How I Conquered My Eating Disorder: A Ballet Dancer's Story
From a very young age, I was exposed to the world of ballet, in which creativity meets high discipline. Most of my afternoons as a child were happily spent in tights and leotards. I ended up trying every kind of dance from ballet and contemporary, to modern and jazz. My passion for dance ran through every vein in my body — I was completely and totally addicted.
By the age of 12, dance was my absolute everything — six days a week for at least three hours a day I found myself striving for perfection in each routine that I learned. My parents and teachers were always very supportive, caring and encouraging. But because I am a Type A perfectionist by nature, I put myself under a tremendous amount of pressure, making my "passion" for ballet into an unhealthy obsession.
The competition grew stiffer as more girls began to develop stronger dance technique and so my internal "need" for perfection intensified. One of my key observations was that all the brilliant dancers were waiflike, delicate and very skinny. I deduced that losing weight would assist me to spring higher and perform more gracefully.
At first, I was just mindful of what I put in my body. But when I started to see "results," I kept on cutting down my food intake, eventually settling for a daily half-slice of toast in the morning and a measly salad at night. That was it.
Little did I know the damage I was doing to myself both physically and mentally. Thankfully, upon noticing my significant weight loss and obscure eating habits, my parents and dance teachers intervened before I was able to cause my body any detrimental damage.
And while I began eating properly again after eight months of very intense restriction, the distortions in my mind had already rooted themselves deep within my subconscious. My self-worth and confidence had become inextricably linked with the size of my body.
The turning point for me came about when I was 16. I remember reading a short statement in one of my English work books: You are everything you believe you are, so start believing better.
Then it dawned on me: No one else could fix me but me but myself. After all, the very struggles that I was facing were completely self-inflicted. How could I ever expect my body to respond well to me when I was degrading it at every chance I could?
Once I began taking this kind of responsibility for my thoughts and actions, I was able to see the possibility of change. I began working on breaking the mental barriers I had created, and slowly but surely I was able to change my mindset. My thoughts became more positive and I could see and feel the difference in my life.
My newfound energy sparked a keen interest in me about healthy living, and so I began engaging in plenty of research on holistic wellness, nutrition and exercise.I realized that food is not the enemy at all — rather, food is the life force that nourishes, protects and heals.
So how did I heal myself?
- I realized the power of creating synergy between body and mind.
- I took responsibility for my poor self-image and lack of confidence.
- I acknowledged that I am the sole cause of both my own good health and bad health.
- I replaced negative thoughts with positive ones, even if I didn't believe them at first.
- I changed the way I viewed my body by being grateful for my strength, rather than criticizing it for every imperfection.
- I substituted sugar and artificial sweeteners with natural sweeteners such as stevia, maple syrup or xylitol.
- I eliminated processed, refined, tinned and ready-made foods
- I ate lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- I drank lots of fresh water, hot lemon-water and herbal teas.
- I ate healthy fats and acknowledged that fat isn't categorically all bad.
- I cut out "diet" foods such as low fat or fat free dairy.
- I eliminated all carbonated beverages and boxed fruit juices
- I ate more frequently throughout the day to fire up my metabolism, and to respond to my hunger as it arose.
- I ditched the diet mentality and adopted a more compassionate and sustainable attitude toward my lifestyle
- I learned to exercise more effectively for my body, which meant less frequently.
- I practiced yoga to bring about focus and an awareness of the interconnectedness between my mind and body.
- I allowed my body rest days to rebuild, replenish and restore.
- I listened to my body each step of the way.
Emotionally + Creatively
- I meditated daily to encourage a gentler relationship to my thoughts, and to bring about greater mindfulness.
- I expressed myself through writing, dancing, cooking and art.
- I researched fitness and nutrition to educate myself on sustainable health practices that would serve, rather than harm, my body.
- I made my passion my work and my work my passion.
Of course, these tips helped me through my journey, and may not pave the road to healing for every individual struggling with food issues. It is always advisable to seek assistance from a health care professional, particularly in cases where the eating disorder is severe. But I can speak for my experience: you have to want to heal, and no one else can help you with that but yourself.
Photo courtesy of the author
Cara-Lisa Sham is a South African health blogger, wholefoods producer, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and founder of the Caralishious brand. She is adamant about adopting a back-to-basics approach to nutrition and wellness. Having been a devoted ballet dancer for 17 years, Cara prioritizes proper nutrition, exercise, and a balanced lifestyle.