‘She’s good, but she’s big’: my years as a ‘fat’ ballerina

'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina

Olivia Campbell on reconciling the size of her talent and the size of her body, and how giving up can be an act of self-preservation

'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina

I could’ve been a professional ballet dancer. At least, this is the lie I tell myself, how I am able to face my reflection in the mirror every day without collapsing into a puddle of regret.

After spending a year at a dance conservatory in London, I quit. A year later, I tried again at colleges and universities in my home country of Virginia. But two years in, I transgressed my foot and decided to switch to a major that was less tied to my physical integrity: journalism. Soon, I became the arts editor of the school paper. Now, 10 years after graduating from college, I have three beautiful sons and a successful freelance writing career. But the fact that I quit before I had the chance to see if I could genuinely succeed haunts me to this day.


I struggle to articulate this level of experience when explaining my background to people. I “trained to be a professional dancer”; I was a “semi-professional dancer”; I” studied dance in college and used to teach ballet classes “. When you bring up past dance experience, most people assume it was merely a little girl’s daydream, but for me, it was so much more. What do you call it when you dedicate all of your time and energy to preparing for something but don’t ever become that something?

What’s the name for not being strong enough to hazard failing so you quit while you’re ahead and live the rest of your life comforting yourself with the notion that you might have” stimulated it” if only you’d truly tried? Isn’t that it’s own special, uniquely devastating form of failure?

Our culture fetishizes determination, grit, success. We are told again and again that hard work will eventually pay off, that ceasing is practically unforgivable. What we don’t hear is that success isn’t inevitably synonymous with happiness and that giving up can be an act of self-preservation.


It is spring in New York City and I am 16. My dance teacher has driven me and one other student up so we could take a few master classes at various colleges and studios around town and so that I could audition for a place at the Joffrey Ballet School. It is my first visit to New York and I am immediately intoxicated by the dangerous combining of the city’s energy and a newfound sense of freedom. I savor my first Indian food, buy chunky pleather platform loafers, do ballet poses for photos next to the stones in Central Park.

This Joffrey studio is much smaller and much dimmer than I imagined; it’s not much more than a couple of grocery-store aisles broad. As a young dancer in a tiny college town, I had envisaged a vast, sun-filled affair, but I underestimated how strapped for space cities are. The worst part of any audition is always before it starts. That’s when you can psych yourself out. I pull at my itchy pink tights and readjust the leg pits of my black leotard. While warming up, I try to avoid my reflection in the mirror, but also keep an eye out for the coveted “skinny mirror” that each studio possesses. It helps that none of the other girls here are auditioning; they are students and I am simply a guest in the class.

Can a thicker brush not build just as beautiful strokes?

I am nervous but unintimidated. I know how to do this. I’ve got this. I’m in my part. The class goes well. Actually well. I remember all of the combinings, recollect to smile. I am energetic and quick on my feet. Most importantly, I can keep up with the other students. After class, I excitedly head to the changing room, surprised by how well I did and hopeful of my chances at being accepted into the school. I think about how, if admitted, I would leave home and live in a dorm at the Carmelite nuns’ convent.

” She’s good, but she’s big ,” I overhear their teachers say to my dance teacher as I am coming back down the hallway.

I stop in my tracks, trying to process this commentary without screaming or letting on that I hear. But in that moment, my spirit is crushed. So many thoughts swirl through my head on the rest of our trip-up. I can’t believe that the wrongness of my body’s shape carries more weight than my ability to move it precisely and artfully through space. I can’t believe that a skinnier, potentially less-talented dancer would get “my” spot at the school. But most of all, I can’t believe how embarrassing and utterly humiliating it feels to be turned down not because I’m not good enough, but because I’m not skinny enough.

These believes eventually crystallize into confusion, topics. Why had I been blessed with these talents in this body? What does it entail when your body is your art? Can a thicker brush not induce just as beautiful strokes?


