June 21, 2012

It’s Swimsuit Season; Time for Some Straight Girl Talk. ~ Juli Arnold-Kole

“Image: a popular conception projected, especially through mass media.” ~ Merriam-Webster

I recently walked past a swimming pool packed to the brim with sun gods and goddesses. Amidst the group chatter, one conversation in particular rose up out of crowd and grabbed my immediate attention:

Adult: “You are too thin.”
Child: (big toothy grin) “Thanks!”

The young woman (maybe 13) reacted as if she had just received the best compliment. Ever!

This short interaction forced me to consider my own body-centered conversations and direct experiences, growing up as ballerina.

Age 3:

My ballet training officially began. It was also the beginning of all my not-thin-enough body-image messaging. (I was only three years old, for goodness sakes!)

Age 6:

My instructors from the San Francisco Ballet loudly proclaimed in front of the whole class that I was eating “too many cookies.”  (Ouch! Now that was a zinger.)

Age 12:

I was tested for anorexia. My doctor categorized me as “borderline.”

Age 14:

I hit three digits on the scale. (Devastation! Again!)

Age 16:

My ballet master, a very strict, very British woman who had taught Margot Fonteyn, told me I was too “mature” for youthful roles because I had developed hips. And oh yes, I needed to drop more weight.

Age 18:

I was working on my fine arts degree in dance performance. One of my ballet instructors from the New York City Ballet (a Balanchine ballerina, no less) commented on how great I looked based solely on the amount of weight I had lost in my first year of college. I was so proud of this “compliment.” At the time, I was on what I liked to call “the pea diet” ( i.e. veggies only. Yikes!).

Age 21:

I volunteered at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Hospital, working with young patients enrolled in the hospital’s school program. I was saddened by all the seemingly healthy young women who entered the facility. What could possibly have brought them here to this locked-down psych ward where “AWOL” signs were prominently posted in large letters just outside the secured doors? Answer: severe eating disorders.

At this point in my life, my dance career had come to its natural ending. After years and years of classes, rehearsals and performances, I truly believed that I would never be a professional dancer because of my body type; I was never going to be tall enough or thin enough.

Instead, my quarter-life next act began. This new journey tapped into my psychology education and training, analyzing human behavior and evaluating why people do what they do.

Some condescending comments we receive in our developing years take only seconds to deliver, but an entire lifetime to correct. The quips I heard as a young girl were subtle, yet they definitely left a lasting imprint deep within my psyche.

To anyone who has young daughters (and sons!): I encourage open conversations about this very serious topic that originates from any number of sources, including the media, schooling and especially the infamous rags that depict super skinny models as the ideal sign of beauty. If we don’t tackle this body-image issue early on in a child’s life, so many outcomes could arise: various eating disorders, low self-esteem, bullying.

Here are some ways to broach the delicate topic of body-image:

  • Check out Ophelia’s Place as a potential resource if you suspect self abuse of any kind; there is a great article on their website right now that deals with this subject.
  • Download Real Women Have Curves and watch it as a family.
  • Read Reviving Ophelia (Mary Pipher, Ph.D.) and Ophelia Speaks (Sara Shandler); both address the many concerns our young girls are dealing with today.

Most of all, see your daughters as the perfect people they really are, and reflect that positive image back to them every day.

Juli Arnold-Kole is an animal advocate, writer/editor, former ballet dancer and sometime trickster, based in Boulder.

Photo: Heather M. Smith-Matthews



Editor: Cassandra Smith

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