Ballet, Barbells and Body-Image
I’m sitting in the corner of the gym, watching my daughter lift seemingly impossible weight. I can see the bottom of her quads dovetailing to cradle her kneecap, the definition in her deltoids, the puffy-cheeked grimace as she takes a deep breath, tenses, inhales, locks down and gets ready to pull a bar that weighs almost as much as she does over her head and stand up, in one surprisingly graceful move.
I am watching her, but I see her, at age 4, in ballet class, with her underwear bulky under a pink leotard as her feet disobediently jitter about like a drop of water on a hot skillet.
This is my baby.
It’s been 16 years, mind you, but I’m still sometimes confused about the fact that I’m a parent. I don’t recall, really, if we planned it or it was impulse. I do know that I never wanted to be a parent, because I can’t imagine anything harder, more important, more terrifying than being responsible for raising a good, happy, healthy human. I can imagine no task more important or daunting. And I didn’t have much to go on by way of examples. Sure, if I were to weigh the pros and cons of how my parents did it, they’d probably come out a wash. (And I love them madly, regardless, they were only doing the best they could do.) But I knew, for sure, that there was not much about my own childhood that I wished to repeat.
My daughter finishes this round of lifting, walks over to me, sits on my lap, leans back. I put my arms around her.
She is the thing I love most in the world.
But my job wasn’t just to love her. It was to raise a human who could function in this world. I didn’t know how I was supposed to do that (especially given that my own ability to do so is questionable.) I looked, very briefly, at a few books that were supposed to tell me, and I realized immediately that they were useless. Not because the people who wrote them were bad or stupid, but they didn’t know me, or my daughter, or the world we live in.
In some ways, we had it easy. Our daughter turned out to be inherently well-mannered, kind, comfortable in her world and succeeded at pretty much everything she did. The kid never struggled and was rarely sad. She loved school, made friends easily, was able to figure out pretty much anything you put in front of her.
Awesome, right? WRONG! Not awesome. The one thing that I know about life is that it is full of struggle, and the people who don’t know how to handle struggle are doomed to a life of frustration and anger. Which will probably manifest in unhealthy ways.
I wasn’t about to implement some Draconian chore sheet on her, because that’s not struggle, that’s servitude. While we expected her to pitch in around the house and respect shared spaces and all that, making her work hard at arbitrary external tasks wasn’t going to teach her how to deal with the very real frustrations of self-doubt, of having to master a skill even if she didn’t want to do, of showing up when she’s expected to even if she doesn’t want to, and of doing something that you’re just not good at, but sticking with it until you get it.
How was I supposed to teach her those things, which seem so important to me?
I’m not sure why we first signed her up, but we did, and she hated it. She was truly bad at it. (I mean, to the extent that a 4 year-old is good or bad at anything.) She hated the structure. She hated everything about it.
Ballet, for her, was the perfect chance for us to teach her how to deal with those external pressures that create internal frustration. She wanted to quit, we wouldn’t let her.
She was not graceful. She was not light on her feet. She didn’t have those long, beautiful lines of a dancer. This was the only thing in her life that she struggled at, and she knew it. She wasn’t even good at struggling, (which was, of course, the point.)
Which led to endless conversations about appreciating the process of learning, rather than the reward of perceived success. About celebrating accomplishments along the way. About not worrying about the fact that you aren’t like everyone else. About not caring if you’re not the best, and being able to celebrate those who are better than you.
Neither of us gave a damn about ballet. And we told her that. We didn’t care if she was good or bad, we cared that she tried. We didn’t expect her to be a professional ballerina, just to behave in a professional manner for the 5 hours a week that she did ballet. We didn’t expect her to be best friends with the girls she did ballet with, but to get along, be kind and polite. Of course, she did end up making great friends, who she began to look forward to seeing.
Through those new friends, she began to look forward to ballet itself. She would learn from and with her friends. She would want to show up because her friends would expect to see her. She would gladly go to the extra rehearsals before a performance, because everyone was counting on each other.
She never became the best, but much to everyone’s surprise, she became quite good at ballet. After a few years, we felt like ballet had served its purpose for her, it had taught her what we wanted it to.
