"Warning: this post discusses depression and eating disorders. If those are challenging topics for you, please consider skipping to another post.”
Note - this submission has been edited in collaboration with our Clinical Advisory Board.
Initially, when Leal asked me to share my story I was honored. My rational brain understands that the more this conversation is brought to the forefront of our lives, the more people will understand that mental health is a huge issue in today's society and even more so in the dance community. The rigorous training, hours on end in the studio, pushing our bodies to extreme limits all become ordinary and 'normal'. Self-talk becomes more intense, harsh, and critical as the need for perfection, in all aspects becomes the overall goal. The saddening truth is the mere fact that many people feel this way in the dance community, but this situation is not spoken about. In fact, many teachers say to leave your personal lives and issues out of the studio...so I have immense gratitude for Leal's compilation of stories from fellow dancers. This is absolutely necessary.
As a child, I was always so happy, playful, outgoing, and loved making friends. Being in dance really helped me find my community and life-long relationships. I excelled in school and in dance and never really thought twice about my path. It was not until I was twelve years old I began questioning my worth, comparing myself and the idea of perfection began to creep into the back of my mind. It’s also when I really started to think about my body. I was always thin and long growing up, and had teachers tell the other girls in the room that I 'had the perfect ballet body'. So inevitably I believed that to my core, I thought I was so lucky to have the best body in the room... But felt terrible when my friends had to look at me and began to resent their own bodies.
It was at fourteen years old when I began showing glimpses of depression, I remember crying in the back of the class and on the way home from dance each night and not understanding why I was not perfect, why I could not jump higher, have better feet, or more turnout... My parents had no idea what to do or how to make me feel better. Yet, I persisted and slowly life began to brighten up.
I was accepted into a nationally recognized performing arts high school and began focusing on improving my craft from a professional standpoint. In high school I wouldn't eat breakfast, at times would skip lunch, or not eat dinner... But it never seemed like a problem because if I was with friends or at a family gathering I would gorge myself with food. I concluded I was a social eater. I remained thin, in my teens having teachers make comments like 'don't throw up your food' or 'are you sure you are not anorexic’ and to my belief, I did not have an eating disorder, I always ate when I was hungry and never restricted. I was content despite the weekly food diary's my teacher had my entire class write to hold ourselves 'accountable' for our food choices... mind you we were all fifteen, incredibly active, not overweight, and just going through puberty. But for some reason, larger breasts and butts were a problem due to the milk fat percentage we drank.
Nonetheless my friends and I persisted and then I was accepted into The Juilliard School. My efforts and years of training finally paid off as I was headed into the best performing arts conservatory in the world. The high standards and comparison game came back full force as I realized I was no longer 'Amanda with the best body in the class' I was 'Amanda in a room full of the best of the best'. I shrank and deemed my only way to succeed was to perfect my physique. It took two years of the regiment and discipline, hours of pilates, in the gym, and then finding a relationship with food I felt I understood and sustained. By all means, at the beginning I was actually very healthy, finally eating three balanced meals a day, something I never did as a child, drinking plenty of water daily, getting sufficient sleep and feeling the most confident. But then the game of restriction came into play the summer between my second and third year of college. I was living in New York City for the summer working at school and was responsible for my own groceries and meal planning for the first time ever. I became weary of spending too much money on healthy foods so I would ration my portions to make my food last as long as possible. I was walking everywhere because I was afraid of spending money on public transit, and I was very depressed and not dancing nearly as much as I had hoped. I was so excited to begin school and get back to my routine, I felt confident and strong... until I was called into a meeting with the associate director and was told I was too thin, I was forced to see counseling, a nutritionist, and scheduled physician appointments weekly. I was put under a microscope and expected to gain weight. Within six weeks, I had not gained an ounce and was dismissed from school on medical leave for a year. In 24 hours I was on a plane heading to Miami, not knowing what the future held. I was told I could not dance because it was too strenuous, my family had no money for any sort of eating disorder facility or treatment center, I felt lost, alone, and like a failure. But I was alive so I had to keep moving forward.
Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. It was a year of many failures and successes, hitting rock bottom and almost being committed into the psych ward, arguments with friends and family, and so many tears. It was simultaneously a year filled with so much love, growth, and compassion. I would not change it. Thankfully I was granted the opportunity to return to school and graduated in May 2018 at the top of my class. My recovery is continuous and I realize more and more that it will never truly go away, that negative self-talk or the pesky comparison game... yet through the tools I learned in therapy, podcasts and literature I am reminded 'this too shall pass'. There is incredible strength in what society might categorize as 'failure'. With patience, acceptance, and clarity I can say I am proud of my journey and all the hiccups that lie ahead of me.
What have you experienced/are you experiencing?
I have experienced serious cases of Anorexia Nervosa, Orthorexia, Binge Eating disorder, as well as serious Anxiety and Depression. I choose to only see the positive side of theses conditions, and through my experience I have learned so much about myself, my body, and my mind, for that I am eternally grateful.
How has this impacted your life? How about your career?
My Anorexia was severe enough for the administration, faculty, and my parents to push me to leave college for one year. So I halted my studies, dance, and work all in the blink of an eye. In less than 24 hours I was on a plane back to Miami, FL (my hometown) and was forced to live with the realities of my eating disorder. In the moment it sure felt like the world was over, but in hindsight it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
I think it has actually helped my career and self esteem. I was able to return to school, graduate, and gain a year of life experience my colleagues and classmates had yet to endure. Although it was not easy to feel like I failed, I would not delete that year of my life from my personal history.
How have you managed it/are you managing it?
With disorders as severe as these, on top of normal life stresses, it can feel unmanageable at times. Specifically during huge transitions or periods of less work. As a freelance artist, I struggle maintaining homeostasis in my mind and body, but it is an incredible opportunity to continue to learn and grow as an individual and human.
Eating Disorder self-talk and shame never really go away. Some days it is incredibly loud and other days it is nonexistent. I am thankful I have the tools to move past the dark moments and live in the light for longer amounts of time. It is human to not be perfect and to have ‘mini-relapses’ but it is my choice to be accepting of myself, not my ED.
What would you tell your past self considering the experiences you’ve gained?
- ‘This is only temporary.’
- Listen to Oprah Soulful Conversations Podcast (Cliche, but it really helps!)
What would you like to share with fellow dancers who might relate to your story?
I would love for dancers to have more conversations about the beautiful things our bodies and minds do everyday. Any time I am in class, rehearsal or performing, I cherish each and every soul that is in the room. We have to get rid of stigmas, unrealistic body expectations, and negative energy in the places we feel most at home.
It starts at the base level, the dancers. If we as a community are more accepting of others and ourselves, this action alone will make the biggest/fastest change.
Have you always been open about speaking out on this issue? What has kept you from opening up about it in the past?
I think shame and guilt make speaking about it difficult. Although many people experience some degree of mental strain, it was hard to accept I was a part of that number. Now I just remind myself: I am who I am.
Having one friend I can truly open up to about everything also really helps to keep me sane and move forward. At times opening up could feel like I was going backwards, but in reality it only propelled me two steps forward.
Why do you think there is still stigma surrounding the issue in our society/dance community?
I think society is slowly opening their eyes and addressing some of these issues. The dance community, simply said, is just too small. Everyone knows each other and we are all compared to one another. Its a pressure to always stay perfect, have no problems, be efficient, reliable and easy to work with, because there is another dancer outside the door eagerly craving your spot/job/role.
Our career is not the easiest and comes with its own strains, but it is outrageously satisfying to express thoughts, emotions, and feeling through movement. (It is why it is the best career.)
It’s that no pain no gain mentality. We push until we break and then we think that’s the end of our career... But how beautiful would it be if we could accept growth within our own community. Only time will tell! I believe this platform to be a great beginning.
What have you learned throughout your journey?
I am enough, I am here now, I am peace.