#BopoBallerina: How I Overcame Ballet’s Body Standards and Inspired Others

Article via Dance.com

I’m a dancer, and I’m an advocate for mental health, body-positivity and self-love. But even just a year ago, when anyone asked what I do, I simply said: “I’m a dancer.”

I recently launched the #BopoBallerina campaign as an effort to break the norms of dance-body types. And I want to share with Dance.com why I have.

For most of my teenage years, I was convinced the only thing I wanted to be was a dancer. My entire life revolved around dance. I was convinced that if I didn’t fit the typical dancer stereotype, I wasn’t worthy and couldn’t succeed as a dancer.

I started dancing when I was 3 years old. But I didn’t find my true love for dance until I was 13, when I left my recreational dance studio to delve into the world of competitive dance. After a summer ballet intensive at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City, I switched studios again for more intensive training. At 16, I found Jennifer Napolitano’s School of Performing Arts on Long Island, NY. I joined their competition company and immediately clicked with their staff, especially the ballet teacher, Mrs. Claudia Marinescu.

As I grew more serious about dance, I started to struggle with my body. But it’s a struggle I’ve had to various degrees since I was little. I can remember dieting as young as 9 or 10 years old.

Negative thoughts continued as I noticed the “ideal dancer body” that the industry promotes. I have features that are considered desirable for dancers, such as well-arched feet, open hips and long, flexible, hyperextended legs.

What I don’t have naturally is a thin “ballerina body.” I was convinced that if I achieved this ideal, I would be a better dancer, get more attention, no longer hate my body, be healthier and land more featured roles. What started out as a simple diet ended up turning into an eating disorder and overwhelming anxiety that consumed my life for years.

For a while, I was convinced I was being healthy because people praised me for my weight loss. Little did they know, I was staying up late planning and tracking every bite of food — which was an amount far less than what anyone, especially someone as active as me, should be eating. I was weighing myself several times per day. I would spend large amounts of time figuring out exercises I could do to burn the few calories I ate. I was often lightheaded and felt weak during my dance classes. But I thought that was a normal part of “dieting.”
I began to get more attention because I was getting closer to the “ideal dancer body.”

What I was doing was far from ideal. No number on the scale would ever be low enough, and I wasn’t going to stop until I was “perfect.” The only thing these disordered behaviors did was consume my life with an unending level of self-hate. In addition, along with developing an unhealthy lifestyle, my anxiety was no longer that I would be dancing in the back, as in the corps de ballet. People often forget that eating disorders are legitimate mental illnesses. Also, in many cases, people who struggle with eating disorders have other co-occurring mental illnesses. In my case, I also struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Today, I am in a much healthier place, both mind and body. After finally recognizing that I no longer wanted to live my life trying to change my body, I’ve decided to change the world instead!

I can be more than just a dancer, and making that discovery has been more fulfilling than my mental illnesses ever will be.

I started Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in September, and it changed my life. I realized I didn’t need to live in a cycle of fear, self-hate and anxiety. I learned that hating my body wasn’t something I needed to do and the behaviors I was engaging in were not healthy. I’m still in therapy and, at each session, I am able to realize the progress I am making.

I have realized the beauty of imperfection and that striving to attain perfection will never make me happy. I have learned to start embracing my body for what it is and to no longer spend every moment trying to make it something it’s not. I have learned the power of vulnerability, authenticity and that being real is always better (and more relatable) than trying to portray a perfect life.

I’m currently a member of Long2 Dance Company, a contemporary company in New York that focuses on activism in dance. It’s a diverse company filled with talented dancers, and I am grateful for how they’ve supported my journey!

One of my proudest achievements that I’ve made since committing to recovery is my Instagram account/blog, @leenahlovesherself. It is dedicated to sharing my real life — the good, the bad and the in-between. On it, I preach my message of self-love, body-love, body-positivity and mental health advocacy. I strive to make my page inclusive for all types of people with all types of bodies.

I’ve had the privilege of having my campaign covered by Yahoo, A Plus, Dailymotion, National Eating Disorders Association, several international news sites and here on Dance.com!

Dance is an incredibly beautiful art and sport, and all people deserve to experience it, regardless of what they look like. It’s dangerous to only represent one body type in dance companies, brands and ads. Dancers come in all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities, and it’s time for change. By perpetuating this ideal, we are making the dance world an unhealthy, unsafe place to be.

So now when someone asks me to introduce myself, I say: I’m a dancer, I’m a mental health/body-positivity/self-love advocate, I’m devoted to using dance to make a difference, and I’m determined to make the dance community a place where ALL feel safe, included, loved and welcome.


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