since when must I be skinny to be able to dance?

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Do me a favor and think of a female dancer. What kind of body does she have? Tall? Short? Curvy? Skinny? Slim? Muscular? If the image you conjured is one who is lean and toned with flat abs, then you as well as hundreds of thousands of people around the world, most likely possess the stereotype that dancers are slim people.

Most of you readers may probably know this, but just so you know, I’m a dancer. I started dancing since I was 17 during which I first did belly dancing for a year before joining my school’s dance team and did hip hop, street jazz and reggae (and probably about 5 lessons of contemporary dance). I did street dance til I was 21 before giving it up because of my ED and when I went to New York on my student exchange program at age 22, I picked up latin dance in which I did salsa and bachata and have been doing so ever since coming back to Singapore in January 2014. I’m doing much more salsa and bachata now though I attend street jazz open classes every now and then, have tried my hand in a lyrical jazz class and am considering going back to belly dancing lessons as well because I miss it.

A strong reason behind why I stopped dancing when I was 21 was because I hated the way my body looked when I danced. I’m not a slim dancer. I’m muscular/curvy. A lot of dancers I’ve come across, be it in person or on screen, are pretty slim, especially contemporary dancers, and I was jealous of them. They had slim or skinny bodies which gave no doubt gave them an advantage because dance requires you to be fast, strong and light on your feet. Some routines – though this may usually apply for stage performances –  require the men to lift the girls and being petite is an added advantage because it makes for easier lifting. Ballet dancers are perhaps the most extreme. The ones we always see are usually pretty thin and you always hear stories of bigger and/or muscular ballet dancers being asked by their dance directors to lose weight and/or being rejected because they weren’t willowy enough. I know that curvy/muscular female ballet dancers exist, but rarely do we hear about them do we? Rarely do we all see curvy pole dancers too, do we? The perception of a pole dancer is a woman who is more muscular than skinny but lean and toned at the same time. Not one who is curvier.

Street jazz was my preferred style. Think of the dance routines you see on music videos by Britney and Christina. Its sharp, its fast, its sexy and its spicy. However, I felt my body was too big for that type of dancing. In the mirror I looked big and lumbery. I felt like I took up too much space and my movements  whereas the other dancers’ movements looked swift & razor sharp in comparison. Asian girls do tend to be smaller than their Western counterparts and since many of the female dancers I come across are Asian & I just so happend to be an exception, this just made me want to lose weight even more. Some girls wore clothing that showed off their lithe figure. Cropped tops. Tight pants. The works. On MTV and dance shows like So You Think You Can Dance, I never once saw a curvy female dancer like myself, unless you count the ones with the big butts dancing next to Nicki Minaj. But all in all, most dancers I came across are pretty slim and fit. I would have thought that the many hours of street dancing I put in would have made me lose weight but apparently it didnt because my restricting and binging cycle wasn’t quite resolved. Nevertheless, one thing was for sure to me: many dancers (at least for the types of dance that I do) have slim figures and this made me feel incredibly conscious of my own body to the point that I concluded that my body just wasn’t good enough to be a dancer’s body. I decided that my body was wrong. Sometimes for performances, dancers are required to wear costumes that showed their bellies and I always dreaded that because I knew I’d be the only girl without the flat tummy. I didn’t think a wobbly belly would look very good on stage compared to my counterparts. Most dancers I saw had flat abs, toned arms and slim calves. I had none of those.

Having said that, its not true that all dancers are thin. I’ve come across dancers who are curvy.  They’re curvier girls like me but I didn’t see many. I’ve seen YouTube videos of other people dancing and they’re not skinny themselves. They have bodies of all shapes and sizes. Curvy, muscular, big buts or ample chests etc. My belly dance teacher was plus size but she belly danced like a queen. In salsa and bachata, I meet some female dancers who are bigger than me but they’re still dancing. But sometimes I experience this strange pressure to lose weight so that I will have the stereotyped “dancer’s” body because it makes for easier dancing, especially in salsa where the men have to at times, guide and/or dip the woman”. I’ve heard some male dancers tell me that they find it easier to lead a woman who “isn’t so big” because if she is, she’s slightly harder to lead.

