My thighs are too big. Not fat, but too muscular. I look like a runner, not a ballet dancer. My rib cage is too wide. No matter how thin I get, the circumference of my ribs is still too big, and I can’t change that. My legs are too short. My torso is too long. I have a nice muscular back, but still, my ribs are too wide. I build muscle too easily. I’m strong and so capable, but I don’t look right. My face is too expressive and I already have wrinkles on my forehead. I’ve had them forever. My arms are beautiful. My eyes are loosing some of their brightness. They aren’t looking as blue as they used to be… the flaws go on and on.
I spent 3 years of my life working as a professional ballet dancer, and 14 years before that training to become a ballerina. It was my job to be in front of the mirror all day, Monday through Friday. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard it so many times before — ballerinas suffer from extreme pressure to obtain a so-called “ideal” and often unnatural physique, which often leads to eating disorders and unhealthy self-image… I know. It’s a shame and a hazard of the profession, which I do believe is actually getting better as our society comes to accept more and more fuller figured athletes, models and actresses.
But this post isn’t about eating disorders or weight; this is about the mirror. I used to be totally addicted to looking in the mirror. You can call it vanity or self-obsession, but I believe it was more complex than that. For most of my life, I used it as a tool. It was a way for me to check the lines I was creating with my body. It was something to “spot” in my pirouettes. It allowed me to be totally aware of what my body was doing and what it looked like at any given moment. I relied on it for everything. I would communicate through it. I was constantly looking at myself. Always looking, always checking, always critiquing. And since I had been doing that since the age of three, it felt… natural.
But eventually, I spent so much time looking in the mirror that I began to distrust it. Mirrors can be deceiving, and when you stare into one for too long, it’s easy to lose perspective. So when it’s your job to look at one all day, that can become a problem. Some mirrors make you look taller, others shorter. It all comes down to the way it’s hung and the glass itself. I became an aficionado of mirrors, always finding the “best” one in a dance studio and taking a place at the barre that would allow me to use that pane. It was usually the one that made me look the tallest.
Even when I approved of how I looked during a step, I would still feel a twinge of dissatisfaction at the knowledge that the mirror was actually fooling me – it made me see myself as looking better than I knew I actually did. My relationship with the mirror had become a troubled one. It was almost as if I couldn’t tear my eyes away. If I wasn’t in the mirror, where was I? Who was I? I knew I had to break my addiction and figure that out or I was sure to become nothing more than a self-possessed nutcase, a la Black Swan. So I tried to just stop looking.
Dancing without a mirror is like driving in the dark without your headlights on. You can’t see what you’re doing, you just have to trust the movements. Okay, maybe that’s not the best analogy, as I don’t condone driving without your headlights on. But suffice to say, whenever I would dance on stage or away from the mirror, I would feel a bit more hesitant initially, but that insecurity would always give way to a kind of freedom I felt nowhere else. Without the mirror, I would trust myself and I would dismiss my inner critic. It was liberating.
I made the choice to leave the professional ballet company world and I spent nearly 4 years never setting foot inside a dance studio. I stayed far away from those floor to ceiling mirrors and forgot about my obsession with them. My addiction to looking in the mirror – my vanity, I suppose you could call it – quickly faded away. I stopped being so critical of my appearance and started to love the way I looked.
I found new ways to gauge myself by looking outward at the world around me. I started volunteering, working at Meals on Wheels and working fundraisers. I started teaching dance to kids who had been through numerous abusive foster homes and had since been taken into custody by the state. I saw a much better reflection of myself in the eyes of the people I was helping, than I ever saw in a ballet studio.
Now when I take a ballet class, the mirror doesn’t phase me. It continues to help me check my positions and alignment, but it no longer frustrates me. I found the harder I looked for something in the mirror the more elusive it became. It was only when I let go, stopped searching and stopped critiquing that I could suddenly see myself clearly. And what I saw was lovely.