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Stretching beauty: Ballerina Misty Copeland on her body struggles

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 (Image courtesy of Self magazine)

It was about an hour after my last pirouette of the evening onstage with the American Ballet Theatre, and I was already in my pajamas. With a glass of wine in one hand and the phone in the other, I ordered my usual: a dozen glazed doughnuts from my local Krispy Kreme. Once they arrived, I sat on my couch, turned on Sex and the City and ate them all straight from the box. They tasted so good, and while I was eating them, the sugary richness made me feel comforted and cared for. The next morning, I woke up guilty and ashamed, but a few nights later I felt so miserable that I did it all over again.

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I was 21 years old, thrilled to be dancing with the most famous ballet company in the country, and I was bingeing regularly. I could pinpoint exactly when and why it started. One day after rehearsal, I saw my name posted alongside the words "See the artistic staff." They made all the company's big decisions, including casting, and for me this summons from them was nerve-racking. I remember sitting down in their office, so anxious that I was sweating. 

They told me: "Your body has changed. The lines you're creating don't look the way they used to. We'd like to see you lengthen."

That, of course, was just a polite, safe way of saying, "You need to lose weight." I was so embarrassed that all I could answer was "I understand. I'd like to change this." And then I got out of there as fast as I could. When I reached my apartment, I started crying uncontrollably. I knew that since I was 5'2' and 108 pounds, most people would consider me super thin. But in my own little world, I was devastated to learn I was "fat." I had always been proud of my body—its strength and grace enabled me to pursue my passions. But now it had become the enemy.

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Ever since I discovered ballet at the relatively late age of 13, it had been the one part of my life where I was the ideal. I grew up poor in San Pedro, California, sleeping on the floor of shady motels with my five siblings and not always sure when or where I'd get my next meal. I never thought of myself as special or particularly good at anything. But once I started ballet, suddenly I had a new identity: prodigy. I remember my first instructor telling me that George Balanchine, the revered founder of the New York City Ballet, thought that a ballerina should have a long neck, sloped shoulders, a small rib cage, a narrow waist and long legs and feet. 

"You're everything he wanted," she said. "You're perfect."

But from a health perspective, when I moved to New York City to dance with ABT, I wasn't perfect at all. I was 19 and tiny—I'd never even menstruated. I know people see dancers as thin as I was and assume we must be anorexic. Actually, I just burned a lot of calories from the demanding routine of dancing up to nine hours a day. I didn't have an eating disorder—then. But about eight months after I started with the company, I fractured a bone in my back during a rehearsal. My doctor told me I needed to start menstruating because the hormones would help strengthen my bones, and he put me on the Pill. Almost overnight, my body was transformed. In one month, I gained 10 pounds, mostly in my stomach, and my 30B breasts swelled to double D.

It took me a year to recover from the injury and return to dancing, but I still wasn't used to having breasts and a belly. And when I finally came back to ABT and put on my leotard again, it was an even bigger shock: I didn't look or feel like the dancer I remembered being. Usually, ballerinas share costumes since we have similar builds. But now the leotards had to be altered for me—with a sheer material added to cover my cleavage, for instance. I hated this sign that I was different from the others, and I felt singled out for all the wrong reasons. I became so self-conscious that, for the first time in my life, I couldn't dance strong. I was too busy trying to hide my breasts. After a few months, I was called in for The Talk, and the bingeing began.

After that meeting, I became so ashamed of my body that I started wearing T-shirts and shorts over my leotard and tights during practice. For the first time, I made myself exercise at the gym just to burn calories, which was awful and didn't help. And I'd duck down hallways to avoid the artistic staff, afraid they'd tell me to "lengthen" again. I didn't even want to be seen in ballet class, which I'd always loved. I realized that bingeing wasn't a logical reaction, but at night, when I was alone, I got so angry: Who do they think they're talking to? I have so much talent. I'll eat what I want. But I knew ABT saw my once "perfect" body as a problem, so I resented them. And I hated myself for not being able to fix it. My perverse form of rebellion (and comfort) was doughnuts.

But as I grew more introverted at ABT, always nervous that I'd be criticized, I started to venture outside that tightly knit world to make friends. That's when everything began to shift. I noticed that most people didn't have the same rigid expectations I had about how their bodies should look. Gradually, I started to feel more relaxed and comfortable in my frame—and even happy with it. Then I met my boyfriend, Olu, who was studying law at Emory University. Since our relationship was long-distance for the first year, we spent every night talking on the phone. He'd tell me over and over that I was talented and beautiful. I'd never experienced that kind of affirmation before, even when I was being praised for having a traditional dancer's physique. As a ballerina, you always stand in front of the mirror searching for flaws. You're so used to criticism—from yourself and others—that it's hard to remember that your body is something to enjoy, not just a never-ending fix-it project.

Around the time I met Olu, I also found a mentor in Victoria Rowell, a former ABT dancer turned actress. After she saw me perform in Hollywood, she left me a note asking me to call her. I did, and when we met, we talked nearly all night long. I told her I thought I'd become "the fat dancer" and that I felt awful about it. Over the course of many conversations, she made me see that what I ate should be about making myself feel good, healthy and strong, not about attempting to please (or defy) anyone else. 

"Your body is fine," she said. "But you'll feel better if you take care of it."

I'd always believed that what mattered was how I looked, how well I embodied certain standards of perfection. But now I started to understand that my body's natural evolution into womanhood had validity, too. Dancing had always made me happy, and I wanted that back. So my priority became simply accepting my new self. I focused on what I wanted: to feel good, to be confident in my skin again, to dance.

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I really didn't try to stop bingeing. Instead, I started thinking about food not as solace but as the fuel that gave me the energy and strength I needed to dance—and to live. I paid attention to how my meals made me feel physically, started eating more vegetables and fish and gave up red meat and poultry. I still ate sweets occasionally because I love them—especially cupcakes and banana pudding—but now just one serving was plenty. Within a few months, I'd forgotten Krispy Kreme's number.

Over the course of the next year, I ended up losing a few pounds (finding a better birth control regimen helped, too), but I kept my full breasts and hips. My body was still different than it had been; I couldn't go back to being a little girl. But now I owned it. My curves became an integral part of who I am as a dancer, not something I needed to lose to become one. I started dancing with confidence and joy, and soon the staff at ABT began giving me positive feedback again. And I think I changed everyone's mind about what a perfect dancer is supposed to look like.

Over the next few years, things at ABT just got better. I became a soloist with the company—the first black dancer to do so in more than two decades. And in 2012 I landed my biggest role yet, headlining in Firebird. I remember walking out of rehearsal in jeans and sandals to get my hair done for the premiere. When I turned onto the sidewalk, I saw it: a huge billboard on the front of the Metropolitan Opera House with my picture on it. I was in profile, wearing a red leotard, with my chest and back arched so you could see my full, feminine breasts and my round butt. It was everything that people don't expect in a ballerina. I stood completely still for five minutes, just crying. It was beauty. It was power. It was a woman. It was me.

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