It made me think about my own body and how men find it easy to lead on the floor. Were the men using a lot of force to try and guide me to a certain position as compared to girls who were lighter than me? Logically speaking, girls skinner than me will be easier to guide because they’re lighter. When I was performing bachata in New York, I was afraid of letting my partner lift me because I was afraid that I might be too heavy. I even thought I could hear him grunting with effort to carry me. It felt…not good.

I love dancing, but sometimes, I feel the pressure to diet and lose weight so that:

  • I’d look more lithe, graceful and supple on the dance floor
  • Men will find it easier to lead me and lift me, especially for salsa
  • I wouldn’t feel like a giant lumbering on the dance floor by taking up more space.

Shows like Black Swan, the Step Up franchise, So You Think You Can Dance and even music videos reinforce the desirability and idealization of having a thin body to dance in and such can be a draining and damaging and overwhelming notion because dancers are required to look at themselves in the mirror, more so for women who tend to be more critical of their bodies. Body diversity is (very) slowly making its way into mainstream media but I think body diversity still isn’t a celebrated aspect in the dance scene. I don’t see why I’m being judged on my ability to dance because of my body shape. Dance should be more about technique, about spirit of the dancer, his or her stage presence and connection to the audience, the story of the choreography and the passion than about my body shape. Just because I’m bigger than the “stereotypical” dancer doesn’t mean she’s better than me. Hell I’m curvier than many female Asian dancers here in Singapore but I look sexier dancing bachata than some of dancers because they can’t do body waves and hip gyrations like I can thanks to my belly dancing and reggae background. Men have complimented me on my bachata and have told me I look good okay so don’t give me that “oh you can’t dance because you’re not skinny enough” crap.

Yeah maybe I don’t have a skinny waist, small arms and skinny calves but that doesn’t make me less of a dancer. Part of me still does wish I can have a slimmer body (hey I’m human after all) but the thing is, I’ve spent a lifetime hating my body and I really don’t need anybody giving me another reason to hate dance, or my body even more for that matter by making me feel like I can’t engage in my love for dance because of my body shape. I work out and continue engaging in my intuitive eating (for ED recovery) for more my health and sanity than to achieve a skinny body and to me that’s good enough. I dance because I feel free when I do so. I enter a different world. I feel like I’m telling a story, like I’m expressing myself. I want people to look at me and say “wow that girl can dance her technique/style is amazing and she has such amazing stage presence” instead of saying “wow that girl can dance even though she’s not skinny”. I know that I can never achieve a certain body shape because of genetics but honestly its just so daft of you to expect me to lose weight to be skinny as minnie just so I can dance.

Here are some videos for you to watch about big girls challenging dance stereotypes.

“Obviously i’m a bigger lady and i’m just hoping that people see that i’m good at what i do”

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And yes, that’s me with my choreographer, Martin Gonzalez of Alma latina Mexico 😀 I performed a bachata routine on stage last month for the Singapore International Latin Festival andwearing a body suit was slightly nerve wrecking because I was self-conscious about my body shape and calves from the front view but stage fright made me forget those body woes.

International Women’s Day: reflecting on what I’ve learned about empowerment

It just dawned on me that we’ve already entered March. Its baffling how time flies by so quick because honest to God, it felt as though it was only a few weeks ago that it just turned 2015. Its making me reflect on how time waits for no man and reminding me to appreciate the little things in life. I’ve been stopping more to marvel at sunsets and array of clouds spread across the sky, staring at fallen flowers and thinking how pretty it looks even on the harsh hot cement ground, petting stray cats near my apartment and bringing them cat food.

I’m dedicating this post to mark International Women’s Day (8th March 2015), a day for celebrating the milestones and achievements of women, calling for gender equality, raising awareness about the subjugation of women’s rights in countries with regards to issues such as reproductive rights, fair wages and domestic violence, as well as women’s empowerment.

There are quite a number of women’s issues that I’ve felt very strongly about on based on the readings I did, such as reproductive rights, the LBGT community, domestic violence and child marriage. For today’s post, however I wanted to talk about what I’ve learned about being empowered.

