When I was two years old I fell in love for the first time.
You might be thinking, “Two years old? Yeah right!” which is totally understandable, so let me explain.
When I was two, I fell in love with ballet and let me tell you-I fell hard. My relationship with ballet was kind of a ‘love at first sight’ type of a situation, you know? When I first fell in love, I didn’t really even know what ballet was, I just knew I was head over heals in love with it and honestly that’s still a true statement.
This all began when my older sister started taking ballet classes at a local studio just outside of our hometown. She attended class a couple days a week, and being the younger sister, I was dragged along nearly every time.
When it came to dance, I had an instant curiosity.
To this day, my mom still cracks jokes about the countless times she would find me sitting quietly in the doorway, intensely watching the adult company rehearse. I was constantly trying to catch a glimpse of whatever variation was next in their repertoire. It didn’t matter if it was Swan Lake, Le Sylphide or The Nutcracker; it was the most breathtaking form of art that I had ever seen, and I wanted in.
At age three, my mom signed me up for my first class and I quickly became enamored with the technical fluidity that is ballet. After my first year of classes, it was clear to my mom that one ballet class a week wouldn’t be enough to keep me happy.
Right before my fifth birthday, I auditioned for a ballet conservatory about 40 minutes from my home. I entered as a student who attended classes three days a week. I was extremely persistent, and blindly in love with my sport. Two years passed and I was up to my ears in technical terms. When summer rolled around, we were encouraged to continue our training with one of the summer intensives being offered by the school, so I did. At this summer intensive, I trained five days a week for six weeks, with kids who were between 9-12 years old. Seems like a lot for a little 7 year old, right? It was-but nonetheless, I loved it.
The conservatory became my second home. The other students and I were fast friends, and soon like family, but it wasn’t always easy. Just like any other sport, there was competition. It was almost always about who had the highest relevè, or who could perfectly execute the most pirouettes. It may have caused a few petty arguments-but we all wanted to be the best. We all wanted to walk out of our auditions for The Nutcracker being able to exclaim that we had been given the role of Clara (Marie) and in order to do that, you needed to be technically stunning.
At any given time the studios were full of students. Whether it was a technique class, a rehearsal, or various students utilizing the free space, everyone was constantly moving, trying to improve their technique or working off an injury. Any down time we were given was spent working on our splits and cramming in math homework.
It wasn’t just a hobby.
For many of us, ballet wasn’t just a hobby, it was our entire lifestyle. We watched everything we ate, we spent copious hours in a day warming up to avoid injury, and we could recite and demonstrate nearly anything in the ballet dictionary.
From birth I was passionate and strong willed as hell. As you can imagine, these weren’t always the easiest traits to possess.
At nine, things started getting more serious. I was placed in classes five to six days a week, with students anywhere between the ages of nine to fifteen. I, was one of the two students who was nine at the time. These older girls were thinking ahead to their future careers as a ballerinas. We all had the same dreams. Becoming a part of a massive company such as American Ballet Theater, wasn’t just what we wanted-for many, it felt like we needed to. In order to achieve those dreams, we would need to be the best.
We needed to be technically beautiful, and eye catching.
Because of this mindset, many girls started restricting their eating, avoiding the lunch rooms at anytime. Many of my peers went running back to the studio during lunch and dinner hours in order to avoid gaining weight. Instead, many would continue to rehearse their solo piece or conduct another technique class for themselves.
Eventually, this became my tragic downfall too.
From restriction, to skipping meals, to binge eating and purging, unfortunately I had it all down to a science. My mental state was completely crumbling. Every single step I did, had to have purpose and it needed to be perfect. Every single jeté needed to look sharp and every part of my body needed to be skinnier. I was at a point where I would stand in front of the mirror, look at the muscles I’d developed on my legs and arms, and I would cry and cry. I thought my muscle made me look fatter. Ridiculous-I know.
The list went on and on.
I struggled with my image for years. I would dread looking at mirrors, or walking past shop windows. Putting on my favorite leotard once made me feel confident and beautiful, and now it made me feel like I was repulsive. I felt as though everything on my body was wrong.
My ribs stuck out too far, which made me look fatter.
My stomach wasn’t flat enough, and no amount of starvation would fix that.
The muscles I’ve gained through my sport, made me look heavy.
The list went on and on and on.
Every hour of every day, I picked apart my body. I absolutely hated the way I had become. Why couldn’t I just enjoy my ballet classes the way I once did? Why couldn’t I get these horrible things about my body out of my mind? I couldn’t take a single class without focusing on all my flaws in the wall of mirrors. Eventually I broke down. I was refusing to go to my classes, and I had the nastiest attitude toward the people I loved and cared about. I was so fed up with the way I was treating my own self, that I pushed everyone who cared away.
Calling it quits.
After lots of tears and refusal to attend class, my mom sat 14 year old me down. We had a long conversation, and we talked about the choices I needed to make. I could continue to dance, and potentially have a career in ballet, or I could stop dancing, and start taking care of myself-possibly explore some new hobbies. At the end of the day, I decided to call it quits. My mental and physical health needed to be my top priority, and I had been neglecting them for far too long.
I spent the next three years in therapy, talking about the different emotions I’d felt, sharing all of the deep, dark things I had ever felt about my body. Over those next three years, my therapist became more like a friend, and she helped me understand the importance of letting go of the toxic things in my life. She taught me different ways to cope when I felt the pressure to be perfect. Over those three years, I learned to love myself, I grew from my experiences, and I gained back the passion and happiness I had once felt.
I can’t lie-It hasn’t been an easy road. Over the past six years, my weight has been all over the grid, but I’m finally content with who I am. I have never been so in love with the way I’m naturally built. I’ve taken the time to put the hard work in an attempt to make myself more muscular and fit. If I was ever given the option to go back in time, I without a doubt wouldn’t change the path I chose for my life.
This takes me to where I am now.
Currently, I’m a 20 year old college student. I’ve found great comfort in writing and sharing my life experiences with people from all different walks of life. Late in 2016, I made the decision to start toning my body, and work on extenuating the beauty in my natural body shape. I find joy in working out to my power playlist, but I mean…who doesn’t love listening to Beyoncè while they’re busting out 100 crunches?! I make a point to always remind myself that a number on a scale or a size on the back of my pants, mean nothing-but my happiness means everything.
In November 2016, I walked back into the dance studio for the first time in six years and started taking classes again (obviously not as many! haha). I’m surrounded by teachers I’ve known for 16 years, supporting me, and teaching me the importance of taking care of yourself: mind, body and spirit.
I’ll admit, I was a bundle of mixed emotions. I was ecstatic to be back in the studio, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. But mainly, I was confident. I was confident in my body; that I could love myself unconditionally, and I could be happy (and stay happy) while being back in the place that has always been my second home.
You’re never alone.
Please don’t ever feel like you’re alone in this fight. No matter how far you’ve spiraled or how out of control you feel, know that you aren’t the only one who’s going through this. It does get easier,but the first step in allowing yourself to take back the reins is to start talking about the problem. If you’re ever in need of a friend who’s also walked down this path, please feel free to contact me through my Instagram on our Spire Team page or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are never alone in your fight; I’ll always have your back.
Hope Elisabeth Bourque