How Dance Ruined My Relationship With My Body (Then Helped Me Love It Again)

I've never thought of myself as someone who has an eating disorder. I have never been undernourished, or restricted myself to 500 calories per day. But that doesn't mean I haven't been obsessed with being thin. A 'bad food day' can lead me down a path of depression and anxiety faster than you can say pass the potatoes. For a long time, I was afraid of potatoes.

I've also been a dancer for as long as I can remember.

My mother enrolled me in dance classes at the age of three in an effort to encourage me to be social with girls my age. I didn't love dance all that much, but I loved being on stage. For three minutes each June during the recital, I could step outside of my shy and anxious self and thrive under the hot stage lights.

There is no better way to trace the fluctuations of young adulthood than by standing in a room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors wearing a clingy leotard and tights for hours each week. The first time I remember feeling fat was in the third grade.

By the time I got to college, I was gaining weight while trying to restrict food. I hated my body more every day. Food was my enemy — I would skip meals, eat too little at lunch, and then binge on cookies later on. This was a vicious cycle that continued until my relationship with food, never 100 percent healthy, was completely destroyed.

I focused on the other girls' bodies and compared myself to them ruthlessly. As we got older, some of my dance-mates would make off-hand comments about calories, leading me to believe that I should care about them too. And so I began caring, and equating thinness with talent.

I was a normal weight. Maybe not as stick-thin as some of my classmates, but slim and — more importantly — healthy. Back then, I was convinced otherwise.

This was partially because of my chest, which has always been of above average size for my petite frame. Traditional dance wear is not boob-friendly. Have you seen typical ballet costumes? You can't exactly fit a proper bra under there. Sometimes I would leave class crying because I wanted to look elegant in my dance costumes, and instead felt I looked top-heavy and awkward.

The frustrations I felt about my body in the dance studio triggered a life-long struggle with severe food anxiety. Most of the time I was very strict, refusing to eat more than what I deemed appropriate, even if I was still hungry.

Other times, when faced with a plate of cookies, I wouldn't be able to control myself around food. Certain foods were off-limits; a fairly arbitrary list based on random mental parameters. I wouldn't eat a full bagel to save my life, but would occasionally splurge on an ice cream sundae. If I knew something was an indulgence, like dessert, it became easier to control. Bagels, however, seemed dangerous.

By the time I got to college, I was gaining weight while trying to restrict food. I hated my body more every day. Food was my enemy — I would skip meals, eat too little at lunch, and then binge on cookies later on. This was a vicious cycle that continued until my relationship with food, never 100 percent healthy, was completely destroyed.

Ironically, it was the discovery of modern dance that first helped me change. At the start of sophomore year, I decided to join the program at Sarah Lawrence. The modern-based dance program focuses on a lack of judgment: We never used mirrors in class and, as a result, we were unable to criticize our bodies while we moved. Unlike ballet, modern dance embraces all body types. There is no one mold to fit into in order to be considered talented.

Being able to dance without the pressure of examining myself at every turn (dance pun intended) helped me let go of some of my anxiety over my body. (After awhile, it becomes too exhausting to worry about what you look like when you can't even see yourself.)

Modern dance also focuses on strength. If you are not strong you simply won't be as good as the girl who nourishes her body properly and cross trains. Through modern dance, I began to rediscover the wonderful power of my body and to learn how to properly take care of it. That meant taking as many movement classes as I could get my hands on. It also meant eating a damn bagel every once in awhile without crying in the bathroom afterward.

Last February, I had the opportunity to perform at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea with a group of amazing women from Sarah Lawrence. We were there to perform "Primitive Mysteries," a masterpiece by the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham. Most of us took on the challenge having little or no experience with Graham technique. It was, by far, the most difficult dance routine I'd ever learned.

On the day of my costume fitting, I arrived with sweating palms. Dance costumes, as I mentioned earlier, have never made me feel my best. But as I slid into a body-hugging blue jersey dress and raised my nervous eyes to the mirror, I met my reflection with an unexpected openness. The dress hugged my figure perfectly. I actually felt beautiful.

I wish I could say that my relationship with my body has been smooth sailing since then, but of course, it's not that simple. There are still days where I have to stop myself from mentally calculating everything I eat. I still feel guilty about dessert, and sometimes, I find myself pulling at the skin on the side of my hips and wishing I could make an inch or two disappear. But it happens less and less.

Although I'm not currently dancing on a regular basis, the effects of a lifetime of training remain: I am learning to listen to my body. And it is filled with grace.