Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of eating disorders that may be triggering to some
“My name is Michele Shuster and I am a 30 year old dancer, choreographer, director, arts educator, and body positive advocate. What’s a body positive advocate, you may ask? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it is the assertion all people deserve to have a positive body image, regardless of how society and popular culture view ideal shape, size, and appearance. My goals are simple: we must challenge how society views the body, promote the acceptance of our bodies, help people build confidence and acceptance of their own body, and address unrealistic body standards. Naysayers would have you believe I am promoting a culture of obesity, and celebrate those who are living unhealthy lives. That simply is not the case. My story takes us back to a little 9-year-old Ginger in Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.
Two nights before my tenth birthday, I was standing in my jazz dance class and got an incredible pain in my stomach. I was a very dedicated and hard-working kid, and loved dance class more then anything. So, I tried really hard to ignore this pain and keep dancing. Then I noticed the pain was radiating through my back and legs, and I was struggling to stand up straight. My teacher noticed how out of it I was and suggested I go to the bathroom. I was very sick to my stomach and when I sat down on the toilet, I noticed a black, tar-like substance in my bodysuit. I went back into class, and sat down silent until it was time to go home. I got in the car and bawled my eyes out to my mom. I told her everything, and she told me she was surprised it was so early, and this was called a period. I was going through puberty before age 10.
Well, as one might guess, this is where I started to develop. And develop I sure did. I went from barely needing a sports bra, to a 34B overnight. Within that first year, I probably gained close to 100 pounds. I would notice little things, like I wasn’t wearing a crop top at dance competitions like the other kids. I had to have a bra sewn into everything. I was being pushed to the back in ballet dances, where the teacher only talked about lines and shapes. However, I noticed I was being praised for my energy and stage presence, and couldn’t understand the correlation.
I then registered to attend my first dance convention. Dance conventions are events that consist of many different classes from many different choreographers that are usually well known to the dance world. At the end of the weekend, the teachers select three students to win scholarships based on ability, style, willingness to try new things, and overall stage presence. Well, I had the best weekend of my life. I gave it my all in every class, and learned so many new things. I was picked out in almost every class for being a stand out performer, and that was all I wanted. The end of the weekend came, and it was announced the Stand Out First Place Junior was Michele Shuster. I ran up on stage, took pictures, and won money and a trophy— it was exhilarating. This was a big turn for me and my body. I was being praised by choreographers who didn’t know me before the weight gain, and they thought I was the best. Why were my teachers at my studio not noticing my abilities?
Time goes on, and a trend begins to emerge. I would win dance competitions and conventions, get to compete with many solos, but then be put behind other kids in group numbers. I asked my mom why was I being punished in the groups? She explained it wasn’t a punishment, but some of my teachers felt the way we look is not what a competition judge wants. I told her, ‘This makes no sense, I’m winning when dancing on my own. What’s the problem?’ She told me one teacher in particular didn’t like to highlight my body because there were other students who were skinnier and had nicer lines. I remember being very confused, and asking what was wrong with my body. As best as my mother could, she told me nothing was wrong, but that people make assumptions, and we can only change their minds by proving them wrong. This moment would be a huge turning point in my journey.
The next few years continued on in a similar fashion. I would compete and win as a soloist, and be shoved in the back in groups to make room for the skinnier dancers. Eventually, we moved to another dance studio to train under new teachers. I had an incredibly strict ballet mistress who was on me to suck in my stomach, more, and more, and more. I knew what she was saying, but I was trying my best. I jumped as high and as long as the other girls, why couldn’t she see this? I competed at a competition under this new studio, and won for my solo. My teacher didn’t even congratulate me. She did, however, find time to console the other students who had lost. I overheard her explain, because of how I looked, I stood out. Though she viewed it as a disadvantage, she told me the judges probably felt progressive highlighting someone that looked like me. I was beyond crushed. Was she right? Did I win a pity vote?
I began to drastically pull away from my friends and my family. I became very down and extremely hard on myself. This is where my eating disorder started. It wasn’t easy at first. At the time, I was going to an arts high school, dancing 7 days a week, and doing any and all workshops I could do to get out of class with that teacher. I would eat lunch and sneak off to be sick. I was ashamed even with all the dance and exercise I was doing, it didn’t help. I was fat. It was obvious to me, and making myself throw up seemed like the only option I saw. I was always dizzy, my fingernails turned yellow, and I had no energy to really enjoy what I had always loved— dance. My family and my friends noticed a huge difference in me, and were constantly at me to explain what was going on, but I couldn’t. They wouldn’t get it. No one would.
I needed to be skinny to be a dancer, that’s all it was. I knew what I was doing. I understood the health risks, but I just didn’t care. I wanted to dance, and that’s all I could see at the end. Once people started to understand what I was up to, I just had to be sneakier. I always had excuses as to where I had to go after eating a meal, or maybe I could skip a meal, and drink lots of water to balance it out. It got so bad I collapsed in the middle of dance class. I was crumbling, and suddenly, even dance wasn’t even enough to get me through. I talked to a doctor, and realized what I was doing was jeopardizing my future, and I needed to figure something else out.
