Strong words, I know, but I do not exaggerate. All my life I have struggled with body image issues, due in large part to having a mother who has seemingly been on some type of diet for as long as I can remember. Weight Watchers, the Atkins Diet, the Cabbage Soup diet, the South Beach Diet… I was raised on aspartame and fat-free everything. I tried a lot of the same diets my mom did even though I don’t actually have any memory of feeling fat. Looking back at pictures from my teenage years, I wasn’t overweight. But dieting was the norm in my world, so I suppose I just went along with it.
In college, I gained the dreaded “Freshman Fifteen” (and then some). Then I lost it. And soon gained it back. I went on this way for years, much like my mother. I was almost always at war with my body. When I got sick in 2006 and was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, my body became the attacker. It hated me. My body was my worst enemy, now in a new and incurable way.
After a round of anti-TNF meds left me with a slip of an immune system and recurrent skin infections, I was exhausted from fighting my body. I wanted to make peace with it. Somewhere along the way, I developed an interest in belly dance, sparked by reading a book by a (then) local author called Snake Hips: Belly Dancing and How I Found True Love.
Moving to Chicago finally afforded me an opportunity to explore belly dance. In June of 2009, I nervously stepped through the door of Arabesque. With zero dance background and having jokingly been told my entire life that I had inherited my mother’s lack of grace, I was prepared to make a complete fool of myself. But I was determined to find a new me.
My teacher, Mae, put me at ease, assuring me that my lack of experience didn’t matter. It helped that she looked more like me than the Hollywood versions of belly dancers I had created in my head. I mean, she had an actual belly! Just like mine! In just a few months, I moved up from the beginners class to Mae’s Tribal Fusion Basics and by the fall, I was performing with her beginners’ student troupe, Down Hips Down.
I connected deeply with tribal fusion belly dance. I saw myself reflected in the duality of the movements, soft and graceful one moment and fiery and powerful the next. I adored the aesthetic, mixing heavy fabrics with lace and tulle, sparkly beads, clanking chains and coins, dramatic flowery headpieces. With Mae’s guidance, I began making my own costumes and learning about stage makeup. (It was also Mae who introduced me to the torturous beauty of false eyelashes.) I loved the theatricality of it all, the way the layers of fabric swished when I spun, the way my jewelry jangled as I shimmied across the stage. And finally, I appreciated my body for what it was: imperfect but beautiful and mysterious and yes, even graceful. When I danced, I felt connected to my body; we weren’t enemies in those moments. Slowly, the space between those moments decreased.
What I once thought would be a fun hobby has become a way of life. Belly dance has given me the courage to step into the unknown and embrace it and to embrace myself. It has taught me that my curves are beautiful and full of their own brand of grace and strength. It has taught me that I’m stronger and braver than I ever thought and that my body, while still often an enemy, is under my control.