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Mental Health

Performing As A Ballerina Negatively Impacted How I Viewed My Body

TRIGGER WARNING: eating disorder

The first time I put on a ballet shoe was when I was five years old. I used to sit in an one-room dance studio that my mom’s best friend owned; waiting for class to start. I forced my dad to bring me to class 40 minutes early so the studio was essentially a ghost town. 

My dad, excited than ever, followed me around with a chunky VHS camera as I twirled and jumped around the room. It was honestly the first time that I felt alive, which I know seems like a big stretch for a five year old. From a young age, I struggled with anxiety and never seemed to find the best cure. Dancing quickly became that medicine to the soul that I always hoped for. That was until my dance studio shut down and I had lost my grandma weeks prior.

For one year, I was stuck in a rut of not being able to dance. I was miserable the entire time. After months of looking, I finally found another studio where I belonged. This is where the story really begins. 

I was at the studio six days a week, working on all styles of dance from ballet to hip-hop. My routine was simple: I would go to school, rush to the studio, find time to do my homework in between classes, and eventually get home by 9:30. Most of my friends would complain about my schedule but I loved it. It all took a toll in high school when things started to get complicated. 

As I got older and started to go up the ranks in ballet, it required more hours and rigorous training. Not only was I dealing with the rollercoaster ride that high school is, but I had to deal with all my emotions on top of that. Here’s the thing to note: my ballet teacher was tough. It was a I would cry after almost every class type of tough. This is not to say she was a bad teacher, but I think our personalities didn’t match well. In this class, I felt like a different person. I was shy, quiet and intimidated. I was constantly worrying that she would find a reason to get mad at me. I made sure that every turn, jump, and pilé was perfect. I was trying to achieve perfection and I soon came to realize that this can start to deteriorate my mental health.

I started to realize that there was a problem, especially when it came to something like food. I have vivid memories of me sitting in the cafeteria with all my friends, pushing my food around to make it seem like I ate something. On the days I had ballet, I didn’t eat. I found out that it was because of two reasons — one being that I was so anxious to go to class and two, because I wanted my body to look like the stereotypical ballet body: tall and skinny with no boobs. 

To be completely honest, I don’t know how I got through those long days. When I would get home from dance, I would practically shove food down my throat to get nutrients. I felt like I was constantly worrying about ballet every second of the day. 

I remember once after we rehearsed our dance for the show, my teacher put three girls in the right corner and the other three (including me) in the left corner. She then pointed to the girls in the right corner and said, “You guys did amazing. I have no corrections or complaints for you.” She then slowly moved her head towards us and said, “You guys need to be more like them. You were a mess.”

My heart broke the moment she said that. All of us looked at each other trying not to cry. I had practiced for hours in my room on our dance and I couldn’t understand what she didn’t like about us. We all ran to the dressing room and cried. All of us just hugged and held each other up through the pain. 

My parents started to notice that there was a problem and I was lucky enough to start going to therapy. I soon learned that I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I had to take a year off from ballet. 

The moment I told my ballet teacher, disappointment flooded her face. I couldn’t understand why. I had pushed myself in her class until my breaking point and she was disappointed in me? I didn’t want to have to quit, but if I stayed with it, I would go down a dangerous path. 

These past few years, I have learned that ballet is still something I love to do, and it always will be. I learned the hard lesson of walking away from something that I love. Now that I am in college and have grown mentally, emotionally and physically, I can’t wait to get back in the studio and dance!

Zoë Howes

UC Irvine '25

Hi, my name is Zoë! I am currently a first-year journalism student at UCI and I love to write about rom-coms, my messy love life, politics, and more! Hope you enjoy! :) insta: @zoepascale_
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