I’ve been doing some reflecting and I realized that I’ve actually grown quite a fair bit as a person.  I can say without a doubt that I’m not the same person as I was before. I’m a little more confident, a little more wiser and my outlook on life has changed. I used to hold such overly idealistic perceptions about life, about love and about relationships and I think my ongoing recovery from, and battles with my eating disorder, from heartbreak, from meeting people of all walks of life last year and the type of travels I did have sharpened my expectations and given me a real dossier on the realities of life. To me empowerment means strength, knowledge and bravery.

The trials and tribulations of 2014 and I guess even 2013 has taught me what it means to be empowered in various contexts:

Relationships

I used to want to maintain good relationships with others all the time and making them happy at the expense of my own personal happiness. Now I’m slowly, and still learning to let go of that. I’m learning to speak my mind more. I’m less inclined to wanting to please people, especially if they’re not close friends, or get them to like me because my wellbeing isn’t in their hands. I’m not afraid to burn bridges if it means distancing myself negativity, especially people who don’t know me as well as my good friends do. People will walk away from you, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do the same if they aren’t making you happy or making you doubt yourself. If you’re going to cry about every single person that leaves you every time, you’re only displaying a weakness within yourself.

Empowerment means to know when to distance yourself from negative people instead of wanting to please people all the time, from people who don’t make you happy, from people whom you should have let go of a long time ago, of people taking advantage of you. Empowerment means to know which relationships are the ones you should keep and which are ones you shouldn’t.

Love and Romantic Relationships

I used to have such idealistic perceptions about love. I held this fantasy that there’d be a Prince Charming somewhere along the way who’d sweep me off my feet; that heartbreak was something that wouldn’t happen to me. But after the months it took me to get back up on my feet again after being broken, hearing personal stories from female friends, and meeting different types of men along the way, I’ve learned how absolutely naive I was, and how I’m still very much unaware about romantic relationships and about human desires. I used to like romantic movies and swoon over them. Man meets woman. They fall in love. He does something corny to get close to her: learn a new dance, lose weight, take part in competitions, learn a new sport etc. Now I can’t stand them because I know that’s not how it will always be in real life. I’ve friends who’ve fallen for the charms of sweet-talking suave men who end up having sex with them and then dropping them like a hot potato after. Not just here in Singapore, but some European friends too. I’ve had some men – not all but some – who hit on me in bars being a little too sexually aggressive for my liking and when I reject them, they immediately turn their heads away and target another women using the same tactics. 

Don’t get me wrong I’m sure there’s a Prince Charming in the future for many women, and that not all men are conniving foxes who want to only have sex with you and run off. But I personally don’t want to hold myself to that by holding the mindset that all men are romantic beings who wouldn’t want to hurt me and put myself in a vulnerable position, and know I might meet some bad ones along the way who life doesn’t always give you what you want straight away. Its probably a hard thing to do because I’m a sensitive person and human behavior, especially when intoxicated by love, can be hard to predict, but here’s to doing the best we can. We might go about making mistakes a few times, but after that, we will know, and we will learn, and we will do our best to not repeat that my changing our behaviors because nothing ever goes away until it finally teaches us what we need to know.

Empowerment means to protect yourself from vulnerable situations by being smart and being aware. Empowerment means to know how much you’re worth and to think twice about accepting a man who cannot keep up with you. Empowerment means to question a relationship that isn’t giving you what you want, making you sacrifice more than your partner does and eventually decide to walk away from a relationship if over time, isn’t making you happy, isn’t making you grow or if its not giving you what you truly deserve.

Body Image

In the years I’ve struggled loads to be healthy and love my body without hurting it through starving, bingeing, self-harm and compulsive exercise. I always strived to be as thin as possible because I hated being bigger than my friends. I didn’t like my tummy rolls, my chubby face, my calves. Pretty much everything about my body because it just wasn’t skinny. I only started putting in a lot more effort into taking care of myself last year by altering my eating habits (i.e. no restricting and no bingeing), running more and going on a dance rampage. Through improving my health and learning to change my thought patterns I’ve slowly come to understand the true meaning of loving your body and accepting it. I reflected about this my post on discovering what body image empowerment means through a striptease workshop I did a few weeks back.

