Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Beauty and Disease

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a ballet that was put on by a local dance school and featured students from toddler to teenager. It was a lovely show (especially since my amazing daughter was in it, in her pink tutu and tiara), but I was struck by the beauty of the older dancers. I've never been interested much in ballet, so never bothered to watch many performances. But being up close and seeing such young girls moving with grace and joy was truly beautiful.

As I sat there watching the teenagers flit gracefully across the stage, I started thinking about their body types. There were tall, thin ballerinas and shorter, heavier ballerinas, but none of the older, more talented dancers were obese. I started wondering why.

As I continued to watch, the combination of music and dance was just captivating. So artistic, so beautiful. The dance school stresses that all of the ballerinas need to look as similar as possible. Even in the toddler classes, for performances all the girls must dress the same, in the same color tights, with their hair pulled back in the same tight bun. No cute ringlets, no earrings, no nail polish, no tattoos on their arms. Nothing to draw attention to any particular dancer over another (unless it is done intentionally as part of the performance). I'm no dance guru, but it seems to me that the beauty of the dance is in the fluid movement of the dancers moving as a unit, or in patterns to create an artistic flow. If one of the kids had their hair in a mohawk it would distract from the flow.

So what to do with an obese ballerina? Well, certainly in the younger classes there were heavy girls, and they were very beautiful just as the other girls, and danced nicely. I think it is wonderful that they are NOT letting their size get in the way of what they love to do. And physical activity is great for people of every size. These heavier girls might even slim down to a healthier state THROUGH dance.

But once you got to the older girls.... 13, 14, 15... they were not obese. Some were "heavier" than others, meaning, not the kind of girls you might see on TV as models, but normal healthy, beautiful bodies just the same. And as I was watching and thinking about all of this, I realized that part of the beauty of ballet is in the form. Seeing those young, healthy, strong bodies doing what they were meant to do was wonderful. Their arms were strong. No one had big hunks of flab hanging down off their arms like I do. No one was inhibited by an apron of belly fat slinging down around their tutu. No one was thudding down on the stage with every leap because they had 100 pounds of extra fat bulging out from their waists and hips and thighs. It was all very beautiful. Healthy bodies, not distorted by disease.

Yes, disease. I have seen obesity is referred to as a disease before, and it sort of offended me. I mean, I don't buy into the obesity virus thing, and I certainly don't like to think of my fat as a disease... but it IS, really, a disease, whether you define it as a disorder of the body system, a harmful condition, or a condition that impairs normal functioning (all from the dictionary). Being obese IS harmful to the body. It is NOT how bodies were meant to function. Just doing a little research on what all that extra fat does to the internal organs... what obesity does to the circulatory system, the joints, the digestive system... is usually enough to open anyone's eyes to the fact that obesity is just NOT healthy, NOT a normal way of functioning for a body. It's not good for anyone.

That's what was going through my mind as I watched those dancers move. They can move with grace and strength. They exude confidence and joy in living. It's wonderful to see young healthy bodies doing what they were meant to do.

I know that a 39-year-old body is never going to look like a 14-year-old body, and once a person has spent a decade being obese, it's impossible to ever get back to the perfect state of health we wish for. But I certainly can do better than this. I can work to melt off the extra fat. I can build muscle. I can restore my body to a state of health and get rid of the disease of obesity that has plagued me for years.

There IS beauty in every body. But, to me, the most beautiful thing is a body... any body, even as imperfect as mine... that is as healthy as it *can* be. That's something we are all capable of: building strength and grace and health, day by day, step by step.

37 comments:

liz said...

I discovered your blog a week or 2 ago and love it; I look forward to your new posts. This discussion of beauty and disease is so poignant... but don't forget the hope. We won't get back the years spent in unhealthy bodies, but we can and will become fit and healthy and improve our quality of life immensely. You can do it. You ARE doing it. You are an inspiration.

Picture Yourself Thinner said...

Hello Lyn, you write beautifully, I can feel your heart in the words you write. I am so happy to follow your blog and look forward to your next one. I saw my daughter, 24 yrs old now, through your article many years ago and it was beautiful. I have 80lbs to lose and I agree with you about the health issues. I hired a personal trainer at a Snap 24 hr. Fitness gym for the first time in my life. I can't tell you how excited I am each and everyday to go there. Its because I decided, as you are right now, that we can get our health back, maybe not our teen size, but our beautiful healthy adult size so we can enjoy our families and our lives. Thank you for your article. I am adding your blog on my sidebar and would love if you would consider adding mine to yours. Warmly, Linda

Anonymous said...

