Anorexia, Dancing, and the Struggle to be Popular





I am well aware of how clichéd it is to complain about the struggle to be thin when you’re involved in show business. I don’t intend this entry to be about how hard it is to be constantly compared and scrutinized when your body is routinely displayed for the general public to see and judge. In some way, that’s true regardless of whether you’re on stage or not.

It’s not commonly discussed within the belly dance community, I think, because there is such an overwhelming culture of “all sizes welcome”. It’s great, because it’s really easy to encourage people to give it a shot when they use their usual self-deprecating excuses of being too fat, or out of shape, or whatever. You don’t have to be skinny to be good at belly dancing. You don’t have to be any shape to have fun dancing, but I feel that belly dance is very unique in the way that there isn’t a body type that is considered ideal, or not conducive. Everyone has their own opinion on what their ideal ‘belly dance body’ would be, but in general, dancers of all sizes can be equally entertaining and spirited.

I didn’t have problems eating because I got into dance. Dance has, in a way, both enabled and healed me to some extent, depending on the context. Of course I always pictured myself as a fat child, but my Mumsy will, in a motherly way, admonish me and say that I was, “Fluffy, not fat,” as if there were a difference.

But like many teenagers, I was very unpopular, and never had ‘cool’ friends… and I was chubby. The boys I liked never spoke to me (in large part because I never spoke to them), and I was too shy to approach popular people. All I knew was the girls were all skinny and had shiny, straight hair and sticky lip gloss. I have always had a desperate need to be liked, popular, and ideally, famous. This probably stemmed from being quite the opposite my entire academic life. Of course everyone says it’s better to be a good person than to be popular, and that’s fine and all, but it’s hard to see it that way when you’re routinely disregarded for being in a group that you didn’t want to be part of anyway.

I dropped out of high school in 9th grade after failing miserably in a ‘traditional school environment’. I was still chubby, still weird, and still unpopular. Somehow, though, I had one friend who was in our little gothling clique, who somehow managed to be a floater. She was liked and accepted by the popular people, yet still identified as “one of us”. She was tiny, perfect, and adorable — all things I had always desired to be.

After I dropped out, I did home schooling online, and that was it for my high school career. I didn’t see anyone, or really do anything. I sat in my room all day and did school work, read Harry Potter, and occasionally my only friend Chelsea would come visit me. This made it easy for me to formulate the connection between my floater friend and popularity — skinny. She was waifish and dainty and everyone loved her, including faculty, whereas I was largely ignored by both.

And so it started. I joined pro-ana/mia websites, I stopped eating with my family, and just cornered myself in my room and let my body eat itself. I subsisted entirely on black coffee, 100-calorie snack packs, and the occasional cheese stick. In general, I had around 500-700 calories in a day, and I went from a size L to XS in record time. I never talked about having issues or insecurity with my mom, so no one suspected. After about a year is when I decided to join belly dance. Two years after that, I started transitioning.

During my transition, I started telling myself that my issues with food were probably because of my weird gender issues. I hated my body and wanted to change it so that it would look more masculine, and that’s why I felt the need to be skinny. I was briefly better for a few months after the ‘hormone high’ kicked in and I was overjoyed at the prospect of all these testosterone-induced side effects. Once I started dancing competitively, though, I started having photos taken of me, and it all came back. I spiraled back into “must be skinny” mode and re-launched my battle against my body fat.

Since I lost more weight, I’ve stayed about the same size for the past few years. When I started competing and performing locally, I was getting overwhelming amounts of attention, all at once. There wasn’t a single time I didn’t walk off stage that I didn’t have people chasing after me to praise me. It was what I always wanted — attention, popularity. Maybe I was talented, but I also felt like it was because I stood out. I did fusion, and I was generally the smallest one in the lineup, and certainly the youngest. I chalked it all up to consequence and my body size, and if I were smaller people would like me more, and I certainly shouldn’t be any bigger, because then I would suck and all my momentum would be lost.

My body issues are tied very closely with my gender ones. I struggled so hard to have a boy body, which, due to my AIS, is simply not an option. And now that I’ve stopped T, I won’t gain muscle as easily. However, I don’t want to have such a girlish body either. I still feel like my happy medium in the gender spectrum is a waify androgyne, because I still can’t get past needing to be “tiny and perfect”. It’s very complicated.

I still have the overwhelming need to be liked and popular, but am still crippled by my shyness and problems with eating. And I call it “problems with eating” as opposed to “anorexia” because I am fully aware that I am not medically anorexic. I constantly battle with the balance of wanting to starve and be as tiny as possible, but wanting desperately to be a famous dancer. Being a dancer means being strong and having endurance and stamina, and if you only eat 500 calories a day, well… those are things that just won’t happen. I am motivated to eat by my desire to be a dancer, but am constantly in a shame spiral because I’m eating, and worrying about the correlation between my body size and my popularity.  

Looking back, of course those girls weren’t popular just because they were skinny. And not all of them were skinny. They were popular because they were friends with the right people at the right time. They all liked the same music, clothes, and were in the same playgroups as kids. I just didn’t fit in with them, and there was nothing I could have done to change that, regardless of whether I weighed 150 lbs or 90.

I still feel awful about myself when I go to put my costume on, or see a photo of me, and see pooches and jellyrolls and flappy bits. I hate them, and I hate myself for hating them, and I am really good at making myself feel awful. I feel like I don’t work out enough, or don’t dance enough, or don’t have enough discipline to achieve the body I want — which, if I had my way, I’d have the body of a 12-year-old gymnast with the hair of Ariel the mermaid. No amount of success I’ve had with booking workshops, winning competitions, or creating crowd-pleasing choreographies has been enough to knock me out of this decade-long shit storm I’ve created for myself.

I’m sorry this isn’t some inspirational, triumphant story of my battle with an eating disorder that I valiantly overcame with dance and love. I hate my body and I hate myself for hating my body, and I hate myself for eating, and I hate myself for not eating. For moments after a performance when people complement me, I feel a little better; or when someone praises my body, I feel okay for a while. My body self-esteem is constantly a “straw on the camel’s back” scenario.

I don’t really know how to wrap this up. I’m not begging for complements or sympathy, and honestly, this post was really long and rambly, so if you got to the end, thanks for reading. Maybe next month’s update will sing a cheerier tune. Until then, here’s the tune for this month.