Dancing and Inner Demons


Arizona Art Academy

An image of the columnist (bottom right) performing a dance.

Emily Withrow, Columnist

Generally, I am picky and detail-oriented about almost everything. I love to organize, place things where they belong, and have my own set schedule. Often, I reflect on myself and try to critique things I don’t like. You can see my perfectionist tendencies in how I have my pencil case organized, with only one specific brand of highlighters in one pouch, and one specific brand of pencils in the other. I feel relieved when I fix and can control my environment.

Dancing, specifically traditional Chinese dancing, was one of the activities I enjoyed because I could control my body and move in a certain way. When I improved in a skill, it was obvious. I could go into a backbend while grabbing my hands with my ankles, or my feet would always point in the right direction. Being in an Asian atmosphere, I noticed that one of the main differences between American culture and Chinese culture is the amount of pressure, physically and mentally, Chinese adults put on children. The culture encourages success in children, and at times, this can go too far. My dance classes were some of those occasions.

In technique class, they would have the students sit in the middle split position while the teacher stood or sat on their backs. Since I was face-to-face with the ground and sometimes in intolerable pain, it was usually hard for me to breathe, but I never complained. I knew that this tough environment would gradually enhance my dance skills. 

Being in dance class, the teachers emphasized perfection, which included a slim physical appearance, too. It was common for me to compare myself to other girls, especially the ones who were thinner than I was, which seemed to be almost all of them.

It is common to see that Asians are typically more strict than Americans. They often only want their child to do exceptionally, even in their physical appearance, to improve the family’s reputation. Their eating habits are usually healthier and their desserts don’t have an obsessive amount of sugar. This allows many to keep their body slim and small. And I wanted to be slim and small, too.

Everyone paid great attention to what they were doing based on the reflections in the mirror and continued to improve the skills that they were trying to master. But they could still look away if needed. None of them seemed to be obsessively staring at themselves like me. They didn’t seem bothered by watching their body struggle to perfect their form time and time again.

But looking at my reflection for extensive amounts of time motivated me to change the way I looked. Classes continued and I began criticizing myself, wishing different body parts of mine were thinner. Not only did I want to meet these ridiculously high standards of what a dancer should look like, but I wanted to look good for myself as well.

Almost every other week, one of the teachers would weigh each student and record the numbers that appeared on the scale.  I never participated in it because my parents forbade me from judging myself based off of numbers. I succeeded in that, but it doesn’t take a number on a scale to develop a severe self-loathing. I didn’t really care about the numbers, I was solely focused on perfecting what I saw in the mirror. Regardless of what I may have seen on the scale, I still wanted to become thinner, because I hated what I saw in my reflection.

All I could think about was being a beautiful, perfect dancer. This obsessive thinking took hold of me and I started to eat less food each day to achieve the body type I wanted. It was painful. Almost every day, my stomach felt empty and it longed for food, but I refused to give in. But, things started to change. After weeks of struggling, and years of unhealthy relationships with food, my stomach stopped complaining so much. I was never really hungry, and I didn’t think I had the capacity to eat full meals anymore. 

Even though I knew restricting myself was life threatening, I didn’t care. I longed for the accomplished feeling of perfecting something. Nothing I did was perfect enough for me. I worked on dance routines, I struggled to feel satisfied, and criticized myself. 

According to my mom, my physical appearance started to change. I didn’t see much of a difference. I was starving myself; there was no way I could have ever seen anything but flaws in my appearance. My goal was to reduce the circumference of my limbs, but overall, I just wanted to look thinner. And since I had long since passed the point where I was never good enough, I was never thin enough. Everyone else, though, saw a difference.

It wasn’t much longer until my parents threatened to hospitalize me if I didn’t change my eating habits. I was later taken to a nutritionist. She reported that my body fat percentage was about 13 percent, and that I should at least have 18 percent to be close to being healthy. I talked to her about wanting to become thinner. I talked to her about how I knew what I was doing was dangerous, and that I didn’t want to change because I felt good about myself. I talked to her about how I never felt bad about looking at my body in the mirror, because I liked the motivation it gave me to keep my eating at a minimal.

The nutritionist said that the medication that I take daily would not work if I didn’t have enough food each day. She reported that eating less would only make my mental condition worse. If it got worse, I could die.

All of this information and data from the nutritionist made perfect sense to me, yet I still was determined to maintain my unhealthy eating habits. After this visit, it took weeks for me to eat more. Every mealtime, I felt like I was never truly hungry. When I was forced to eat a healthy amount of food, I would feel disgustingly sick and guilty afterwards.

Since the start of my recovery, my unhealthy eating habits have decreased. I was able to successfully return to a somewhat steady condition. It was a dreadful experience, full of anger and frustration at myself. I was furious with my parents who made sure that I ate enough at every meal, but above that, I hated myself most. I despised the fact that I felt like I could never be satisfied with how I looked. I didn’t want to continue having the burden of feeling bad about myself, but I also wanted to be happier. For me, happiness could never be attainable if I didn’t stop depriving myself of the nutrition required in order to live.

Throughout this long, dreadful process, I learned that all humans have little to no control over life, and it was time that I had to accept it. As I continued to recover, I became happier and less irritated every day, simply because my body had more food for it to function properly. Body image is still somewhat of a struggle for me, but I overcame it by truly understanding that mental and physical health are what are more important than the way my body looks when I dance in front of a mirror.