Olivia Campbell on reconciling the size of her talent and the size of her body, and how giving up can be an act of self-preservation
I couldve been a professional ballet dancer. At least, this is the lie I tell myself, how I am able to face my reflection in the mirror every day without collapsing into a puddle of regret.
After spending a year at a dance conservatory in London, I quit. A year later, I tried again at a university in my home state of Virginia. But two years in, I broke my foot and decided to switch to a major that was less tied to my physical integrity: journalism. Soon, I became the arts editor of the school paper. Now, 10 years after graduating from college, I have three beautiful sons and a successful freelance writing career. But the fact that I quit before I had the chance to see if I could truly succeed haunts me to this day.
I struggle to articulate this level of experience when explaining my background to people. I trained to be a professional dancer; I was a semi-professional dancer; I studied dance in college and used to teach ballet classes. When you bring up past dance experience, most people assume it was merely a little girls daydream, but for me, it was so much more. What do you call it when you dedicate all of your time and energy to preparing for something but dont ever become that something?
Whats the name for not being strong enough to risk failure so you quit while youre ahead and live the rest of your life comforting yourself with the notion that you might have made it if only youd really tried? Isnt that its own special, uniquely devastating form of failure?
Our culture fetishizes determination, grit, success. We are told again and again that hard work will eventually pay off, that quitting is practically unforgivable. What we dont hear is that success isnt necessarily synonymous with happiness and that giving up can be an act of self-preservation.
It is spring in New York City and I am 16. My dance teacher has driven me and one other student up so we could take a few master classes at various schools and studios around town and so that I could audition for a place at the Joffrey Ballet School. It is my first visit to New York and I am immediately intoxicated by the dangerous combination of the citys energy and a newfound sense of freedom. I taste my first Indian food, buy chunky pleather platform loafers, do ballet poses for photos next to the rocks in Central Park.
This Joffrey studio is much smaller and much dimmer than I imagined; its not much more than a couple of grocery-store aisles wide. As a young dancer in a tiny college town, I had envisioned a vast, sun-filled affair, but I underestimated how strapped for space cities are. The worst part of any audition is always before it starts. Thats when you can psych yourself out. I pull at my itchy pink tights and readjust the leg holes of my black leotard. While warming up, I try to avoid my reflection in the mirror, but also keep an eye out for the coveted skinny mirror that each studio possesses. It helps that none of the other girls here are auditioning; they are students and I am just a guest in the class.
Can a thicker brush not make just as beautiful strokes?
I am nervous but unintimidated. I know how to do this. Ive got this. Im in my element. The class goes well. Really well. I remember all of the combinations, remember to smile. I am energetic and quick on my feet. Most importantly, I can keep up with the other students. After class, I excitedly head to the changing room, surprised by how well I did and hopeful of my chances at being accepted into the school. I think about how, if admitted, I would leave home and live in a dorm at the Carmelite nuns convent.
Shes good, but shes big, I overhear the instructor say to my dance teacher as I am coming back down the hallway.
I stop in my tracks, trying to process this comment without crying or letting on that I heard. But in that moment, my spirit is crushed. So many thoughts swirl through my head on the rest of our trip. I cant believe that the wrongness of my bodys shape carries more weight than my ability to move it precisely and artfully through space. I cant believe that a skinnier, potentially less-talented dancer would get my spot at the school. But most of all, I cant believe how embarrassing and utterly humiliating it feels to be turned down not because Im not good enough, but because Im not skinny enough.
These thoughts eventually crystallize into confusion, questions. Why had I been blessed with these talents in this body? What does it mean when your body is your art? Can a thicker brush not make just as beautiful strokes?
I come late to dance. Later than most anyway. I am 11 years old when I take my first class its a free class being offered on the stage of the little community theater in my small college town but my natural aptitude quickly became apparent. As a naturally quiet, introverted person, dance is a revelation. I dont have to speak a word to anyone. I discover a world beyond words, where movements tell stories in ways that words only ever dream of doing. Its a world where words themselves become superfluous and seem almost perversely simplistic, and I am overjoyed to inhabit it every day.
Soon, I am training for two to four hours a day. Homeschooling means I can be driven to studios an hour from my home to take classes multiple times a week with more advanced teachers. Finally, I am living with other families or my dance teacher during the week so I can train at the best school in the region. Summers are spent at ballet intensives, which means six weeks away from home, living in dorms, taking classes all day at the Washington Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I am getting better and better. I revel in my ability to balance en pointe forever and turn with ease. I once did five rotations in a single pirouette turn. Five. The typical maximum for women is three. Its a moment I will never forget.
But when you hear the word ballerina, my body is not what your minds eye conjures.
When puberty hits at 15, weight begins to stick to me. I begin to sport fleshy hips, meaty thighs, a blossoming bosom. Im not fat amongst regular people I wear a womens size 8 but I am fat for a ballerina. In this profession, rarely is anyone bigger than a size 4. Ballerinas are supposed to be beyond human: to evoke ethereal, otherworldly beings that toe the line between the sensual and the virginal. To have noticeable breasts and hips is to interrupt this fantasy with grotesque sexuality, to remind the audience that you are indeed human.
After that audition, I begin to doubt my abilities, question my chances of one day becoming a professional dancer. From then on, I never see exactly what I want in the mirror. Mirrors are unavoidable for most dancers, covering the walls of nearly every studio. I spend hours in front of them every day. I like the lines I see reflected, the shapes I can contort into, how I can mimic the movements of my teachers with relative ease. What the mirror also shows me now are my birthing hips and heavy boobs, the wiggly bits of flesh hanging from my upper arms.
