‘Be careful, your body attracts men.’ At age 11 I was told my figure wasn’t right. It ripped me apart.’: Formal dancer reflects on ‘body positive’ journey, ‘Learn to speak to yourself with love’

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“Hi, I’m Jen, 24 years old and dreading 25. I’m a Personal Trainer, YouTuber, and Self-Love Content Creator. I’m also an ex-dancer: that’s really what this story is about.

I might sound like a broken record, but I started dancing really young, about around 2 or 3 years old. Dance class was the first place I noticed my body, and once I noticed, I couldn’t stop noticing.

I distinctly remember being well under 10 – I want to say more like 7ish – when my mom told me she used to dance when she was little as well, and she was good. Kinda like I was good. ‘A bit of a natural,’ my first ballet teacher used to say. But my mom stopped dancing when she was a younger teenager because she grew boobs early and big, and she didn’t have a ‘dancer’s body’ anymore. It’s fair to say this phrase rung in my ears throughout my entire dance career and still sort of does now. She quit because her body was ‘wrong’ and she didn’t want me to quit for the same reason. – Bear in mind, I was around 7 years old, and still very much had a child’s body.

Courtesy of Jen Harwood
Courtesy of Jen Harwood

That was the first time I remember someone commenting on my body or how my body would change, although I’m sure being in dance class for all those years at that point had led to millions of tiny ‘corrections’ my body had to make. I first started dancing when I was two or three years old because my mom thought I was ‘under-confident’ and so she took me to our local ballet school for my first class. All I really remember from the early days is just loving dressing up in the uniforms, and skirts, and tutus and little crossbody cardigans. And several people reiterating that I was a ‘natural’. I danced my entire childhood, eventually moving onto more jazz and Musical Theatre based training.

I loved performing. Nope, I LOVE performing. It is, without doubt, the best feeling in the entire world and nothing else really compares.

I started in ballet as a young child and transitioned into a broader range of dance, acting, and singing as a teenager, partly because I made new friends who did it, so I went along with it joined them too. The friends I made as a teenager from the dance world are still some of my closest friends today. The connections you make with people you spend every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday rehearsals with for months on end are really the actual best thing about being a dancer. All those countless hours of going over the same routines, having an infinite amount of inside jokes about your directors/teachers, and sharing the love and for the drama of being backstage just before shows is something which forms a unique connection really bonds you.

When it came time to decide what I wanted to do at university, I initially thought, ok dance is just a hobby, you need to get a ‘real-life’ job as an adult. So I looked at social anthropology, biology, and several other not so interesting-ologies. And then my former tutor sat me down and asked me what I was doing. Why wasn’t I applying to dance and drama schools? I had spent my entire high school in the drama studio or music practice rooms, choreographing the school musical, organizing the summer concerts, and even at one point directing a goodbye video for the deputy head which included every single staff member my
school had to offer. But I never thought it was something I could actually do.

Do you want to know why?

I didn’t look right. I was short, had big boobs since I was about 10, and felt more like a dumpling than a dancer. So there I was 17 years old, already hating on my body. Honestly now it seems mad to me, but we all start somewhere. As a dancer, you are corrected constantly: if you get a move wrong, if you step out of line, if your body doesn’t look ‘right’. And these are kids, literal small impressionable children who get told this.

I developed young, just like my mum did, and to an even bigger boob size than she had at my age. And at 11/12 the last thing you want to be sporting is 32DD boobs. Especially if you have to wear leotards 4 times a week. I felt like at one point, everyone commented on it, constantly. I couldn’t help the way my body looked, but I got bombarded with so many negative and dangerous views. I was told to be ‘careful’ of how my body would automatically attract men. I was voluptuous, and this would mean people would get jealous of me. In reality, all I got called was ‘fat’ by my peers because boobs at 12 are not sexy. They just made me look chubby.

Courtesy of Jen Harwood

And then there’s the other side of the same coin. Comparison. In a dance class, you are constantly compared to others and I think that constant comparison as a young teenager is incredibly damaging. You’re taught to compete against each other, sometimes your best mates. And then when you don’t get picked to ‘not take it personally’. It’s a complete mind f*ck as an adult. Never mind a teenager.

There are so many reasons why dancers often feel so negative about their body, I could honestly write a trilogy about it.
But I took the advice of my brilliant form tutor, and at 19 years old I went off to train in London at a pretty decent drama school. And if I thought some of the body-shaming and awareness I felt at local dance schools was bad, this was horrific.

In one of our first ballet lessons, we were told we could only drink water or diet coke because ‘you shouldn’t waste calories on fluids.’ I can still hear the same teacher shouting ‘put your belly away’ during every single class. If I thought I was aware of my body before, I had another thing coming. An incredibly talented girl I knew once got told that she could be a West End leading lady… if she dropped fourteen pounds. The bigger you were the more ‘character roles’ you got (ie. You would never be the love interest).

