Editor’s Note: this article is done in collaboration with Katie Ailes, writer, researcher, dancer and Loud Poet, and also with Perry Jonsson Art. ‘Katie Ailes – Polos’ is a videography by Perry Jonsson, due for release Friday 20 November; a poem and a dance piece on the theme of, amongst other things, the difficulties of body image prescribed upon young girls, and lasting a life time, in the dance world – and by extension the world at large…
‘Katie Ailes – Polos’ has now been released on the Loud Poets’ YouTube channel.
I grew up a bunhead: one of those perky, tiny ballerinas who sashayed through the school hallways, leapt around the playground, and wouldn’t shut up about who got which part in the annual Nutcracker production. I lived and breathed for ballet classes, rehearsals, and shows. Dancing formed the backbone of my days, organised my schedule, my sleep, my meals.
Throughout those formative years I was trained by two women, an older lady and her daughter (for this story, Mrs. L and Emma). Although Mrs. L was American, my memory plays her back as a harsh stereotypical Russian ballet mistress: quick as a whip, strict, with a strong will and temper to match. We all grew up terrified of Mrs. L, a fear grown from respect and an understanding of the control she could assert over us. Her daughter was much gentler, shy even, with a subtle beauty about her.
Emma was—is—gorgeous. She was in her fifties when she taught us but she didn’t look a day over 30. She had this stunning auburn hair which curled wildly down her back, Merida-style, well past her waist. We all knew she used to be a professional dancer, but no one knew details; it was just one of those legends that we’d whisper around the dressing room, aspiring to even half of her fame, beauty, and kindness.
Aside from tracing through steps in classes, though, we never saw Emma dance. She wouldn’t take roles in the shows, other than as the mother of Clara or Aurora, preferring to work behind the scenes, doing tech and sewing costumes. In classes she rarely demonstrated steps full-out. And she always wore the same outfit: baggy, amorphous polo shirts which stretched almost to her knees, over dark leggings.
Mrs. L’s favourite admonition to her students was to “Pull up!” She would shout it in the middle of exercises, remind us during rehearsals. The gist was that we needed to adjust our postures and utilise our core muscles to support ourselves. This is good training; however, pointing at the stomachs of pre-pubescent girls and yelling at them that their bellies protruded too much taught quite a different lesson. I was a rail-thin pre-teen, but as soon my body began to evolve, her admonitions felt sharper, more pointed. It was as though each curve held shame, each step into a woman’s body meaning a step away from any potential as a dancer.
Weight wasn’t discussed in the studio; not openly. But it was there, in the careful meals that we dancers ate (and refrained from eating), in the new leotard purchases one size larger that everyone noticed, in the new bra not needed before. I remember one painful occasion in which Mrs. L had me unpick the old hooks line in the bodice of a tutu I was to wear for a show and re-sew in the hooks an inch further out, to adjust for my swelling waist. To her it was necessary work, part of putting on the show. To me it was a physical, unavoidable reminder of how my burgeoning womanhood inconvenienced others and signalled my failure.
I started counting calories. Horribly, this was endorsed by my school; in eighth grade we took a mandatory ‘Health’ course in which we had to publicly calculate and share our BMIs in class (I was the second skinniest, which began a covert competition with the girl who’d “beaten” me) and we were assigned to keep a calorie log. I continued that homework long after it was due, to the point where I obsessively scanned every label before eating, working calculations in my head. I remember coming home from school one day and deciding (rationally, I thought) to make a cup of plain bulgar wheat for dinner, based on its relatively low caloric value for protein content. I used to slice cookies in half for a treat.
Emma told us to pull up less than her mother, but she reinforced my burgeoning body image issues even more—though not in a way she intended, or could have anticipated. It was less the way she directed us and more the way she carried herself: the way she hid her body under polo shirts, hid her talent backstage. We soaked up her anxiety at her figure, learning through her that any body that didn’t perfectly fit ballet’s linear expectations needed to be concealed, in shame. As we grew older and more able to understand these things, there were whispers of Emma’s old eating disorders, that when she was diagnosed with anorexia as a teen, the scales her mother had been keeping in the dance studio were taken away. Apparently we had it much easier than Mrs. L’s first generation of students. Emma was the victim of this thin-glorifying ideology, so it makes little sense that it was she who bequeathed us these struggles. Maddeningly, this cycle of body insecurities seems to be perpetuated the most by those who know it the most intimately.
Eventually, I got better. Partially through university dance teachers who didn’t give a rat’s ass what we looked like; they encouraged strength and energy, not shape. Now I eat when I’m hungry and exercise when I have time. And I turn those painful memories into art, to perform and digest and to take a stab at breaking the cycle. This video is one of those stabs. It’s for Emma, and for anyone else hiding under fears of their own largesse. Know that you are enough. You are always enough, and you are beautiful.
Katie Ailes is a Glasgow-based poet, dancer, researcher, organiser, and wearer of many, many hats. She’s currently working on her PhD at the University of Strathclyde looking at slam poetry in the UK, which is pretty much the greatest if you ask her. Katie organises with the spoken word collective Loud Poets and is very enthusiastic about spreading the excellent words “shoogle” and “numpty” internationally.
For more from Perry Jonsson visit Perry Jonsson Art.
This piece is a part of Season V of PTL which is run in association with: All About Trans.
We encourage all of our readers to donate to this season’s organisation: Gendered Intelligence.
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(Photos used are stills from ‘Katie Ailes – Polos’)
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