There is a flipside to the requirement that the ballerinas "look as similar as possible". I have to wonder how many of those teenage dancers are starving themselves or purging to keep their dancer-body.

Lyn said...

Anonymous~

good thought! I actually considered that as well while I watched. But thankfully I didn't see *any* bony, frail looking bodies that might be a sign of anorexia among the dancers. They all looked strong, and I would guess that *most* dancers need to eat a decent amount to build muscle and strength like that. I think people who purge or starve might not be able to have the strength and coordination to do the things these dancers were doing. They truly did look healthy!

NewMe said...

Hi Lyn,

I usually really enjoy your posts and admire your strength of character and resolve. However, I found this post disturbing.

Studying ballet is a worthy activity and is certainly not limited to people of only one body type, but it can be dangerous to see ballerinas as a metaphor for health.

The rate of anorexia/bulimia amongst professional dancers and those studying to enter the profession is significantly higher than amongst the general population. There are numerous studies on this phenomenon. I would never use ballet dancers as an example of a healthy lifestyle.

Furthermore, we are not all naturally thin and long of limb. In fact, I often say of myself that I can do practically anything but dance ballet. I never had, nor never will have the right body type. And I don't want to have to feel that I am a physical failure because I have short, somewhat misshapen legs. I know that your post does not even imply such things, but the ballerina and the fashion model are often held up as the pinnacle of beauty and that's way to narrow a pinnacle for me (or my husband, or yours, for that matter!).

The other issue that bothered me was the whole idea of overweight = bad health. No, I don't advocate people eating themselves into oblivion and I'm certainly not in favour of the McDonald's diet, but yo-yo dieting is also a significant factor in disease. One of the best ways to destroy a normal metabolism is to diet. Not to mention how starving (aka dieting)/bingeing does a terrible number on your head.

For those who envy ballet dancers, I recommend the Tuesday, May 5th post on the following site: http://everywomanhasaneatingdisorder.blogspot.com/
This is the hidden, tragic side of dance.

I too am working towards losing weight, but I think there's much to be said for the HAES movement. HAEA stands for "healthy at any size". When I look at my yoga teacher, who has a definite tummy and the "bat-wing" arms so common to women over 50, I can only envy her. She has the kind of strength and flexibility that few people ever achieve. She weighs about 150 pounds and she's not that tall but I know that her weight stays steady and her health is excellent. She's my kind of role model.

Thanks for your blog. It's great.

Best wishes,

Wendy

moonduster said...

You can and you will do it! Your children need you to be strong and healthy as much as you need this for yourself.

Michelle said...

I was recently at my girls ballet and was mesmerized by the larger ballet dancers and one was a graduating Senior with a solo. First I was amazed how they could do 1/2 the moves they did....I loved it. I also wanted to congratulate that graduating seniors parents for keeping her in ballet for so long because you know it must have been painful to be the big girl and the other girls so much smaller all those years.
Love your blog!

Cathy said...

I think it's never too late to get back to perfect health and for sure it's not too late with 39! Our body is a pure miracle and it forgives so much if we only try to make thingss up and get back to a healthy lifestyle.
Love your postings and your blog! It's so inspiring.

Amy Greenan said...

I really enjoyed this post overall but also had some misgivings, the same as Wendy's above. But I get what you are saying, and it's certainly another interesting point to chew on, minus the eating disorders so many dancers deal with. I am working on making a stronger, healthier body for myself and have already made good headway in just a few weeks, even as a 320-some pound woman.

Rhonda said...

Loved your post...Yes, you can melt away fat and get back to health..YOu can do it!!!!

Lyn said...

Wendy~

thank you SO much for your very insightful comment! Absolutely true... and I agree. It's very sad what people will do to fit a "perfect standard" and I totally do not advocate that.

My post isn't meant to set ballerinas up as some sort of pinnacle of health for everyone. It's just my own musings and reaction to seeing young, healthy "non-professional" dancers doing something beautiful. There is absolutely beauty in many other forms; I was just so struck by the wonder of these amateur girls doing something that moved many people.

Also, I didn't mean to convey that "overweight = bad health," however, that obesity = a state of disorder in the body. I believe there is a level of body fat that, once reached, impairs the body from reaching its best function. Maybe not exactly what the BMI charts state, but "obese" meaning a far more burdened state than overweight. I hope that makes sense.

Thanks again for the comment and insight!

Kezia said...