I arrived late to dance. Later than most anyway. I am 11 years old when I take my first class – it’s a free class being offered on the stage of the little community theater in my small college township- but my natural aptitude speedily became apparent. As a naturally quiet, introverted person, dancing is a revelation. I don’t have to speak a word to anyone. I discover a world beyond words, where movements tell tales in ways that words merely ever dream of doing. It’s a world where terms themselves become superfluous and seem almost perversely simplistic, and I am overjoyed to occupy it every day.

Soon, I am training for two to four hours a day. Homeschooling entails I can be driven to studios an hour from my home to take classes multiple times a week with more advanced teachers. Ultimately, I am living with other households or my dance teacher during the week so I can train at the best school in the region. Summers are expended at ballet “intensives”, which entails six weeks away from home, living in dormitories, taking class the working day at the Washington Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I am getting better and better. I revel in my ability to balance en pointe forever and turn with ease. I once did five rotations in a single pirouette turn. Five. The typical maximum for women is three. It’s a moment I will never forget.

But when you hear the word “ballerina”, my body is not what your mind’s eye conjures.

When puberty hits at 15, weight begins to stick to me. I begin to sport fleshy hips, meaty thighs, a blossom bosom. I’m not fat amongst “regular” people- I wear a women’s size 8- but I am fat for a ballerina. In this profession, rarely is anyone bigger than a sizing 4. Ballerinas are supposed to be beyond human: to evoke ethereal, otherworldly beings that toe the line between the sensual and the virginal. To have noticeable breasts and hips is to interrupt this fiction with grotesque sexuality, to remind the audience that you are indeed human.

After that audition, I begin to doubt my abilities, topic my chances of one day becoming a professional dancer. From then on, I never insure exactly what I want in the mirror. Mirrors are unavoidable for most dancers, encompassing the walls of nearly every studio. I spend hours in front of them every day. I like the lines I find reflected, the shapes I can contort into, how I can mimic the movements of my teachers with relative ease. What the mirror also proves me now are my birthing hips and heavy boobs, the wiggly bits of flesh hang from my upper arms.

Now when I ensure all my fellow dancers reflected in the mirror around me, I watch not how harmonious our motions are, but how their slight frames exaggerate the generousness of my own.


” Are you sure you’re a ballet dancer ,” the orthopedic surgeon asked at a consultation for persistent ache in the joint of my right big toe.” Because you look more like a modern dancer .”

I am 17 years old. And after visiting a dozen doctors in my small hometown- enduring painful cortisone shots that provided no relief- we drove two hours to see this doctor because he is the company doctor for a big regional ballet troupe. His commentary leaves me embarrassed, scrambling for an answer. I’m pretty sure the doctor believes my pain is the result of the “excess” weight I am putting on my feet, but sure enough, his scans uncover a tendon fraying and rubbing in between the bones of my joint.

I did try modern dance afterward, when I was in college. While it is a more freeing kind of dancing- less rigid, significantly more forgive of differing body types- I frankly wasn’t very good at it. At school in London, I was placed in the highest level of ballet and the lowest level of modern.

The summer after that crushing Joffrey audition, I am sent to stay at my grandparents’ pony farm an hour outside of New Orleans without the rest of my immediate household. It’s partly meant to be a penalty for being caught kissing a boy while merely shy of the pre-appointed old-enough age of 16. But no parental penalty was worse than what I could inflict upon myself. Not for kissing boys, mind you- that was fun- but for being fat.

To drown out the hum of the treadmill, I turn up the local alternative boulder radio station on my cassette Walkman. The ballad is White Town’s I Could Never Be Your Woman. It features heavily in the rotation this summer. I haven’t lived enough to appreciate what the lyrics are connoting, but the song’s eerie, repeated refrain haunts me. I keep running. The air conditioning battles to counteract the smother humidity. Some people say the air is “close” but it feels more like nature is trying to slowly suffocate you by gradually replacing the air with water. Best grow gills or flounder and succumb.