Empowerment means to accept that bodies come in various shapes and sizes, because everyone is different. It means to reject the ideals that society and the mass media has enforced upon us for decades and to not compare yourself to other people. Empowerment means taking care of your health and being the best you that you can be without the need to gain validation and approval from others about your look.

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This doesn’t mean that I’m now a guru who now won’t make the mistakes that other people make and will go on on to lead the best and happier of lives. At the end of the day, I’m still human and if there’s one thing I learned from my education in psychology, human behavior can be hard to predict at times. I’m only 24 and I’ve so much more about life and love I need to know but with this increased level of knowledge and awareness gained from self-discovery and interaction with many different others (especially people older than I am), I hope that I will continue growing in strength and knowledge and passion so that when I’m 90 and looking back at my life, I will do so with pride and awe instead of disappointment and regret.

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY PEOPLE. I’m grateful for the women who helped fight for the rights of women around the world and for women who have pushed me to discovering myself and becoming the best version of me 🙂

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********** can i interest with you with some bloopers*******

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I had already removed my contacts and disposed of the pair before realizing I wanted my sis to take these pictures for me so I ended up holding my glasses like these half the time just so I wouldn’t need to keep taking them off and putting them on again!

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HAIRFLIPS ARE NOT AS EASY OR NATURAL AS THEY LOOK. LOOK AT THIS UNNATURAL ONE

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Glad to see my mum enjoyed having fun with photos as well 😀

(too) clean eating

Last week for a few days I’ve been noticing a pattern. I’d eat regularly as I always do, but then at the end of the day, I find myself just wanting to have something sweet. Now that pretty much sounds normal, to end of the day with something sweet. But this was different. I didn’t just want it. I needed it. Badly. A craving for sugar would come and I’d ignore it for a while, but then give it and allow myself something sweet. Usually I go for chocolate or Ben and Jerry’s because that’s the only sweet thing available in the house. However the thing was even though I had already let myself have that something sweet, I needed more. Like more of it. And I couldn’t stop thinking about just wanting to have all the ice cream in the world and just continued sitting in the kitchen and having that ice cream and the next thing I know, I had finished half almost half the carton of ice cream. 

Bugger.

This happened again on another 2 separate occasions. I’d eat as per usual, but by the time I’ve showered after my evening run I find myself battling this strange craving for something sweet. I’d fight it for a while, but then I gave it and go back to the kitchen for the same carton of ice cream and smother my tastebuds with that sweet relief until I’d say only a few spoonfuls of that milky goodness was left pooling at the bottom. 

And I just didn’t know what was going on. I was so confused. I was eating normally and running as per normal so why was it that I started battling the urge to eat more at night. It was only when I lay in bed at night and reviewing what I ate and did during those couple of days that I realized something. All throughout day, I had been doing nothing but clean eating. No sweets, no sugar, no cookies, no ice cream, no nothing. I had almost completely cut off sugar from my eating during these 3 days and eating, as much and best as I can”, whole unprocessed foods – wholemeal bread, tuna, chicken, fish, peanut butter, broccoli etc, though with the exception of rice as its a staple in the Asian diet. I’ve been eating very clean without eating a single cookie or chocolate during these 3 days. 

I suspect that in my zealous pursuit to become healthy and get my eating habits back on track, I might have taken it a little bit too far, focusing only on clean eating and cutting out sugar in its entirety without realizing that doing so might have led my body to become deprived of energy. These 3 days I became so dedicated to healthy eating that I forgot that doing the exact same thing in the past had contributed to my obsessive behavior with rigid dieting, cutting out food groups and punishing myself every single time I had a slip up. 