Hi Lyn,
I have been reading (and loving) your blog for about 2 months, and today's post really resonated with me. I used to be one of those dancers 10 years ago, and I've never felt so strong and great about myself. I stopped dancing due to a variety of reasons, and I still miss it oh so much...Thank you for sharing your view of that dance recital !

Becky said...

i found your blog a couple of days ago and i swear you are in my head!! great job!

Honib1 said...

very well said~

Twix said...

Perhaps we should look at our journey to becoming healthy as a ballet. ;-) One postive twirl at a time!

Hanlie said...

I saw a program on TV a while ago (must be since we haven't had TV since November) where they reported that ballet for adults was becoming a popular form of exercise...

You're so right, we each need to live up to our own body's potential. Our bodies have an enormous capacity for health and healing if we treat them well. This, more than the aesthetic aspect, is becoming so important to me.

antgirl said...

You can get your health back. That's what this is all about ... for me anyway. It's never too late.

mythreemonthokinawadiet said...

I really like your comment about getting your body as healthy as it "can be". I think this is a great postive approach to dieting. Some people are limited by medical, genetics or even enviroment when they diet. It does not mean they cant try.

Thank you for a great post.

Mary @ A Merry Life said...

Obesity is a disease for the harm it causes. But your body can and will do better. You have a wonderful body that is capable of a lot. It just needs you to find out what it can achieve.

Anonymous said...

I remember the misery, the agony of feeling fat and self conscious in ballet as a child. While I wish I had enjoyed physical activity more, and wish my mom had found a better way than she didto help me with my weight, I am grateful that she didn't force me to keep doing something that felt so awful. The dancers you watched did NOT seem to feel as I did, radiating health and joy to you! What a great place for your daughter to be!

That said, 50 years later, 70 pounds lighter than I was 25 years ago, 40 pounds lighter than I was at 12 years of age, I will shout YES! You are so right! To feel as strong and healthy as I can be is a great joy! For me I feel it most doing tai chi. I'm looking forward to hearing how you find that sense of grace, strength, 'just as I should be' in your life, because I firmly feel you will!

Marie

Lauren said...

I love your blog, I read it every day and you are on my googlereader. I look forward to your words of insight. But I want to say that I hurt for what you wrote today. I hurt for those young girls whose only beauty in your eyes seemed to be in that they were fit and uniform and could move gracefully and that the little kids were cute but that the overweight ones, that their "goal" or your goal for them would be to lose the weight through dance. I have about 100 lbs to lose, and I look in the mirror every day and usually hate myself. and it's posts like this that make it hard not to. now I desperately want to say I'm sorry and make things all better between us just in case I offended you. But I'm going to try not to because this is how I feel and my feelings are valid too.

Birdie said...

I hadn't really thought about the obesity/disease issue the way you discuss it but it makes perfect sense. Sometimes I"m amazed at how simple concepts are lost on me until someone points them out.

Lyn said...

Lauren~

You totally did not offend me, and you know I care about you! I hope you will consider, though, that perhaps you read my post through the filter of your own hurts and defensiveness about weight. I have always said that we should look in the mirror and LOVE ourselves in whatever state we are *right now*... not wait until we lose weight or reach some other physical goal to love ourselves.

I never said nor thought that the "only beauty" in those girls was in their size and fitness. Certainly each child (in or out of a ballet) is beautiful in many ways, including ALL children AND adults... those disabled, disfigured, short, tall, hairy, fat, skinny, whatever. But my post was about the performance of a ballet. It was about the experience of being in an audience and viewing a dance performance. It was not about the *value* or even the beauty of the individuals outside of that performance, since I don't even know them personally.

I absolutely do *not* want you to hate yourself Lauren, and there is no reason you should. You are a wonderful, caring, beautiful young woman AS YOU ARE right now! I hope you take that to heart.

Momwithahook said...

That was a beautiful post. I get the same feeling when I am with my tiny 110 husband and healthy weight son. Even my older son who is slightly overweight but not quite obese has more energy than I do.

I forget sometimes how easy it used to be to walk without having to rest every few minutes and without back pain.

My sweet husband rests with me and is very supportive of me and I wish I could stop loving food enough to let it go for HIM, for my Children, for ME.....

I've been relying on food to get me through life for almost 25 years -- learning to rely on something else and eating just when hungry is something that comes very difficult for me.

Megan said...

Wow, Lyn, what a post this turned out to be. It really seemed to bring out a lot of controversial feelings in people. I thought yuo did a really nice job of considering and validating each commenter's feelings while making your own point clear. Now that's grace!

Anonymous said...

