The fluorescent lights on the ceiling wobbled in my vision as I pointed my foot in front of me.
“Spot!” my ballet teacher shouted over the music. I took a deep breath and focused on a picture on the opposite wall, keeping my eyes fixed as I spun across the room.
At the end of class, I was gathering my bag when my teacher put her hand on my back.
“You look great,” she said. “Have you lost weight? Keep it up.”
I nodded, still woozy from a stomach bug that killed my appetite for days. I lost weight because I was sick, not because I was trying to. I wondered, did I used to be fat? Unsure of how to respond, I just smiled and politely accepted the compliment.
When you’re an adolescent ballet dancer standing on her toes, weight matters. Leaping and spinning is just easier when you are lighter. The pressure to control my diet in unhealthy ways was everywhere — from my teacher, from comparing myself to the dancers next to me, and from the floor to ceiling mirrors reflecting my spandex-clad silhouette back at me everyday. Soon, I became preoccupied with my appearance.
Hearing my ballet teacher’s approval that day stuck with me. I wanted to look good and “keep it up.” I started to drink coffee and eat lollipops when I should have been eating meals. I controlled what I ate, but emotionally I was out of control. I had a bad attitude with my parents and struggled to pay attention in school. Eventually my parents took me out of dance classes altogether. I was disappointed, but over time I began eating healthy again.
In college I missed dancing and signed up for a class — my first in years. It was a type of dance called “Modern,” and the emphasis was on movement in space and emotional expression, rather than modeling my body perfectly after the teacher.
Growing up I wore ballet shoes that left my feet covered in blisters and skimpy clothes that showed off my body for high school dance shows. In this class, the students and I danced barefoot to bongos. The teacher actually reprimanded us for watching ourselves in the mirror!
It was the first time I felt free while I was dancing, like I could do what I loved and still honor God. It didn’t matter anymore how curvy my body was.
Now, I don’t want to throw ballet under the bus, because ballet taught me discipline and grace. But what I do want to throw under the bus is the notion that the approval of a woman’s appearance by others determines her worth.
The mistakes I made as a young dancer — comparing myself to others, determining my value based on my appearance, hating my God-given body — are things I think we all struggle with as women. They are temptations that we have an obligation to resist if we want to “Live Second.” We can’t love others if we are threatened by them or are preoccupied by self pity. And we definitely can’t love God when we reject the bodies we are born with.
As women, we need to remember that girls are watching and listening. When our body image is our priority, it models that for them. When we only praise girls for their physical appearance, it sends the message that looks matter most.
God looks at us and sees so much more than our appearance. In the Bible it says, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Essentially, what matters to God is our motives, how we are really doing, and how we are treating others. Dancing wasn’t the issue for me, but how I was doing it was. Shifting the focus away from my body, away from the mirror, away from myself, set me free.
Whitney Thompson is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. She has written for several publications including Advocate magazine, Prison Fellowship’s Inside Journal, and Upper Room’s Teen Devozine.
Kesha’s emotional anthem, “Praying,” goes deeper with the theme of letting go of resentment. She hopes well for somebody who has hurt her, and it’s a reminder that forgiving those who have hurt us sets us free from hate that can hold us back.
In my gut, I know I’m going about this all wrong. I know because I wrestle with discontent on a regular basis. I wrongly believe nothing will ever be enough for my daughter. My double standard of clearance rack for me and on-trend designer dresses for my daughter tells the true story: I am an undercover materialist.
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