For five years, I felt like my body was the enemy. It was too big, all wrong, an ungainly mistake. It took up too much space and all I really wanted was to disappear. I hoped to fade quietly, to make myself as small as possible to keep myself safe. In other words, I was bulimic.
Eventually–and just in time–I chose recovery. That recovery breathed new life into my body, resuscitating it. Pole dance has become part of how I stay healthy physically, emotionally and mentally. In fact, I love it so much I became an instructor! When I’m in the pole dance studio, I can take risks with my body without fear of judgement. When I mess up, I just smile and say “Ta-da!” to transform the error into a hot new dance move nobody’s seen before.
It’s a real 180 for someone who used to want to disappear to embrace such an in-your-face form of exercise. But pole dance classes helped me change my perspective on my body. It’s an exuberant and life-affirming celebration of something that used to cause me shame.
My eating disorder was more of a trauma response than a beautification project, but I did objectify my body and saw it superficially. Pole dance has given me a different way to look at things. It taught me how many cool things my body can do, and how strong it can be when properly fuelled (read: no skipping meals or purging). I learned to appreciate my body for its function instead of simply its form. It takes an incredible amount of strength to dance, and muscles need fuel to grow. Restricting food now would be short-circuiting the muscle development I need to reach my goals. Depriving myself just doesn’t make sense anymore.
My body is something I used to want to hide, but now displaying it is how I demonstrate my accomplishments before an audience. There isn’t really a way around it. Skin contact with the pole is necessary for safety. Clothing slips, skin grips, so the less you wear the better off you are. The skimpy outfits pole dancers wear may look sexy, but they’re also safety-driven. Hanging upside down in long pants is a good way to fall on your head. The pressure of my bare thighs against the gleaming brass protects me when I am inverted.
When I was bulimic, I used exercise to punish myself for eating. Now that I’m healthy again, I crave movement. Physical exertion helps me process things emotionally, so pole dance has become a therapeutic outlet. My movements are medicinal. They feed and heal my soul, as well as the body I didn’t feed enough before. Pole dance is a way of listening to my body and honouring its desire to move.
Pole dance helped me find a community of women who honour that same desire, and they contribute hugely to my well-being. When we’re together, there’s no body shaming permitted. We celebrate each other’s bodies. “Your legs look so strong when you point your toes! That ‘hold’ makes your muscles pop!” Most of the time that we’re together we’re not wearing much clothing, and that requires a lot of support and mutual respect. My dance studio is a safe place where my body is treasured and protected from criticism.
The greatest thing pole dance has done for this recovering bulimic is release me from shame. In the past, fear of criticism was something that got between me and my own sensuality. Body shame can be a serious roadblock to intimacy. Pole dance became a way to express sensuality without fear of rejection, to help me learn to let that guard down with another person. Through dance, I was gifted the opportunity to get up close and personal with myself and explore my body in a safe way.
Exploration leads to celebration. I have learned to celebrate myself, my strength, my sensuality, my relationships with other women, my ability to honour and take care of my body and my commitment to satisfying its needs. I have learned to do risky things and proudly shout “Ta-da!” In that moment of pride, I know my body is not a mistake after all.
Alison Tedford is a single mom from Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. She’s a data analyst, pole dance instructor and an eating disorder support group facilitator. She documents her journeys in fitness, parenting and feminism on www.sparklyshoesandsweatdrops.com.