I felt inspired to write this after attending the Northwest Blues Recess Massive last weekend. I was invited to come participate in the event and teach three belly dance workshops – Belly Dance Fast Moves, Belly Dance Slow Moves, and Belly Dance Combinations for Duets. I taught one of those workshops on a cliff overlooking a quarry. It was beautiful, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of that recess.
I was in awe at the love radiating out of that community and the comfort that most everyone had with their bodies. They demonstrated no shame with the ways their bodies looked and moved, both on and off the dance floor. After several discussions about it, I realized that this self-acceptance was not automatic. For most, this came to them after years of blues dancing and building a community that embraced each as they were.
It got me to thinking about my journey to loving my body and the affect that belly dance and its community has had on me. I can only speak to my own experience. Here’s some of what I’ve been working with:
I was never hospitalized or formally diagnosed with an eating disorder, but as a teenager I certainly suffered from body dysmorphia, skipped meals each day, and purged when I felt that I ate too much. I hated my body. I hated myself. The more I deprived myself of food, the more dizzy with self-loathing I became, which then led to more food deprivation and hating myself more. It was a vicious cycle.
In 2002, I started going to yoga classes with my dad at the gym up the street from our house. Those classes made me feel calm and strong. It was a way to release some of my stress, and I began to look at my body not as a thing to shame, but as a thing to train. With yoga I would have months of recovery in which I was eating regular, full meals and generally felt good about myself. I could think more clearly, breathe deeper, and advocate for myself.
Those months of stability, however, were bookended by insecurities of not feeling good enough, irregular eating, feeling diminished, and hours at the gym each day. There were many times when yoga was not enough to calm my self-flagellant mind and became a tool to further fuel the disorder.
I was at a very low point at the end of my senior year of high school. I was scared for the future, not confident in any of the choices that I was making, and pouring myself into self-destructive behaviors. I spent the summer volunteering with Amigos de las Américas in the Azua province of the Dominican Republic. My mind was still turning with self-loathing and self-doubt, but I couldn’t help but notice the confidence of the women in the community where I was placed. They came in all shapes and sizes, each with their own sets of baggage and self-doubt. They were not afraid to express their joy and not afraid of their bodies. They proudly paraded their guts and muffin tops, fat legs, skinny legs, small tetas, voluptuous montañas – all of it. They took us dancing several times a week. We would salsa, bachata, merengue, and rejoice in the bodies that we were given. It was liberating.
I didn’t know how to recreate that self-love when I got back to the states, but I told myself that I was going to try. Two weeks into my first year of college, I started taking classes at the university belly dance club – the University Society of Middle Eastern Dance. As I learned how my body could and did move, I started to find my way into the accepting – albeit not perfect – worldwide belly dance community. I began to understand that my body is part of me and that it deserves care and respect. My life has never been the same.
A non-exhaustive list of what belly dance has taught me:
- Body fat is a thing of envy. The more it shakes, the better it is.
- The human body is a weird and fascinating thing, and each one is different. They’re like pieces of art and are worth observing.
- It takes time and practice to build strong muscles and to develop dance skills. With each practice, the muscles are rebuilding and the brain is creating new synapses. Patience is key.
- It is easy to over-exert one’s self. Don’t work too hard, and take breaks.
- This dance looks good on any body type. Part of the dancer’s journey is finding moves that look the best on her body and drinking in the feelings that follow.
- Food is important. If the dancer doesn’t eat enough before and after training, her mind and muscles will not retain much if any of what she has learned.
- Dance doesn’t have to be competitive. When I dance, I am trying to share a part of myself. When I watch others dance, I encourage them to do the same.
- A solid community is essential. When surrounded by people who share love for each other, it’s hard not to love one’s self, too.
In addition to all of this, I learned more about my eating habits and how to spot the warning signs that I was slipping back into the dark spiraling tunnel that was my eating disorder. I noticed that if I skipped one meal, whether intentional or not, it became way too easy to get back into the self-hate mindset and continue to skip more meals. I became much more mindful of meal times and whether or not I had eaten. If I knew that I was going to be out and about around a meal time, I carried my meal with me or made a plan on when and where I would take a break to buy food. I also made a point not to live with a scale in the house.
Yoga has since re-entered my life as an overwhelmingly positive force. I continue to practice yoga and belly dance to maintain my mind and body, and I teach both so that I might share some of the benefits that they have provided me.
It hasn’t been the smoothest road to self-acceptance, and I still work on it every day. I can say now with confidence that I love my body as it is. There is always room to grow and improve, but I am enough as I am.