Dear Preteen Ballerina,
The dance recital will be a mostly beautiful memory for me. My four-year old daughter dressed in pink, exploded with pride as she intensely, almost comically so, revealed the steps she has been learning. You watched the little girls patiently while you waited for your turn to show the audience some real, actual, ballet. When you performed, you were very, very, good. But I know, that all you will remember from the recital is a feeling of red-hot unease.
After you walked on stage but before the music began, you looked down at your leotard-clad, rapidly maturing body and you just sighed. You said nothing, but I heard your inner mind working to sabotage you. The music seemed to offer you some relief from your silent self-barrage, but unlike the little girls who performed before you, no matter how your body moved, your face could not smile.
And it made me remember the years without smiling.
When adolescence hit, I felt angry – pretty much all of the time. When I try to recall why I was so incredibly angry, the feeling that swarms is that of being “looked at.” I felt, as every teenager since the beginning of time, that my parents “looked at” me like a child, and couldn’t see my inner independent mind. I felt “looked at” lecherously by boys and gross older men. I felt “looked at” by classmates examining my hair, clothes, and movements. I had a tall frame, wild hair, and developed early: a devastating combination for those of us who wish to go unnoticed. My mother thought my preference for dark clothes was some expression of brooding when in reality I simply longed to be unseen, or at least, not seen as my body. I developed a slouch. And I stopped dancing.
I just couldn’t take that leotard.
Last summer I was watching my two-year-old and four-year-old daughters play at the beach. Beautiful baby bellies poached over their adorable ruffled bathing suit bottoms. They ran about and joyfully tussled without so much as a passing thought as to the jiggle-rolly-poles that were becoming sugar coated with sand.
I can’t remember when I stopped feeling that way in a bathing suit. It was around your age, Preteen Ballerina. Or long before. The spandex sorrow that stopped me from dancing, swimming, and living as I deserved.
I wish I could tell you, Preteen Ballerina, that I got over the spandex sorrow because of love for myself, but the fact remains that my self-love is not quite there. The love that did help me, was seeing my daughters joy, and wanting them to never lose it.
So I decided in that moment to commit to joy. The problem was that my self-hatred had become so entrenched that I was going to have to fake it until the feelings could become something more real. If nothing else, I would be damned if I modeled self-hatred to my kids.
And that’s why I’m writing you, Preteen Ballerina. I know that you are about to stop dancing and I can’t let that happen.
I need you Preteen Ballerina, to keep dancing. I need you to show my daughters that a ballerina can be curvy, strong and imperfect. I need you to help me change things. I need you to be braver than you ever thought. I need you to put on that goddamn leotard, and slap on a smile, no matter how imperfect you feel. We are all imperfect. And I need you to help me teach my girls that joy is not reserved for the thin.
I need you, Preteen Ballerina, to fake it until it becomes real. The fact is, the world will always judge you, but not a millionth as much as you will judge yourself. That voice telling you to stop dancing and to try to disappear will always be there. She will tell you that you are not good enough for certain dresses, jobs, or people. But you are. And you need to practice ignoring that parasite in your mind. Drown her out with music and movement. Drown her out with whatever gives you joy. The sooner you learn how to ignore her, the sooner you will be free.
The fact is, no matter how much I want to model a positive body image, my daughter sees me as old. She doesn’t worship me like she worships you, Preteen Ballerina. I need you there. Please don’t feed my baby daughter’s parasite by taking away one more example of teen girl with a tall frame, wild hair, and early to develop. If you stop dancing, all my daughter will see is the slight girl next to you, whose mother’s botoxed face barely moves. I need you to keep moving.
So please, Preteen Ballerina. I see you and I know you are hurting, but please don’t give up.
I will be there, in the audience next year. I will notice your hard work, your grace, and your strength. I will see you as movement, energy, and expression. I will not see you as a body. Please show up for me.
A former curvy, wild-haired, Preteen Ballerina.