I started working out and eating healthier. I wasn’t ‘skinnier’ but I felt better, and was realizing maybe a bit of curve isn’t so bad. Suddenly, friends were jealous of my curves and my body, and it became apparent to me no one seemed to be completely okay with their body. Skinny girls wanted curves. Thick girls want to be skinnier. Tall wanted short. Short wanted tall. We were all growing up and not liking our bodies. We moved to a new dance studio, and everything started to work. When people made comments about my size, I developed a mantra of, ‘Look here, it’s not your body to worry about.’ If I was healthy and I could dance just as well, if not better then the other kids with ideal body types, what was the issue? My confidence started to increase, and I decided I was going to major in dance at a post secondary institution.
I flew down to Toronto and had 5 days of auditions all set up and ready. I check into my hotel, get a great night’s sleep, and wake up ready to show this University what I got. I get to the audition studio and everyone around me has the perfect body. I doubt myself for a minute, but push through. I have what these girls don’t have, my personality. That can’t be taught. We get through the rigorous audition process, and they ask us each to come in individually to discuss what they had seen. I walk into the room, and I’m nervous, but confident in my abilities. The teachers begin to explain how baffled they were to see someone of my stature dance so gracefully and elegantly. The second teacher chimes in they had all but written me off looking at me, but were so surprised and shocked by my ability. They said if everything worked out with my grades and finances, I would be a part of the Class of 2012. I thanked them and walked out of the room. I picked up my bag and my coat, and silently walked to the hotel without really processing it. I called my mom and told her everything. I remember repeating the words and bursting into tears. It had happened again.
Now let’s jump ahead. I auditioned and was accepted to a school for music theatre performance. On the first dance of classes, I was only singled out as the only first year in the highest level of dance and nothing else. Months passed and we had Thanksgiving weekend. I came into class on the Tuesday and my ballet teacher corrected my posture at the barre. She patted my tummy and said, ‘Thanksgiving was not good for you… too much turkey.’ I was stunned. I froze. She made other little comments to a few students, but no one said anything. I made sure to start wearing an extra pair of tights to seem a bit slimmer, and she didn’t really say anything again. I felt myself drifting into old habits, and would skip a meal or two. The ones I was eating, I was immediately purging.
End of first semester, we sat down one on one with her and discussed our marks and our progress. I was told although I was very good, I would never make it because my body was so wrong for dance. She mentioned my friend in class who was stunning. ‘She’s 5’11, and very slender. If you looked like her, then maybe you could make this work.’ I didn’t fight back, I didn’t say much, I walked out of the room and burst into tears. I found my friend to tell her what was said in my meeting, and she told me that same teacher told her that her body was perfect, but she didn’t have the heart I had and she would also never make it. Hearing that pushed it over the edge for me. I started to kick up a huge fuss. How dare an arts educator speak to students like that? There was no way for her to know who would or wouldn’t succeed based on her perception of what we do in two classes a week. I brought it up to the Dean, the head of the program, and anyone who would listen. I refused to let her speak to me like that again, and it created a huge rift. Other students were showing signs of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and nothing was being done. This is when I found myself stepping into the body positive advocate role.
Well, I graduated and I started working in the industry. I made a name for myself and I forced people to look outside their biases and to see performers for their energy and their spirit and their ability: not just their bodies. Of course, I’ve experienced body shaming, fat phobia, and many other issues. I’ve been taken out of consideration for a role because of my body. I’ve had costume designers embarrass me, and talk about my body as if I wasn’t in the room. I’ve gone on stage and not felt comfortable about what I was wearing, had friends in the industry laugh about lead roles being played by a fat person in front of me… it is hard to find the will to push through when body shaming is so prevalent. So, why do I keep doing it? Well, that is an easy question to answer: I keep my head up because I need to make sure the next generation doesn’t have to fight so hard for their space in this industry.
I never remember seeing anyone who looked like me on stage. Never. I saw people in fat suits. I saw chubby male performers being the butt of every joke. I saw Tracy Turnblad, the one fat icon in music theatre. That was it. I want to be the change that makes sure all bodies are represented on stage. So that little 10-year-old dancer goes to see a musical, sees me, and thinks, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ The amount of times I’ve been stopped at the stage door by an audience member who wanted to say ‘thank you for being up there’ is in the hundreds.
Part of body positivity is about representation. I want— no, scrap that. I NEED to be that voice for all the people who felt theirs wasn’t heard. I need to be something kids can relate to. I need to fight for those who’ve lost their battle. Yes, there are days it is so hard to push forward. Yes, there are days when I look at my body, and all I see is fat. Yes, you’re right, I can’t change everyone’s biases. But if I can help even a few people feel better and more confident about their body, then that’s it. I’ve succeeded.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michele Shuster. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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