Courtesy of Jen Harwood

Some drama schools have this idea that they completely tear you down to build you back up again. But what if you break before they start rebuilding? What if their mental health awareness and support seem little to none even though most of the students and teachers suffer from some level of body image or mental health issues? I felt like I was stuck in a toxic abusive relationship with a career I had worked so hard for and loved so much all my life, who ripped me apart and then told me ‘it’s nothing personal!’

This is incredibly common in the dance world and you’re told it’s just ‘part of the job’. How can degrading people to just what their bodies look like be ok? Or acceptable in any way? The industry is only just starting to look at itself in the mirror. But ask yourself why almost every famous actress/actor is slim, conventionally attractive, and usually white. I turned to exercise.

I had never in my life enjoyed exercise unless it was in the form of dance. But if I couldn’t be a favorite, at least I’d be skinny enough for them. I started working out at 6 a.m. in my tiny student room, I got put on an ‘acid reflux’ diet to cut out all the acidic foods so that I could ‘sing better’, and I lost weight. Very, very quickly. Just before my 20th birthday, I had lost 28 pounds in 2 months. I went from a curvier body to losing my boobs and bum and self-respect. But at least I looked good in my leotard. And boy, did people tell me how good I looked. Constantly. It was like growing boobs all over again, except this time I’d lost them. But, I did fall in love with exercising. The same highs I got from performing, I could now get in the gym. I decided to quit dancing and musical theatre permanently.

What ensued was utter chaos and a complete breakdown.

Courtesy of Jen Harwood

I had focused so much on dance and MT for so long, I didn’t have a backup. I went back to working at the bar I worked at during college and cried most days. The one thing I did have was the gym. After a lot of uncertainty, a very wise person close to me suggested that I ‘stopped thinking about what I wanted to do long term, and just focused on enjoying the gym and the new journey I was on.’ And boy did I focus on it.

Within the next year and a half, I had become a personal trainer and started my own business. The gym literally saved me in my time of need. It wasn’t perfect – I still hated my body – even though it was smaller now. But it gave me a focus and positivity I hadn’t felt since I was a young teenager in dance class. The past five years had been an endless battle to unlearn the damaging things I felt about my body growing up. There had been a few times I thought I had cracked it: when I first became a Personal Trainer and started seeing how I could help other women, that one summer I got shredded because I was working so much…

Being a Personal Trainer is still hard. Having to discuss people’s bodies endlessly can sometimes be really triggering and there’s a lot of people in the fitness world who struggle massively with their relationship with their own bodies. But I vowed to myself I would not let my clients feel how I did back when I was dancing. The gym had given me so much positivity in a dark time and I
wanted to show other women how good they could feel!

Looking back when I started PTing, I didn’t have a clue and would follow other Personal Trainers’ leads. Regrettably, I have probably made mistakes that led to clients having a negative view of their bodies. I would say the turning point for me was putting weight on: I have anxiety and during an episode of a few months of extreme stress, I gained weight. I felt like a bad Personal Trainer, but it actually taught me so much about my relationship with my own body and how other women felt about theirs.

Now I’m nearly 25, and these last 5-6 years have completely changed not only my relationship with my body and myself, but also my outlook on how we can better the way we speak to ourselves and others.

Courtesy of Jen Harwood

It needs to be completely rewritten. We are so accustomed to commenting on the way others look, what they eat, how they act… And doing the same to ourselves. It is damaging. That compliment on someone’s recent weight loss? Damaging. The quick up-and-down glance as you judge what someone is eating for lunch? Damaging. Wanting to lose weight because you think it will make you happier? Damaging.

In my opinion, after years of being told my body should look one way or another, of standing in front of mirrors all day, every day glaring at myself, of belittling and comparing myself to others’ bodies… There’s only one way to stop the cycle.

Love yourself. Entirely. Right now.

With all your incredible attributes and every flaw as well. Your beautiful smile, your self-centeredness. From the wonderful way that your body moves throughout the day to the rolls as you sit down for the evening. Celebrate it all. Love it all.

Start small, maybe you struggle to see anything nice about yourself? Write down one thing – it can be as tiny as: ‘I think my freckles are cute!’ Do this daily. Then learn to love the things you call flaws: Your bra bulges? Stunning. What a beautiful bit
of your body. Keep doing this, because it doesn’t matter how much weight you lose, gain, or how you look. If you can’t be happy in the present, what’s the point? As someone who has worked closely with hundreds of women to improve their relationships with their bodies, that’s my best advice.

Don’t start with changing. Start with loving.

You are incredible, your body is incredible. Hell, it’s got you through 2020 and if that isn’t impressive I don’t know what else is. If I could go and tell 3-year-old Jen how brilliant and wonderful her and her body is, I would. I can’t, so let me tell you.

You deserve to be loved by yourself. Now go do it.”

Courtesy of Jen Harwood

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jen Harwood, Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK. Follow her journey on her Instagram and YoutubeDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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