Now when I see all my fellow dancers reflected in the mirror around me, I see not how harmonious our movements are, but how their slight frames magnify the generousness of my own.
Are you sure youre a ballet dancer, the orthopedic surgeon asked at a consultation for persistent pain in the joint of my right big toe. Because you look more like a modern dancer.
I am 17 years old. And after visiting a dozen doctors in my small hometown enduring painful cortisone shots that provided no relief we drove two hours to see this doctor because he is the company doctor for a big regional ballet troupe. His comment leaves me embarrassed, scrambling for an answer. Im pretty sure the doctor believes my pain is the result of the excess weight I am putting on my feet, but sure enough, his scans uncover a tendon fraying and rubbing in between the bones of my joint.
I did try modern dance later, when I was in college. While it is a more freeing form of dance less rigid, significantly more forgiving of differing body types I honestly wasnt very good at it. At school in London, I was placed in the highest level of ballet and the lowest level of modern.
The summer after that crushing Joffrey audition, I am sent to stay at my grandparents horse farm an hour outside of New Orleans without the rest of my immediate family. Its partly meant to be a punishment for being caught kissing a boy while just shy of the pre-appointed old-enough age of 16. But no parental punishment was worse than what I could inflict upon myself. Not for kissing boys, mind you that was fun but for being fat.
To drown out the hum of the treadmill, I turn up the local alternative rock radio station on my cassette Walkman. The song is White Towns I Could Never Be Your Woman. It features heavily in the rotation this summer. I havent lived enough to appreciate what the lyrics are implying, but the songs eerie, repeated refrain haunts me. I keep running. The air conditioning struggles to counteract the stifling humidity. Some people say the air is close but it feels more like nature is trying to slowly suffocate you by gradually replacing the air with water. Best grow gills or flounder and die.
I run for an hour every day, pushing the incline button higher and higher, pushing the speed button again and again. Through the sweat and the muscle aches. I stop only when I get so dizzy I worry I might pass out and fall. I run away from my fat, away from the possibility of failure. I run and I run but I never get where I want to go.
I quickly discover that trying to induce my own vomiting is much too traumatic and difficult.
My grandmother presents lovingly prepared, home-cooked southern food fried eggs and meat-and-potato hash, beautiful pies but I eat only one meal a day and refuse the rest. I love hash; its something we never eat at home. Its a salty, fluffy, greasy southern indulgence like no other. Ive never refused her cooking before, but if my grandmother senses something is amiss, she doesnt mention it. Outside of my mothers watchful eye, I try my hand at bulimia. I quickly discover that trying to induce my own vomiting is much too traumatic and difficult. So instead, I down excessive amounts of milk of magnesia laxative. Nothing I try leads to much in the way of weight loss, mostly because I am simply messing with my metabolism. When I start eating a healthy amount of food and stop abusing laxatives, I put the weight right back on.
The sweetest revenge, the best way to prove all of the doubters and haters wrong, wouldve been to go on to be wildly successful. Our culture is very clear that overcoming your shortcomings to emerge victorious is the only acceptable ending to such stories. But years of hearing how incorrect my body was took its toll. Its hard to love an art form that everyone is telling you doesnt love you back. It becomes too difficult to reconcile your physical talent with your physical inadequacy.
Ive largely stopped bringing up my dance background to new acquaintances. Not because its so far in the past or even because I dont know how to define my experience, but because I know that when I say I was a ballet dancer, I am certain that person immediately assesses my body and wonders what kind of fantasyland I once lived in. Ballet has become my trigger word. Talking about it releases the hounds of self-loathing and crushing regret, who nip determinedly at my ankles.
I left the world of dance for the world of words because the writing world doesnt care if I break my foot. I figured if I couldnt dance, at least I could write about it. I reasoned that since my body isnt central to the art of journalism, the writing world shouldnt care if I am 150 pounds or 250 pounds. I know now that there are no industries, virtually no spaces where womens bodies arent judged. Yet writing, while still a creative pursuit, does not feed my soul in the same way that dance the world beyond words does.
I havent seen the inside of a dance studio in about eight years. Every day that I dont dance, a sliver of my soul withers. My heart aches to move again, to get lost in myself, to get lost in music, in motion, in space; to trace those familiar patterns and shapes that still come so easily to me as I twirl safe in my kitchen. I want so much more. I want to be in a real studio with my peers; on a real stage. I want to know what it would have been like if Id kept going, kept pushing back at the haters.
I cant help but feel jealous of the adults I see talking about taking up ballet or re-entering the studio again for the first time since they were young. I envy that pure, uncomplicated joy that dance can bring; its something I fear Ill never feel again. I cant just waltz into a dance studio and take a class. If merely mentioning dance to someone spurs a rush of inadequacy and failure, who knows what actually taking a class might unearth within me. Besides, I am not like them. I am not one of those people who merely took a few ballet classes in middle school. I could have been a professional. I got too close, so it hurts too much.
Its been a long road, but my body and I have come to a detente. Im now a happy size 12: satisfied by the knowledge that my body whether in spite of or because of its size has executed perfect pirouettes and birthed beautiful babies. But coming to terms with my body doesnt mean I necessarily forgive it for betraying me; that Ill ever stop wondering whether I might have spent my life onstage had I only been a bit lighter.
Olivia Campbell is a journalist and essayist specializing in medicine, mothering, arts, and history. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, New York magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Literary Hub, Scientific American, Parents magazine, Pacific Standard and Undark magazine.
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