Fat ballerina

If you’ve been within ten feet of Twitter recently, you might have heard that Nike has set up a fat mannequin somewhere and the Telegraph published a viciously fatphobic op-ed in reaction to it. I don’t want to talk about Nike; representation is great, but global brands are not your friends and don’t need your defense. I don’t even want to talk about the op-ed, really: it was either a writer’s gross abuse of a platform to spout hate, or a platform’s gross abuse of a writer for clickbait, or both. I do want to talk about bodies, though, and language.

First, with my apologies, a screenshot. You’ll find no links here.

Poetic! A delight to read aloud, actually! One gets the sense that the writer enjoys waxing rhapsodic about the grotesque horror and diseased flesh of this completely inanimate body. I almost relate. After all, most of us learn early on to not only despise fat bodies but to revel in the lyricism of abuse. Even basic fatphobia frequently dredges up fanciful comparisons to animals and hyperbolic descriptions of flesh in motion.

I’ve written here and elsewhere about reading the body as a text, which is absolutely what the op-ed assignment is here: look at something that is not even a real body but a reference to a body, extrapolate ideas about the imagined body’s behavior, draw fanciful conclusions about the imagined body’s ethics as well as its physical attributes. Don’t think I don’t know that some people apply this calculation to my body when I am moving it around in the world. Don’t think I don’t do it to myself. Understand that I am constantly trying to undo it. That is the purpose of this post.

“She cannot run”

About a year and a half ago, I started taking ballet lessons for adults. I had taken lessons when I was very small–ages 3-8, I think–but remembered absolutely nothing except how itchy the recital costumes were. As an adult, even the beginner ballet class seemed to move very fast, and I felt overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know about the basic vocabulary (which one is fifth position, again?) and even class etiquette, such as which direction to face at the barre.

I kept going, though, because the music and the movement offered a beautiful respite from my busy workday, and the exercises eased the joint pain that sometimes coincides with autoimmune diseases like mine. Beginner class exercises are designed to literally warm up the muscles and joints; mine crackled, but relaxed. Form is paramount; I learned that if I put my feet in the right place, my legs would hold up my body even if I felt impossibly tired. Fatigue and stiffness had been the enemy of my physical fitness for years; ballet helped me find my way back into my body.

I should mention that I also kept going to class because of my classmates. All kinds of different women and men find their way to beginner ballet at different stages of life and physical ability. Sometimes I am the oldest student but usually not; sometimes I take up the most space, sometimes not. I am trying to teach myself to stop noticing.

“Even 16 – a hefty weight”

In my first few classes, I wore socks and loose black yoga pants. Before long, I dropped by a dancewear shop in my neighborhood to purchase canvas ballet slippers in my shoe size.

The pants posed a different problem. Many dancers in class wore leotards, sometimes with a sheer georgette wrap skirt or shorts pulled over their tights; some wore form-fitting yoga separates. The idea of tights or leggings made me feel self-conscious and exposed, but I needed something fitted so that I could see what my knees were doing. There wasn’t much available for adults at the dancewear shop, let alone in my size; many adult dancewear brands don’t even make sizes larger than a Large for women. You can purchase a limited variety of plus-size tights and leotards from online retail sites, but I was hesitant to place an order without knowing what I needed from these specialized garments.

Over the last year, I’ve spent about 3 hours a week in the dance studio and probably an equivalent amount of time looking for affordable clothes that could pass as dancewear. I’ve combed through discount department stores and thrift shops and Poshmark; I’ve acquired running leggings and loose shorts and moisture-wicking tank tops and even something called a “golf dress” which is cute and comfortable over a pair of yoga capris. For Christmas, I asked for sports bras, which can cost upwards of $50 apiece.* Each week I sweat through every single seasonally-appropriate workout garment I own; I do a lot of laundry.

I have still not yet ventured into the world of leotards and convertible tights, so I decided not to sign up for the summer ballet recital which requires coordinating costumes. That’s my choice, but I still feel left out.

“She is immense, gargantuan, vast”

I have been taking ballet for a year and a half now, and I am stronger and have more stamina. It’s not all smooth sailing. My feet and hips sometimes ache from the effort of lifting and stretching, and sometimes my shoulders burn from holding my arms in my best approximation of a half-circle. Unrelatedly, sometimes my antibodies triumph in their senseless civil war with my thyroid, which manifests as additional achiness in my limbs and an uncharacteristic desire to take naps. But in general, I notice improvement in almost every action of my physical being, from walking to sitting at my computer to waking up feeling rested. 

About a year in, the ballet instructor started placing me at the head of the barre from time to time. Suddenly, I had to learn and remember the steps of the exercises instead of just following the dancer in front of me. To my surprise, I had already internalized many of the movements. Memorizing choreography is like memorizing song lyrics: you don’t just remember one step after another, you remember phrases and verses, and the music keeps you on beat.

Now I take Zumba and cardio classes too. Like my first ballet classes, they are populated with women (and a few men) who want different things from it. I want to stay on beat, and I want to anticipate the next step and fling myself into it as though it’s easy.

“Welcome to the mainstream”

The ballet instructor doesn’t go in for compliments, and her instructions are often abrasive. “Don’t bend your knees!” she’ll yell at the barre, and I’ll check myself–I don’t think I was the one bending my knees, but now I’m not sure. If she does offer praise to an individual student, it usually follows a command. “Heels together, Sara!” she’ll yell, and then–if I tighten my legs as much as my knock knees will allow–“Attagirl.”

I try to hold both the criticism and compliments lightly. I am in class to follow instructions and to improve; the most positive reinforcement is to see the beautiful and orderly movement I form in concert with my classmates. But I am also in class to exist in my own body, my improbable body that is at war with itself but still revels in its feelings of strength and grace. I owe it to my body to show up; I allow myself to feel some pride just for getting there.

And I allow myself to feel some pride when I lead the barre, a fat ballerina whose form everyone else must follow. “Watch Sara!” yelled the ballet instructor to another dancer one day. “That’s why I put her in front of you!”


*Sports bra recommendations for the busty ballerina

These garments are incredible feats of technology and have been well worth the investment for me. I went and had a proper fitting, but if you’re lucky you might find these brands discounted online. FYI, for the Natori and Panache, I felt more comfortable with the next cup size up from what I typically wear.

Natori Yogi Bra. This bra is soft and flexible enough that I sometimes wear it all day. It looks like a tank bra but it secretly has cups inside, so there is a nice work-appropriate silhouette (whereas extremely structured sports bras can err on the pointy side). The straps can be criss-crossed for racerback tops. I wear it for my lowest-impact ballet class and sometimes to hiking or yoga.

Freya Epic Moulded Crop Top Sports Bra. This is a little more structured and supportive than my beginner ballet bra; I wear it to the next level of ballet, which requires more jumps.

Panache Sport wired bra. This bra is like wearing armor. I could not keep it on all day, but I am grateful for the feeling of immoveable support when I take Zumba or other dance classes that incorporate jumps. The straps convert to racerback with a clever little hook.

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