Get over yourself (and everyone else)
It’s great to think that there is truth to quotes like—”In a world where you can be anything, be yourself,” or “What other people think of me is not my business.” Imagine how liberating it would be if it were that easy to unapologetically be ourselves, paying no mind to the thoughts and opinions of others.
However, in the world that we live in, where there’s a $76 billion diet industry, a $100 billion beauty industry, and ads at every turn on how to erase our wrinkles, firm up our bodies, keep the numbers on the scale within a certain threshold or stay up to date on the latest and greatest fashion trends, it’s no wonder that loving ourselves—exactly as we are—doesn’t come second nature to us. And when we’re hard on ourselves, writers like Don Miuel Ruiz might suggest that we’re likely to be harder on others, as we might be less impeccable with our words, more assumptive, more likely to take things (that aren’t personal) personally.
Although I think of myself as a kind, well-intentioned human being who gives people the benefit of the doubt, I found myself falling short this weekend, as I caught myself studying one of the dancers who looked very different from the others and making up narratives in my head. The dancer was significantly larger than the others. She is not the type of dancer whose photo is enlarged and emblazoned on the outside of a dance studio to attract more dancers. (Although I hope by the end of this piece, you’ll join me in thinking that she should be.)
I found myself empathizing with how she “must’ve felt” when she squeezed into a specially-made sparkly sequined filled leotard that clearly was designed for a different body type. I wondered why the dance instructor and choreographer hadn’t taken more care to find costumes that fit and flattered all body types.
As I sat there contemplating questions that didn’t necessarily matter, I found myself traveling back to my own childhood. I remembered years worth of dumb blonde jokes that were told to me, in front of me by peers, or in purposeful earshot of me by family members, classmates and even teachers—always at my expense. (There were certain white girls who joined in and prefaced their comments by saying it wasn’t their natural color so they didn’t mind or it wasn’t true for them.)
I remembered being made fun of first for being too skinny with my boney knees and long elbows and then having some of the boys in my class point out to me when certain parts of me became more curvy. I remembered paying close attention to what my mom was learning in her Weight Watchers meetings that I attended with her while she was in her own battle with her health and body image.
Also, I remembered being on the brink of feeling ok about how I looked and felt inside my own body when I joined my high school dance team. I felt this sense of joy in every fiber of my being as we performed to upbeat music during halftime of football games. I also remembered certain kids at school renaming our dance team “tons of fun.” I laughed along and even repeated it, because if I claimed that as a self-deprecating kind of comment, then it lost its sting. It worked in some ways. We all danced ear-to-ear smiles and a kind of joy that only the fellow dancers could relate to.
The part that nags at me today, as I’m raising a few daughters, is that just going along with the jokes that were told at my team’s expense meant choosing not to subtly push back. Of course, I had no social capital and I was just on the cusp of starting to accept myself. But I was an average sized young woman who might’ve been able to say something to stand up for teammates who came in a spectrum of sizes. Looking back, I don’t remember the larger girls repeating the”‘tons of fun” jokes or thinking that they were particularly funny.
By the time I returned to watch the showcase performance last weekend, I was done traveling down memory lane and decided to just watch the show and enjoy the present moment. When the curtain went up, I saw the dancer (who didn’t fit society’s size narrative for dancers) hit the stage in not one, but more than a half-dozen dances. It turns out that the woman, who students call Miss Mary, is one of the most gifted, expressive, graceful dancers that I’ve seen in my life. She graced the stage with leaps, intricate ballet moves, jazz, tap and hip-hop. She led groups of tiny dancers to the stage, and in my humble opinion, she absolutely stole the show.
I learned, in an interview with Miss Mary, after the show, that she shyly and reluctantly made her way into a dance studio eight years ago. She remembered feeling uncertain of whether or not it was ok for girls like her to dance (because there weren’t any others), but wanting desperately to do it. Once she started dancing, something inside her awakened, and she couldn’t stop.
“Dancing helped me find my confidence and taught me that it was ok to be me,” Miss Mary told me. “I struggled my whole life with body image, but dancing has helped me learn to love myself. I hope when little girls look at me, they see that even though I am an overweight dancer, I am (afterall) a dancer.”
It turns out, the reason that Miss Mary spent so much time on the stage in duets, solos, group dances and at times, off to the side, leading the tiniest dancers, is because she took a gap year between high school and college to figure out what to do with her life. During that year, she immersed herself in dance—doing it, teaching it (after being invited by her instructor to step up and help) and living it—and found her calling.
Come fall, she’ll head to Purdue University, on her way to becoming an elementary school teacher with her dance shoes in hand, as she’s already been invited to join the school’s dance program. The whole while Miss Mary spoke to me, her smile radiated and she exuded a kind of joy that I’m not sure everyone has the chance to experience.
I walked away from that dance performance humbled, corrected and transformed. If you’re a human being, living in this world filled with messages about how to fix our imperfections with products, injections and money, chances are that you have at some point internalized some of those messages or questioned your own worth. If you’ve ever held yourself back from something as simple as swimming in a beach or a pool on a hot summer’s day for fear of what other people might think of you in your swimsuit, consider overriding your inhibitions with your pursuit of joy. Put on your suit and jump in.
If you want to get healthier, do it, but do it for you. If you’ve wanted to sing but held back or just lip synched in those mandatory situations to spare the world from your voice, sing. If you find yourself upset about aging or feeling angry about growing older and all the things that come along with that, like fine lines and wrinkles (particularly for white people—who I believe are paying some karmic debt for the misdeeds and atrocities committed by our ancestors when it comes to visible signs of aging), different hair texture and our bodies being less forgiving for things in earlier life, reframe your perspective.
If we consider that the opposite of growing old is dying young, then we can see that it’s actually a gift that not everyone is afforded. And lastly, and most importantly, if you’ve always felt a little yearning inside of you to dance—no matter what size, shape, color or age you are—for God’s sake, dance!