Here's the Skinny...

Anyone who follows me here on or other social media knows that I write
about what I love. Who doesn’t, right? For me it’s things like food, my
children, dance and my body.

Hang on. That last one is still a work in progress. I accept it and
trust it more than I used to, but love? The fact is that all the other
things in the list above have had a direct relationship with the one I
have with my own body.

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Let’s take children, for example. One of the reasons I think I needed to
get this particular post out before year’s end was not just because of
Christmas, and the mixed messages one receives about food and
celebration, indulgence and summer health goals, but because I find
myself in the last days of my third and final pregnancy. All of them
have been the most profound and dramatic changes my body have ever
undergone - ones that go well beyond the birth of a child, and
unfortunately not the only time in my life that other people’s
perceptions and opinions of my body have been broadcast and reflected
back at me. But at this time of my life, as opposed to times where I
have been less capable of acting independently of a herd mentality, I
have control. If I comment on my body first, I have taken the power away
from another to do it for me. If I take a photograph of myself and post
it somewhere, I do it with eyes open and it is under my control.

Control.

The fact that the subject of this post has relevance to the main theme
of my blog; food and the journey I have undertaken to understand where
my love of it has come from has not escaped me. Instead of tales of slow
cooked dishes, garden harvests and family customs however, these stories
have less appetising brushes with the toilet bowl, calorie restriction
and crash diets. The intertwining of food and my pursuit of dance began
a competitive chapter of my life that has rarely played out elsewhere.
Weight loss. Body image. Self control.

I recall being weighed for the first time at age 10. This was not a
memory from a child development check up. Nothing whatsoever to do with
my health but rather my ballet teacher’s wish to provide authenticity to
the Saturday afternoon “Company” she had established for invited and
gifted dancers. At one of these weekly weigh-ins, I remember one friend,
2 years my senior, who incidentally would be the dancer I would forever
set my technical and performance standards against, weighed two
kilograms less than I. How could this be? She was older, surely that
meant heavier? And so it had begun. It was to be the first in many
confounding moments of numbers versus mirror; of scratchings on paper
versus flesh and blood reality. Without these beginnings it could have
been different.

Similar confusion ensued at 15 years old when being weighed at the
vocational college set up in my ballet school I had left high school to
attend. This time my teacher looked puzzled remarking “Oh, you don’t
lookthat heavy!” and proceeded to explain to me that I would still need to lose a couple of kilos so it looked right on audition paperwork.
I was 48 kilograms.

And so began two years of multiple daily technique classes, cardio
programs, food diaries, high performance diets, then closer to exam and
auditions; crash diets, endless coffee and low calorie powdered soups,
salads and sweating. I even remember the kind of sick glee we
experienced when we fell ill and lost weight that way. Even now I
remember thinking, “this could be different, I don’t need to be like
this, I don’t feel like I need to be doing this”
, but the pressures of
calorie counting (one dancer took it to the extreme of adding her throat
lozenges to the tally) and feeling “empty” was all too alluring, and
again, the competitiveness of the weekly weigh in was a constant. In
those high pressure times, where we were training hard and dieting for a
goal like an exam or audition, it felt as if nothing hot, tasty or
filling ever passed my lips. Even a few bites of apple would stick in my
throat.

There was something about going home though. My dearest friend and I
would come back to my place on a Friday afternoon and pick all of the
dried fruit out of the muesli my mother had just bought at the weekly
shopping trip, eat all of the cold cuts and load our plates with potato
salad and cold chicken. During times where the weather was cold, and the
pressure was off, my mother would make hot, peppery meals for us to heat
up at the cold studio and memories of those starving days would
disappear.

The time for university came, and I was accepted into an Academy of
Performing Arts where the dancers made up the youngest and most
impressionable of the wider student contingent of aspiring artists. The
actors, already in their late twenties and early thirties, skulked
moodily about young dancer’s bodies trying to decide who they could
sleep with, while the Music Theatre students envied our bodies and
talents as they struggled with their own movement challenges. Meanwhile,
the dancers sat about, barely dressed in rags, smoking and trying not to
eat anything. Initially we were all oblivious to anything but the
reality that was our own reflection in the mirrors that lined almost
every wall of every studio we set foot in. Those walls that weren’t
mirrors were set with doors and windows that held gawking eyes and faces
- reminding us daily that our bodies were the currency with which we would pay for our future.

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Advice from our esteemed lecturers produced helpful gems like diets of
black coffee and cottage cheese and wrapping ones limbs in cling film to
encourage water loss. More sensible teachers who would look on with
concern at students who had taken the advice too far, still had nothing
important to say. They could not tell us how we could get what we
wanted, only what we needed to look like to get there.

It was too much for many. Some choosing the path of drugs and alcohol to
stem the appetite and dance away the calories on the weekends. Others
succumbed to the pressures, wasting away before our eyes, mistaking the
gasps of horror at their frail bodies when they took off their baggy
clothes to dance as approval or admiration. Worst for me was when
someone just didn’t come back at all. Committed for self harm, eating
disorders and mental illness. At least one paid the ultimate price. We
came in one Monday morning to discover that one of our classmates just
didn’t wake up that day. Out of fuel, out of time. It should have been
different.

I work at a ballet school now and I’d like to report that things are
different. Sure, the slogans on the posters promote “fuel for energy”,
“eat right” ”smart choices”, but the reality is that aspiring young students in their teens will still go to a workshop run by one of the
high calibre feeder schools for a top ballet company and be told what
body shapes succeed. In essence these young ears just hear “skinny is
best”.

I can’t honestly tell you how I came to be here from weighing myself
daily, obsessing over minute details of my body, calculating every
morsel that went into my mouth and countless other unhealthy practices
that do not bear repeating. I do, however, feel grateful that these
things, these habits and behaviours didn’t take a complete hold of me.
There will always be a streak in me that grimaces when someone uses my
appearance, in particular my size or weight as a platform for greeting
or compliment - which is why I never do it to others, and perhaps why I
often adopt an irreverent, sometimes crass tone about my own body -
there are plenty of ways to tell someone they look great, healthy or
well without talking about the size or shape of their body. I can’t get
into someone else’s head when that head is obsessing over hundreds of
grams and sideways selfies in the bathroom mirror. If they genuinely
want or need encouragement I can accept that, but I have enough of my
own demons without being confronted by someone else’s, even if they are
disguised and renamed as “positivity”, “persistence” or “will power”.

So yes. I love my body. I love what it is now, what it can do and I
lwhat I know it can be. I trust it. So Eat, Drink, Think. Make plans,
have goals, be thoughtful. Enjoy and celebrate it all. It can be
different.