A while ago, I wrote about returning to class after my extended winter break (link to come). Among other things, I said that I felt like a pudgy dancer.
I realized at the time that “pudgy” was the wrong word for a number of reasons.
First, it wasn’t the word I wanted, and didn’t actually convey the concept I hoped to express, but I wracked my brain and couldn’t come up with the word I knew I was looking for. Like autocorrupt on crack, my brain kept suggesting “pudgy.” Finally, I gave up and used it. Twice.
Second, it’s a loaded word. Like “chubby,” it’s one of those words that means “adorably chunky” when we’re describing puppies or baby elephants or cartoon orcas or toddlers or what have you, but something else entirely when applied to human adults (never mind that some of us, myself included, like how “pudgy” looks on other people; I married a slim guy, but I’ve always preferred big guys — pudgy guys, in fact). So it’s a word that implies a kind of judgment I try not to make, and also reveals the double standard by which I judge myself. “Pudgy,” in short, is a word that can hurt.
Third, the dance world is full of implicit (and, sometimes, explicit) judgments about body size. I’ve written about this a couple of times (again, links to follow). I try not to participate in this particular hegemony: I think dancers of all sizes can be beautiful. That doesn’t mean I’m not affected by it, though. I am both human enough to admit that I do experience reflexive moments of size-ist thinking, and to say that those moments are often concurrent with their opposites: one part of my mind will be thinking, “Wow, that one dude in the corps is pretty hefty,” while another part of thinks, “He looks really great up there.”
The difference is that the first of these thoughts is a conditioned reflex; the second is a feeling. So while my conditioned thoughts — the ones influenced by cultural dictates — are busy being jerks, my actual gut feelings are appreciating what I’m seeing. It’s weird, uncomfortable, and cognitively dissonant.
And when I use words like “pudgy” in contexts where they mean something bad (in this case, the word I really wanted was “clumsy”), I reinforce the cultural dictate that says dancers need to be shaped a certain way — even if that’s not what I believe, feel, or mean to convey.
Even if I really genuinely believe (and I do) that dancers actually need to be shaped all kinds of ways, my intentions don’t matter in a static context that doesn’t convey them. What matters is what I actually write.
Lastly, there’s a part of me that still genuinely believes that everyone else can be great and look great at whatever size but I need to be, in a word, skinny. That voice is always there. It was there when my BMI was 14.5. It was there when my BMI was 30. It is still there now, when my BMI is 24.
Every time I make a disparaging remark about my own weight, I reinforce that voice. Yes, I need to talk about that voice, and to acknowledge what it says (ignoring it sure as heck doesn’t make it go away) — but I need to do so in a way that reduces, rather than increases, its power.
I need to do that for me, and I need to do that for everyone else who has that voice (which, to a greater or lesser degree, is everyone).
I thought long and hard about whether to write this at all. I’m just going to go ahead and admit that, in short, I was debating whether or not to stick my head in the sand and hope nobody noticed my apparent act of woeful hypocrisy.
I was being a coward, but I guess I was also thinking about what I said (“pudgy”) and why (because my language co-processor was on the fritz, but also probably because I was having a exceptionally poor body image day) and what to write about it (this, it turns out).
I’m glad I did: that is to say, glad I tool some time to think about it, and also glad I took some time to write about it.
If my choice of words hurt you, please know that I’m sorry. Nobody deserves to be hurt (except maybe masochists who have been really good and done all their chores ;)). And I guess I should apologize to myself as well, because I am a dick to myself way too often.
For what it’s worth, I really do mean what I say: there’s room in dance for all kinds of bodies, all colors and sizes and shapes and abilities. All of those different bodies are valid and valuable — and just as painters have expanded their palettes as new media have emerged, it behooves those of us with choreographic ambitions to expand our palettes to include all kinds of bodies (“Oh, brave new world that has such creatures in it!”).
I’m hoping that, having written this, I’ll think of more to say on the topic. For now, this is it.
Go forth and be pudgy and proud, or svelte and sublime, or medium and miraculous: no matter your shape, dancers of the world, the things your bodies can do are amazing.