February 07, 2020

Reclaiming Dance From My Eating Disorder - Colleen Werner

I started taking dance classes at three years old. I couldn’t get enough of twirling around the studio, and I often danced at home, even using the guard rail on my bed as a ballet barre. However, as I got older and my eating disorder infiltrated my brain, dance transformed from something I loved and brought me joy to something that was tedious and used for compensation.

Every thought that ran through my head revolved around food and my body. I wasn’t fueling my body properly, and I was constantly lightheaded. Instead of treating my body with love and dancing because I truly loved it, I was fueling my eating disorder.

This only escalated as I got more serious about ballet. As someone who is naturally in a larger body, I realized that there wasn’t anyone who looked like me in professional companies or in dance magazines. I felt that if I wanted to be successful and receive recognition, I had to shrink my body.

I want to note that dance and diet culture were far from the only contributors to my eating disorder. A likely genetic predisposition combined with trauma, an anxiety disorder, depression and an overcontrolled personality were also major contributors, but ballet served to escalate things even more.

As I started recovery, I realized how unhealthy my relationship with dance was, however, I couldn’t bring myself to step away from it quite yet. About a year into recovery, I realized that in order to step out of quasi-recovery and into full recovery, I needed to take some time away from dance. Having this time away from the studio helped me reevaluate my relationship with dance and regain the love for it that started when I was that 3-year-old girl dancing around my bedroom.

After about a year and a half away from dance, I slowly started taking ballet classes again. It was a humbling experience to try to regain my technique that was once second nature. I’m now back to training in ballet several days per week, and I’m also performing again. I performed in The Nutcracker this past December and will be performing in Swan Lake this spring. 

There aren’t words for how grateful I am to have reclaimed ballet from my eating disorder. Now when I enter the studio, I feel at home in my body. My love for dance courses through my veins, and it’s no longer a form of compensation; it’s a form of appreciation and creativity.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and have a complicated relationship with movement, you’re not alone. Things won’t be this way forever, and you can reclaim your joy for movement. I encourage you to listen to the guidance of your treatment team, especially if you’re on exercise restriction, as well as the guidance of the healthy voice within you. Recovery is possible, and so is rebuilding your relationship with exercise.

Colleen Werner is a dancer, writer, public speaker, and therapist-in-training based in Nashville, TN. Her personal experiences with an eating disorder, anxiety, depression and PTSD led her to want to turn her struggles around to both inspire and help others with similar struggles. 

Colleen is also passionate about social justice and the Health at Every Size paradigm, and she aspires to create an eating disorder treatment program for dancers. Her work has been published by HuffPost, The Mighty, Mental Health America, Project HEAL, the National Eating Disorders Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Follow Colleen on Instagram.
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