As part of our Mental Health Matters ongoing blog series, we invited Kathryn Holmes, author of How It Feels to Fly, to shed light on the subject of body dysmorphia. In this post, Kathryn talks about her own experience dancing as a teen, and how her own struggles with a love/hate relationship with her body inspired her book.
Hating the Girl in the Mirror
By Kathryn Holmes
120 pounds. That was my line in the sand. I’ll never forget how it felt to cross it.
It was Nutcracker audition time. I was a high school sophomore, hoping to finally leave less advanced roles like Toy Solder and Arabian Corps behind to be cast as a Snowflake or, even better, in the Waltz of the Flowers. I arrived early. Pinned my number to my leotard. Began filling out the audition paperwork— a formality, since I’d danced at the same studio since I was three. And then I got to the bottom of the page, where we were asked to write down our weight. Next to that blank space, these incriminating words: Dancers over 120 pounds may be put on probation.
Thanks to a recent growth spurt and the onset of puberty, I weighed more than 120 pounds. I’d already been feeling self-conscious about my new shape. Now I was almost paralyzed. Should I put down my actual weight? Should I lie? Would they know either way? Would they call me out? Or worse, weigh me to be sure? I ended up writing “120,” auditioning poorly because I was so anxious, and not getting those coveted roles.
I wrote HOW IT FEELS TO FLY, my sophomore novel (out 6/14), for my sophomore-year self. I kept her close to my heart, that teen-me who became so filled with self-doubt and anxiety and frustration that she would hide in the bathroom after castings and costume fittings so no one would see how much it all hurt. In HOW IT FEELS TO FLY, ballet dancer Samantha is battling body-image issues after a similar weight gain, but her struggles have led to crippling panic attacks that are threatening her professional dance dreams. She thinks she’s successfully masking her unhappiness, until a humiliating backstage meltdown lands her at Perform at Your Peak, a therapy summer camp for teen artists and athletes with severe anxiety. At PaYP, Sam learns to open up and to let go—but it’s not easy.
I’ve been a dancer my whole life. I still take classes and perform when I can. As much as I love the art form, and as much as I’ve made peace with my body as an adult, that anxious, self-hating-but-trying-to-hide-it teenager is never far from my mind.
That’s partly because one of my freelance jobs involves writing about dance for tweens and teens. I’ve been a contributor to Dance Spirit magazine for several years, and I’ve been lucky to get to write about an array of mental and emotional issues dancers can face. I’ve tackled food guilt. I’ve investigated body dysmorphia and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, profiled dancers who love their bodies despite not fitting into the perceived dancer “ideal.”
HOW IT FEELS TO FLY is not my personal story. Sam is not any of the dancers I’ve studied with and performed with over the years, nor is she based on anyone I’ve interviewed in my capacity as a dance journalist. But the book wouldn’t exist without these experiences and conversations. They all became part of my writing journey.
For example, Sam does not have a full-blown eating disorder—but she does struggle with disordered eating habits, where her relationship with food is becoming increasingly unhealthy. She sets rules for her meals, and experiences anxiety when she breaks those rules. She feels uncomfortable eating in front of people. She’s convinced everyone else judges her food choices as much as she’s judging herself.
This is the case for so many dancers—and non-dancers, too.
Similarly, while Sam does not have acute body dysmorphic disorder—which is often characterized by the unshakeable belief that a certain body part is deformed or ugly—she is overwhelmed with negative thoughts about her appearance. She has a distorted opinion of how heavy she actually is. In the mirror, she fixates on body parts that look wrong.
Another issue many young people face.
Before PaYP, Sam tried to cope by keeping all of this self-loathing bottled up. I did the same thing during my rocky sophomore year. I was committed to smiling in the dance studio, no matter how bad I felt. I became an expert at holding my negative emotions in check until the door swung shut and I was safe on the sidewalk. Never let them see you cry—that was my motto.
It wasn’t healthy. It also didn’t make me any happier.
But I didn’t quit dancing, and eventually things got better. I worked hard to get roles despite my curvy figure. I attended a summer dance intensive that took my technique to the next level. I got accepted to a college dance program where I found my niche in modern/contemporary dance, which is much kinder to different body types than ballet. Did my body image magically improve? Of course not—in fact, even now, when I’m going through an anxious period for any reason, my self-image tends to plummet. But for the most part, I’m at home in my skin. I wish I could have found my way here much sooner.
Maybe if I’d talked about those feelings when I was in high school, I could have.
So if you’re struggling—if your relationship with your body or the food that fuels it isn’t healthy—tell someone. A friend. A parent. A trusted teacher. A psychologist. You don’t have to punish yourself for looking or not looking a certain way. You don’t have to feel anxious or unhappy or wrong. It may not always be easy to find the light at the end of the tunnel—but you don’t have to search for that light alone.
How it Feels to Fly is a compelling story from Kathryn Holmes that examines one girl’s efforts to overcome her worst enemy: herself. Find out more about this book here.