I run for an hour every day, pushing the incline button higher and higher, pushing the speed button over and over again. Through the sweat and the muscle aches. I stop only when I get so dizzy I fret I might pass out and fall. I run away from my fat, away from the possibility of failing. I operate and I run but I never get where I want to go.

I speedily discover that trying to induce my own puking is much too traumatic and difficult.

My grandmother presents lovingly prepared, home-cooked southern food- fried eggs and meat-and-potato hash, beautiful pies- but I eat only one meal a day and refuse the remainder. I love hash; it’s something we never eat at home. It’s a salty, fluffy, greasy southern indulgence like no other. I’ve never rejected her cooking before, but if my grandmother senses something is amiss, she doesn’t mention it. Outside of my mother’s watchful eye, I try my hand at bulimia. I rapidly discover that trying to induce my own retch is much too traumatic and difficult. So instead, I down excessive amounts of milk of magnesia laxative. Nothing I try have contributed to much in the way of weight loss, mostly because I am simply messing with my metabolism. When I start eating a healthy amount of food and stop abusing laxatives, I set the weight right back on.


The sweetest revenge, the best way to prove all of the doubters and haters incorrect, would’ve been to go on to be wildly successful. Our culture is very clear that overcoming your shortcomings to emerge victorious is the only acceptable objective to such stories. But years of hearing how incorrect my body was took its toll. It’s hard to love an art form that everyone is telling you doesn’t love you back. It becomes too difficult to reconcile your physical talent with your physical inadequacy.

I’ve largely stopped bringing up my dancing background to new acquaintances. Not because it’s so far in the past or even because I don’t know how to define my experience, but because I know that when I say I was a ballet dancer, I am certain that person immediately assess my body and wonders what kind of fantasyland I once lived in. “Ballet” has become my trigger term. Talking about it releases the hounds of self-loathing and crushing regret, who nip determinedly at my ankles.

I left the world of dance for the world of words because the writing world doesn’t care if I violate my foot. I figured if I couldn’t dance, at least I could write about it. I reasoned that since my body isn’t central to the art of journalism, the penning world shouldn’t care if I am 150 pounds or 250 pounds. I know now that there are no industries, almost no spaces where women’s bodies aren’t judged. Yet writing, while still a creative quest, does not feed my spirit in the same style that dancing- the world beyond words- does.

I haven’t seen the inside of a dancing studio in about eight years. Every day that I don’t dancing, a sliver of my spirit withers. My heart aches to move again, to get lost in myself, to get lost in music, in motion, in space; to trace those familiar patterns and shapes that still come so easily to me as I twiddle safe in my kitchen. I want so much more. I want to be in a real studio with my peers; on a real stage. I want to know what it would have been like if I’d maintained running, kept pushing back at the haters.

I can’t help but feel jealous of the adults I see talking about taking up ballet or re-entering the studio again for the first time since they were young. I envy that pure, uncomplicated pleasure that dance can bring; it’s something I dread I’ll never feel again. I can’t only waltz into a dancing studio and take a class. If simply mentioning dance to someone spurs a rush of inadequacy and failing, who knows what actually taking a class might unearth within me. Besides, I am not like them. I am not one of those people who merely took a few ballet class in secondary school. I could have been a professional. I got too close, this is why it hurts too much.

It’s been a long road, but my body and I have come to a detente. I’m now a happy sizing 12: satisfied by the knowledge that my body- whether in spite of or because of its sizing- has executed perfect pirouettes and birthed beautiful newborns. But coming to words with my body doesn’t mean I necessarily forgive it for betraying me; that I’ll ever stop wished to know whether I might have spent my entire life onstage had I merely been a bit lighter.

Olivia Campbell is a journalist and essayist specializing in medicine, mothering, arts, and history. Her run has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, New York magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Literary Hub, Scientific American, Parents magazine, Pacific Standard and Undark magazine.

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'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina
'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina
'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina
'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina
'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina

'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina

'She's Good, But She's Big': My Years As A 'fat' Ballerina

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