Finding Balance:: A Young Dancer’s Journey to Body Acceptance

My earliest memory of my daughter Olivia’s {2006} love for food is when she was about 2 years old.  Fruit gummies were her favorite snack, as well as yogurt melts – the little drops of fruit flavored yogurt that looked a lot like small meringues, but not quite as full of refined sugar. Her little hands couldn’t pick them up fast enough and she’d eat an entire bag if I’d let her. Don’t worry, I didn’t. Over time it became clear that a list of Olivia’s favorite foods included any and all cakes, cookies, pies and candy.  In short, anything and everything loaded with sugar and carbs. As luck would have it, I love to bake and I’m pretty good at it, too.  It’s one of my passions that I’m eager to share with my kids. 

Over the years, it has been a struggle to get Olivia to approach food sensibly and, if I’m honest, the fact that I can easily whip up just about any dessert she wants doesn’t help the situation.  In fact, for a while I operated my own dessert cake business and she was my most eager sous chef.  However, when she wasn’t helping me in the kitchen, she could {and still can} be found dancing, twirling and leaping around the house. This girl was “born to dance” – her words, not mine.  She started formal lessons in ballet and tap at almost 3 years old and continues to dance today, some 11 years later.  Along her journey the intersection of dance culture, the beauty myth as it pertains to Black girls and her love for sticky gooey treats collided in the most tumultuous of ways. 

Not Your Typical Dancer’s Body

Dance culture often creates body image issues among dancers, but there’s so much more to our story, the least of which is Olivia’s love for sugary foods. Let’s begin with the fact that we are African American and she has a typical Black girl body. Think more Beyonce than Misty Copeland.  While she is beautiful, she’s not exactly what one would expect to see in a ballet company and her heart’s desire is to be a professional dancer. Olivia is talented and hard working, but she understands that genetics are not in her favor and it will be an uphill battle to earn a spot in a dance company. Couple that with normal teenage girl body image issues and it’s obvious that we’re existing in a sensitive space. 

As if that’s not enough, somewhere around age seven, I noticed that my once energetic and happy little girl was increasingly tired, grouchy and strangely gassy {sorry…TMI?} As an experiment, I started cutting back on breads, pastas and other processed carbs in her diet and her body responded with less gas and more energy.  Then I began to wonder if this could be something more than just needing to cut carbs?  Could this possibly be an issue with gluten?  I have a son with Crohn’s disease and a few members of my family, including me, struggle with lactose intolerance. I strongly believe that gut issues, as well as auto immune issues are connected to each other.  No medical person has ever told me this, but I’ve been fighting this battle for a long time and I know what I see.  We sought gluten allergy testing for Olivia, which was inconclusive, but on our way out of the doctor’s office a nurse told us if we remove gluten from her diet and she responds, that’s our answer.  We did and my happy, energetic little girl bounced right back.  She’s been gluten free ever since. 

Gluten Free – A Blessing or a Curse?

While this turn of events should have been helpful to someone trying to improve their diet, it actually made things a bit more difficult. First, there’s the psychological issue of being denied the food you want to eat. For someone who loves food, particularly a child or a teenager, it is frustrating not to be able to pick up a quick bite to eat at your favorite restaurant.  Meals and snacks became pre-planned events and outings or sleepovers with friends required special accommodations. I think sometimes she was embarrassed, at least initially. Soon her embarrassment turned into acceptance which presented me with the opportunity to help her help herself. 

Gluten free foods typically are higher in carbs than foods that contain gluten.  I know it may sound crazy, but check the labels. It’s a density issue. Gluten makes cakes, breads and other baked goods light and fluffy.  Therefor, the absence of gluten creates a heavier, more dense product. My girl and I set out to learn as much as we could about eating healthier and how to make delicious gluten free versions of our favorite foods.  While most meals now consist of a protein, vegetable and sometimes a whole grain starch, our pantry is stocked with almond and coconut flours, gluten free oats, dark chocolate chips, dried fruit and other random goodies, just in case of a sweet tooth attack. 

Arriving at Her Happy Place

Olivia and I now spend a lot of time in the kitchen together trying out new recipes, which is fun and I’m grateful for any extra time I get to spend with my now teenage girl.  Even better, my daughter has taken responsibility for her health.  She is moving toward acceptance of her body and figuring out ways to optimize her gluten sensitivity and her need to stay fit to suit her dance life.  She no longer tries to keep her food issues private, but willingly bakes extras to share with her friends.  Of course, it helps that a gluten free lifestyle has become much more mainstream and there are an abundance of restaurants now offering gluten free items on their menu.  We even visit gluten free bakeries in the cities we travel to on vacation. 

This journey is as much about food as it is about dance. I have watched my daughter grow as a dancer – get her first pair of pointe shoes, progress from single to double to triple pirouettes and increase the height of her leaps.  I’ve also watched her accept what her body has been telling her. It’s hard enough for girls to be comfortable with themselves without the pressure of  being fit for the stage. Being a dancer is a dream my daughter has had her entire life and I’m here for it, but first I want her to be comfortable in her own skin. To love and appreciate her body for what it can do, more than for how it looks.  A quote by comedian and actor Steve Martin says, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” After that, the rest will come.  Accepting her differences and her body’s unique needs, then being able to to care for herself is a huge step toward maturity.  I don’t think Olivia will ever completely give up the ooey gooey treats she loves so much, but I think she’s found balance and made peace with herself.  That makes this momma feel good. 


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2 Responses to Finding Balance:: A Young Dancer’s Journey to Body Acceptance

  1. Avatar
    Meechee April 11, 2020 at 7:31 am #

    This was awesome. I am going to share it with my own daughter who seems VERY similar to your Olivia (dance passion, love for sweets, black girl body). Thank you so much for sharing!!!

    • Lisa O
      Lisa O April 11, 2020 at 9:52 am #

      Thank you! I hope your young dancer always keeps her passion for her craft. Best wishes to the both of you.

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