My oldest (now 22) was dance-obsessed for most of her life. She practiced 5 days a week, danced in shows and competitions on the weekends. I lived in that world with her for 15 years. I don't think it was that the heavier, younger girls slimmed down through dance by the time they reached their teen years. It's a subtle thing. The heavier girls start to notice that they are different from the smaller girls, that their bodies can't quite do the same things. Subtle suggestions may be made to them to slim down to improve their technique. Most of them quit because they are ashamed. My daughter danced beautifully, loved it, and was not overweight, but at age 12 she began to develop breasts and was a D-cup by the time she was in high school. This hampered her greatly. She asked me for a breast reduction at the age of 17 because she wanted to dance professionally and ballerinas just can't have big boobs (I said no). I think there's a negative here - I wish dance teachers would stress the beauty of joy and dance for any body type and age. I'm sure some do, but I knew many dance teachers through the years, and that was not the rule.

Lyn said...

Megan~

thank you. Sometimes we won't all agree, but as long as people are civil about their viewpoints, we can all learn so much from each other! The comments on this thread have been very insightful especially to me, a newbie in the world of dance.

Anonymous~

thank you for sharing your daughter's experience. I was thinking about various dance types and how it seems acceptable to be *large* in some things, like belly dancing but not in other things like ballet. You also don't see obese gymnasts or baseball players very often as they get older (closer to adulthood). Matter of fact a very dear friend of mine dropped out of baseball due to his weight. This is all very thought provoking and deserves its own post about weight and sports/dance, I think (as this post was more of a conveyance of just what I *saw* on the stage last week). I will definitely be writing on this topic more!

Coley said...

I, too, recently saw a documentary about a dancer who was severely anoerexic. she'd dance beautifully and then completely collapse in her own sweat as soon as she disappeared from view. It exposed a whole world of the pressure dancers go under to be thinner and work harder.
I also agree with others - I could outrun, outstairclimb, outexercise anyday my friend who weighs half as much as me.
Alas, there are always exceptions to the rule. It is however beautiful to see what bodies are capable of - not lookwise, but fitness wise, how flexible and such. Some are amazing machines and works of art. It's neat to see what we are all (nearly) capable of!

Ria said...

Really beautiful post, Lyn. I had a similar epiphany a few months ago as I walked an indoor track at the gym. A very fit woman in her mid-30s was running the track, and each time she passed me I was amazed at both her speed and how graceful her stride was - it hit home just how big the gap is between what a really fit body can do and what an obese body can do.

I LOVE the last line of your post . . . "building strength and grace and health, day by day, step by step" . . . with that thought in my mind, I'm off to the gym :)

Jeana said...

Great post, Lyn!

Amber said...

I recently attended a "size positive" dance festival where they offered fun, casual courses in ballet, bollywood and jazz dance for people of all sizes. I never really though someone as fat as me could enjoy something like ballet, but I did and it felt great to move my 29 year old fat body in new ways and it was great exercise. Fat people can be graceful too.

And as several other people have stated, eating disorders are really common among dancers.

But all in all, I can still see what you're getting at. I felt that way when watching the Olympics last summer. To have a body that is capable of moving in so many ways is admirable, because although some people can still do a lot with the weight, it can also hinder a lot.

seesaraheat said...

I love how you said the most beautiful thing is our body being as healthy as it can be because that is so different for every person. I used to think I had to be this size or this weight because other people my age and height were but I'm finally realizing that this is my body and right now its the healthiest it can be. So I'm doing okay :)

wonderloveandpraise said...

Lyn - you're a better woman than I, as some of these comments have my ire up. All I heard in your great essay was an appreciation for healthy bodies that were able to do all that their brains wanted them to do. If you had been at a track meet, you would have noticed the same thing in the athletes. I didn't hear you overemphasizing the thinness of ballet dancers or anything like that at all. Thanks for giving us a context for processing our bodies in the real world. You are so good for me and my journey!!

Vickie said...

are you doing okay???

Vickie said...

I read NO comments what so ever - I am very careful about that with myself - because things bother me - I can well imagine the variety that you got - I thought it was a lovely post and took it totally in the spirit in which it was intended - remember if you got comments that bother you or people that did not understand - it is much more about THEM than it is about you or what you said. I loved it.

Winderdoodle said...

Hi, Lyn: I love your blog! I stumbled upon it today and have been poking around obsessively seeing myself in a lot of your posts!

I look forward to coming back and continuing to find inspiration as I work to lose my last 50 pounds.

-Wendy
http://wendyweightlossjournal.blogspot.com

dance teacher said...

Just discovered this blog!.. will be sure to pop back all the time, some great comments and posts!