First of all, I really do need to take a step back and congratulate myself on actually not punishing myself for eating all that ice-cream because I know that 3 years ago, I would probably hastily made my outside and run for 2 hours for even start a torturous round of fasting the next day to balance out the calories. Well OF COURSE I felt guilty for eating all that ice cream and OF COURSE I started panicking a little and questioning where and why I went wrong. But it was only after I reassessed what I had eaten during the day that I realized that okay maybe I had been too strict and obsessive with eating clean because I wanted to eat right and not eat junk food the way I did when I was struggling loads with my ED. I couldn’t really do anything about that ice cream anymore could I? So I just went for a long walk round the block, came home, read Harry Potter and went to bed determined to start afresh the next day. 

And it was better. I allowed myself sugar during the day, ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full and also allowed myself Ferrero Rocher at night. Never once during the day did I obsess about sugar and cravings. 

I’m sure some of you going through recovery have been through this. In your quest to relinquish your bad habits of overeating junk food or for those not going through an ED/recovery and simply wanting to clean up your diet and reduce sugar from your diet, there’d be times when you pushed it just a tad too far – eating nice and clean the entire day, feeling extremely pleased with yourself and going “Yeah this isn’t so bad I can do this healthy clean eating thing for days” and the next thing you know, you’re scoffing down cheese fries and a bacon cheeseburger and wondering where in the world you went wrong before vowing to start over the next day, only to find yourself making the same mistake again in the week.  

I’m no nutritionist and I’ve no clue how body cells work in response to the food we eat, but I suppose this is what happens when we start a phase of eating “too clean” and not allowing ourselves a little sugar in our diets. We become rigid in our thinking and are determined to only eat certain foods that are whole and unprocessed: brown bread and rice, lean chicken and fish, low fat milk, salads and hold the sauce please but I’ll just have one piece of crouton thanks. No cookies, no chocolates, no muffins, no ice cream, no dessert. Nada. You become so conscious of the food you way that you reject foods that don’t fit into what constitutes clean and healthy eating. As humans we’re programmed to enjoy the taste of sweet foods and sugar cravings are a natural thing to experience and so when we ignore our cravings for far too long, we end up binging on the sweet stuff that we’ve been ignoring. 

And that’s what happened to me. A fair number of times I should say before I realized how my restrictive eating was contributing to this problem. I didn’t allow myself a treat when my body craved it. If you’re a Harry Potter junkie like I am, think of it as a Howler – if you don’t open it soon, it explodes. Similar principle: the more you try to control the craving and your body, your body will rebel. 

Such experiences always bring me back to the one important principle my online ED support group told me: always listen to your body because it knows what it needsThere is nothing wrong with having ice cream and chocolate but to cut it out completely from your diet and remaining determined to eat only certain types of foods instead of eating flexibly can be harmful, both physically and mentally. In the long run and if taken to the limit, your body might start breaking down due to its receiving nutrients from a restricted set of foods,  you start developing rigid and obsessive thinking patterns (e.g. I can’t eat this, I can only eat that) and it might also impinge upon your lifestyle (e.g. unable to eat out without worrying about whether a restaurant serves food that you deem acceptable). Its really a very real thing and really incredibly scary because I myself have been through that – eating only brown bread and maybe potatoes but not rice, only chicken and fish but not beef and pork, only salads without dressing. I didn’t like going out to eat because I hated how I couldn’t predict what foods a cafe would serve and it was a hassle to have to look at a menu online and decide I would only eat the rice and chicken when what I really could try was a creamy pasta even though I’m not a fan of pasta but I had deprived myself of creamy sauces for so long that I just wanted to taste it again.

At the end of the day, your body knows what it needs to eat. You can’t be on a diet forever because you’ll end up miserable. Its all part of mindful eating. Listen to your body because it knows what and when it needs to eat. When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re full stop. Eat chocolate and sweets if you want, but keep it in moderation (though I sometimes I find hard to do that) and if you end up overeating. Don’t punish yourself. Drink tea and go for a long walk and start again tomorrow. 

It takes effort to do something like that I know especially because you’ve been eating in disordered patterns for so long, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you won’t get results if you’re not willing to put in the effort to changing your habits. Tell yourself that you are stronger than your old habits, and you are. If you’ve had your share of sugar and find yourself wanting more, get up and walk away instead of giving in again and again. 

You can do it, you may encounter setbacks but you will get up again and you will try again.

You will make it. 

We will all.

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