Gilded Serpent presents...

Dancer Finds Body Acceptance After Battling Eating Disorder

Healing and Belly Dance

Megan

by Megan Cassidy
posted March 22, 2016

My first belly dance class took place a little over a year ago. I had just joined a local yoga studio, and the owner of the studio suggested that I try out a variety of classes to discover which class would be the best fit. To be perfectly honest, I chose the belly dance class only because I felt my middle could use some whittling. I could not know then the amazing healing the classes would eventually bring to my life.

From the ages of eleven to twenty-six, I suffered from EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). EDNOS is the most prevalent eating disorder, but also the least well-known. It’s notoriously difficult to recover from due to a combination of symptoms which can include anorexia restricting, bulimic bingeing and purging, and exercise addiction. After some intensive therapy, I considered myself to be recovered. However, it was now almost ten years later, and while I was free from the behaviors marking my disorder, I still clung to many underlying thoughts and feelings regarding food and exercise, and I had continual battles with body image and self-esteem.

It should be no wonder then that I looked to yoga as merely a means of increasing flexibility and to belly dance as merely a cardio workout designed to trim my waistline.

However, in my very first class, I realized that belly dance could be much more than just a typical cardio routine.

My initial challenge came within the first thirty seconds of class when my instructor Sarah pointed to a basket of coin belts and asked me to choose one. While a seemingly simple instruction, her words immediately made me feel anxious. “I’m too curvy,” I thought. “What if the belts are too small? What if they’re only made for tiny skinny girls with flat stomachs? What if the other dancers stare at me?”

As these warped notions swirled through my mind, Sarah noticed my hesitation and kindly explained, “It’s easier to keep the rhythm of the dance. Plus it looks really cool!”
Hiding my worries with a smile, I chose a thin white belt and tied it tightly around my hips, finding the jangling to be just as promised—a pleasant way to hear the rhythm of my movements. But over the next hour, as Sarah led me through a few basic moves, I struggled to learn proper posture, my body seemed to jerk back and forth when doing ghawazi hips, and I nearly cried through an unsuccessful attempt to shimmy. After that first class ended, I felt frustrated, but I also felt a strange sense of accomplishment. I had put on the coin belt. I had danced for the first time since my kindergarten tap class. I worked hard and didn’t quit or leave early.

I was excited to come back the next week, but when I returned, I became frustrated once again. Sarah demonstrated a piece of choreography which included what seemed to be an impossible combination of shimmies, hip lifts, chest slides, and snake arms. I couldn’t imagine contorting or gyrating my body in that way, especially in front of the other women in the class.

Megan dances at Local event.

Thankfully, I found that the community I had entered was gentle and free from judgment. I was a beginner. No one expected me to know everything right away. Questions were encouraged and helpful suggestions offered.

This was the first way that belly dance allowed me to heal. So often as women, we cut each other down. It’s the Mean Girls Syndrome and each of us has seen it at one time or another.

Sometimes it takes the form of fat shaming, competing ruthlessly at work, or fighting over men. As a pre-teen and teenager, the bullying I experienced at the hands of other girls was a significant contributing factor in the development of my eating disorder. Conversely, I found the belly dance community to be incredibly supportive—a place where women of all shapes and sizes are not only accepted, but celebrated one another. The result was life changing; as I found acceptance within the community, I also began the process of accepting myself.

As the weeks went on, I began to notice, first subtle and then drastic, changes in myself that had nothing to do with my weight or appearance. I began to feel less anxious and stressed. I felt more present in my body, as opposed to the disconnect I had experienced nearly my entire life. One night, while practicing hip circles and pestles at home, I looked into my full-length mirror and something just clicked. I had been focusing on my reflection for nearly thirty minutes and no negative thoughts had come into my head! I had not thought, “My hips are too big” or “look at those flabby arms” or “I need to lose some weight.” When this realization hit me, I sank down onto the floor, giving thanks for this change of mind. It had been so long since I had just loved my body and paid attention to it without criticism that the tears came unbidden—my body’s natural way of thanking me for this unfamiliar care and attention.

After that moment of revelation, my renewed mind-body connection began to impact both my emotions and my movements. I began to feel more relaxed, open, and feminine, and my dancing became more fluid and graceful. Eventually, I began to move with confidence and act with fearless joy.

meganSo, when asked to participate in a performance with my instructor’s troupe, I jumped at the chance. I worried for a brief moment about putting my body on display for others to view and possibly criticize. But, then I quickly realized that I truly didn’t care what others thought. I felt more than comfortable in my own body. I felt beautiful and powerful when I danced, and I was ready to share my budding talent with others.

I performed for the first time only a few weeks ago, and I loved every moment of it. I know that my first performance won’t be my last. I’ve learned so much from the belly dancing community. I’ve learned how to care for my body, to ask for help, to learn from my mistakes, and to overcome challenges. I learned to look to dance as more than just exercise, instead experiencing it as a way to have fun, to meditate, to relieve stress, to participate in community, and to heal. I am excited to say that over this past year, I have developed a deeply peaceful connection with my body and have found a new passion while doing it!

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MaryEllen Donald