Which is when all those baby ballerinas started turning into young women. This is the age at which the body-image issues that are so prevalent in ballet began to pop up. Although the school at which she studied was by no means immune to those issues, it was very positive about strong bodies. But that doesn’t mean all the girls were. The talk began, “I’m getting fat,” “I’m not pretty enough.”
My gratitude for the gifts of ballet reached an all time fervor at this point, because these are thoughts she never would have gotten at home. But, of course, she’d have to learn to deal with these as well. Not only her own, but all the media messages around her that tell women to be small, skinny, graceful, pretty and the Prima “ballerina” of their chosen field. Of course! And that never would have been on my list of things to talk about with her, because in my feminist upbringing, those issues were never even addressed. We were told bodies were beautiful, and didn’t have a TV to contradict that message.
And as such, I never learned how to deal with them myself. At least not in my teen years.
We spent car rides talking about what “pretty” means. What it means to love your body and yourself. How to help other people find whatever it is that makes them special, because there are no people who fit perfectly into the mold that the media makes for us.
The best stuff about ballet happened in the car ride home. Every single time.
I think she was in 7th grade when she finally declared that she’d had enough of ballet. From 4 years-old to 7th grade. That was a lot of car rides in which we could talk about frustration, perseverance, goals, responsibilities, behavior and body image.
My baby-girl became a young woman during ballet carpool.
When she quit, we told her she had to find something else to do with her body. Some sport, because even though she’d rather have her nose in a book, that’s not healthy. She tried a few things, didn’t like them. Eventually she found rowing, and loved her crew. Her crew, not the sport. She loved the boat full of strong girls working together. She didn’t love the sport so much. The sport finally injured her seriously. At the age of 14, she herniated a disc.
She spent a year not using her body at all. Awful, right?
That was the year that she learned to really value her body. To really value what sport gave her. The year the she wasn’t allowed to do anything was the year that she learned that she is an athlete. It was the only year of her life that she sat still. I expect that will always be true.
During that year, she sat in our gym and watched people lift weight. She watched. She watched with an intensity that makes me think scientists misunderstand the nature of osmosis.
When she got the all-clear from her doctors, she walked into the gym, picked up a bar, and did a snatch.
She’s been CrossFitting and Lifting for a year now. I just watched her do 30 muscle-ups without missing a single one. She’s within a few pounds of a body-weight snatch.
But more that that, she struggles with it. It’s natural for her, but it’s hard. She’s learned to embrace the fails. To listen to her body. To set goals and work towards them. To listen to her coaches. She shows up, in every way, day after day.
I have seen her cry on the lifting platform. I also see her glow from the inside.
As she inhales that breath before a big lift, I see my baby ballerina. I see the reward for letting her struggle, making her do things that are hard, for teaching her how to show up and do the work.
Ballet was my choice, because I knew it was hard for her in every way. But CrossFit and Olympic lifting is her choice. She is using the skills that ballet gave her to achieve the goals of her choice.
But best of all, she loves her body. In this day and age of women being packaged as tiny little sex-objects who need the approvals of others, she gleefully told me that her quads didn’t fit in her skinny jeans. She rejoices at the sight of her muscles. Her strength.
We arrived at her gym the other night, and her coach told us that he wants her to try and qualify for USAW National Championships. My heart sunk a little.
I don’t want the pressure to win to be what guides her. I don’t want the pressure to be the best on a National level to be what guides her, just the best “her” that she can be.
But I looked at her, she was glowing. “That sounds fun.”
I told them that I will, as I always do, support the decisions that Celia makes about her life and body. I will always support her happiness, as long as it’s actually making her happy, because that’s all I really care about.
So, apparently, we’re training for Nationals now.
Driving home, I reminded her that she doesn’t have to win. That just doing it, trying, training, going for it, that’s what counts.
She looked at me like I had just delivered the shocking news that rain is wet.
“I know, it just sounds fun, like a cool experience.”
Yup. That’s my baby girl. My young woman.
And she was glowing. She still fidgets and dances around, her limbs contain uncontrollable energy, that same little ball of water bouncing on a hot skillet that she’s always been.
But now the power is her own.
My baby ballerina is all grown up. And strong as hell.
* Footnote: As of February 24, she qualified for Nationals. In June, she competes…..