirded out by the fact that my upper body is really pretty far out on the ectomorph end of the scale, while my lower body is squarely, solidly (heh, see what I did there … o_o) in mesomorph territory. I could skip leg day for months on end and my legs would still be huge. It’s genetic; I got ’em from my Mom.

But Nureyev was built like that, too: slender above the navel, leonine below, all of it graceful.

I get that the weirdness in my brain that led me to starve myself when I was already below 120 pounds (even when I was 14 and weighed 84 pounds at 5’4″) might never figure this out.

But I’m learning to let the other parts of my brain speak.

The parts that think Nureyev was beautiful, and would be totally okay with that kind of build.

The parts that understand that my greatest asset as a dancer — the ability to leap like a gazelle with a cheetah on its tail — owes in no small part to the unusual combination of sylph-like upper half with heroic lower half.

The parts that understand that it’s these legs that can garner enough air to make a plain pas de chat look like it hangs suspended for seconds at a time (even though that’s totally not what’s actually happening); that it’s these legs that let me do pas de chats Italiens like they’re no big deal (regarding which: they’re apparently kinda hard?).

I say all this not to brag, but to try to convince myself: maybe this body is, in fact, kind of awesome in its own way. Maybe I can learn to feel that.

Now I’m going to eat some food and consider attempting to nap before maybe dragging my husband out to watch a movie about animated fish.

*If you’re wondering about this analogy: Balanchine’s style is characterized by a really strong emphasis on the vertical, while the Bolshoi’s dancers tend to be more fluid, lyrical, and lateral. Not that the guys at the Bolshoi don’t launch themselves into space during big leaps; they totally do — there’s just more traveling going on at any given time than would be typical in Balanchine.

Because of this, I try to channel the New York City Ballet for turns; the Bolshoi/Mariinsky/Vaganova universe for leaps. For jumps like pas de chat, I just try to channel Ben, who is my favorite of LBS’ male dancers.

As for Sissones … for some reason, my Sissones are so bad right now. I don’t have time to channel anyone; I’m too busy trying not to die.

“Nobody Wants To See That”

At risk of doing that thing wherein I get up early and proceed to make myself late by getting caught up in the wicked hempen seive that is the Internet, I want to comment briefly on a cultural phenomenon that really grinds my gears: specifically, the phrase,

Nobody wants to see that.

Over on Dances With Fat today, there’s a post about how a lot of us just plain don’t want fat people in our eyespace. It’s worth a read (I’ll come back and link it in a bit). It might feel very in-your-face, but I think Reagan Chastain and other fat people have probably earned the right to get a bit confrontational. I’m not sure the rest of us are going to hear them if they don’t.

Some of us will tolerate the appearance of bigger folk conditionally — like, as long as they fall within x distance from “normal” (whatever that is) or as long as they “cover up.”

When they don’t, the given justification is often, “Nobody wants to see that.”

There are some serious problems with that phrase.

First, I beg to differ on purely literal grounds: try dropping in on a convention for bears (not literal bears — 0/10, do not recommend, wildly unsafe — source: every naturalist ever). Try asking anyone who loves someone who’s fat. Try visiting a Sumo match.

Second, though — and more troubling — is the stunning degree of privilege and/or internalized prejudice entailed in that phrase.

Think about it: when, in judging someone else, we say no one wants to see that, what we’re really saying is:

A. Of course my personal likes and dislikes are of critical importance to how all other people live in their bodies.
B. Of course everyone shares my opinion.
C. Of course I get to police other people’s self-expression.
… And also:
D. I cannot possibly look away if I see something I don’t like.

When we say it about ourselves, we’re really saying:

A. Of course bodies like mine are disgusting.
B. Of course everyone else has a right to enforce their likes and dislikes upon my body.
C. Of course I should be invisible.

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that the people who say this about others are necessarily giant flaming arse-hats. Every single person on the face of the planet, including myself, has prejudices.

It’s just that this one is still reflexively accepted. I’ve heard some of the kindest people I know say this very thing.

Hell, it only dawned on me when I was in the middle of saying this exact phrase maybe a year or so ago that it didn’t jive with the beliefs I’m trying to embody and that it was immensely problematic.

The interesting thing is that, since I’ve forced myself to stop saying it, I’ve discovered that, in fact, fat girls can look great and stylish in lycra (not that they have to look great and stylish; I don’t get to decide that, either), fat guys can rock mesh shirts, and so forth. It was my reflexive dismissal that kept me from recognizing that.

As someone with an immense degree of body privilege, I’m in a position that allows me to step in with authority when I hear someone I care about saying, “Nobody wants to see that.” (The trick is doing it without sounding like a self-righteous busybody).

The funny thing is that, when I have, the response has usually been pretty positive. People usually sort of stop and blink and go, “Huh. I hadn’t thought of it that way.” (On the other hand, I mostly know really thoughtful people. It isn’t always going to go that well, unfortunately.)

In the end, what we say to ourselves and to others impacts the way we see the world.

And, for what it’s worth, as a general rule, there is somebody who wants to see that — but neither they not the nay-sayers really matter.

What matters is how we see ourselves.

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