"We would like you to lose 20 pounds by the start of your fall semester."
At first, I didn’t react when I read those words at the bottom of my college acceptance letter. I was just elated to get into the exclusive dance academy. In the dance and musical theater world, this college was everything, producing countless Broadway performers. And I got a scholarship! I figured if I had to lose weight, it would somehow melt off during my last summer at home.
I was happy with my strong body and even prouder of my dancing ability. I’d been dancing since I was three, studying everything from jazz, tap, and even ballet at various recital studios. I knew I didn’t want to be a ballerina, but having some training in it was important. I attended dance conventions all over the country, winning competitions everywhere from New York to Los Angeles over the years. I felt more comfortable surrounded by the different body types in my jazz and tap classes versus the twiggy types at the ballet school. But no one had ever mentioned losing a few pounds.
At my college, I would be in a general dance performance program, focused on different disciplines. When I arrived that fall, I felt pretty good during the first week of classes, despite the fact that I hadn’t met the 20-pound weight loss mark. I was placed in all advanced levels, filled with juniors and seniors. Everything was fine until I mentioned the letter to a dance major I knew in the program.
She told me not to worry because the first "weigh-in" was in a few weeks. The what? I thought the whole idea of being weighed-in sounded like a bad joke.
I asked around, and a few upperclassmen started spilling their horror stories. Last year, a senior was two pounds over at her final weigh-in before graduation. Desperate to shed the weight or face a failing grade, she went running around the track wearing a garbage bag. Another girl’s liver shut down and went into ketosis due to the all-protein diet she followed to shed extra weight. Was this a college or some twisted fat farm?
"One girl was two pounds overweight. Desperate to shed the weight or face a failing grade, she went running around the track wearing a garbage bag."
My first weigh-in was mortifying. I learned that once a month, like cattle stock, we’d hop on a scale in a leotard in tights in front of a senior faculty member whom I’ll call Crazy Nan and two other faculty members. They sat behind a table, and while you stood on the unforgiving number machine, the three of them would deliberate about your weight.
By the time I reached my first weigh-in, I’d lost about 10 pounds, but Crazy Nan told me I still needed to lose seven more. "Piglet, just don’t eat pizza," she said. "Only eat lettuce, and you’ll be a star."
"Thank you," I said. It was like thanking a cop for giving me a ticket for speeding.
Crazy Nan was the harshest in the faculty. She had trained at the best ballet schools and had an extensive performing career filled with accolades and praise, but she was delusional.
How could I eat less? I danced four hours a day, sometimes longer, and then I’d go to the gym, which resulted in ravenous hunger. First-year college staples like cheap junk food, fraternity parties, and late night Domino’s Pizza delivery clashed with my strict dance requirements. And I was surrounded by people obsessed with maintaining their weight. You either talked about weight all the time, or you starved yourself and suffered in silence, avoiding the cafeteria and all socializing.
"Piglet, just don’t eat pizza," she said. "Only eat lettuce, and you’ll be a star."
At the weigh-in prior to Thanksgiving break, I was still considered "chubby." Although going home and taking a break from this southern fat-shaming prison, the last thing I needed was more stuffing. Yet, I wanted to enjoy the holiday sans monitoring every morsel of food that passed through my mouth.
At Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house, I caught up with my cousins and family friends.
"School is great," I said. "I love it there." I found being agreeable, sparing my true feelings, was easier than complaining their ears off.
My adorable grandpa, Poppy, gave me a big hug and squeezed my shoulder.
"My little zaftig one," he said. Over the years, he’d thrown in Yiddish words here and there, but this was one I’d never heard before.
"Thanks, Poppy," I said, as to not sound rude. I rushed to find my dad to ask what this mysterious word meant.
"What’s so funny?" I asked, in response to his huge belly laugh.
"It means plump," as he pinched my cheek.
I could feel my face heat up and turn bright red. My eyes welled with tears, and I ran out the front door. Even my sweet, 98-year-old grandpa thought I was fat.
Coming back from the break, I felt more determined to drink the skinny Kool-Aid. My stubbornness might not have let Nan get to me, but when my nonagenarian Grandpa called me fat, I felt like I was failing at life. The auditions for the annual Christmas show were in just a few days.
"When my Grandpa called me fat, I felt like I was losing at life."
Despite all my hefty worry, I was sure I’d get cast as something: a tap-dancing bear, the Sugar Plum Fairy, or a tin soldier. Instead, based on the college’s standards, I was put on "weight probation." It meant I had to serve as a dresser, and I couldn’t dance. Instead, I would steam the costumes and help with quick-changes. The thought was that if I helped other girls get dressed, I would be forced to admire their skinny bodies and be compelled to starve myself.
At the first performance, I watched from backstage, hiding behind my shame. The show should have been called "Holiday Nightmare." It was like a clichéd Santa scene at a mall that broke out into song and dance. As I watched some of my far less trained peers jump and twirl around on stage, my humiliation became infuriation. The fact that I was being scrutinized for my weight instead of being rewarded for my talents didn’t make sense to me. I wasn’t stick thin, but I also wasn’t overweight. Could I really last three and a half more years here? The only thing that made sense was that I didn’t belong there.
I toughed it out, and finished my freshman year, but decided not to return in the fall. I was incapable of fitting Crazy Nan’s perfect, delicate-boned dancer mold. That wasn’t me, nor would it ever be. I couldn’t be anything other than myself.
I ended up going to the place I eventually wanted to be, New York City. I took a year off of school and got a scholarship at a professional studio on Broadway. I went on to fulfill my dreams of dancing professionally, including in a Broadway national tour.
Looking back at my time at the school, I was searching for any other truth than the plain and simple fact that they just wanted me to be thinner. When I got to New York and started working, I was surrounded by an array of body types. Tall, short, curvy, and muscular. Not everyone was super skinny. Even in the typical rigid ballet world "aesthetic," powerful body types like Misty Copeland’s are now more accepted.
I feel lucky I was able to walk away from that school, for the most part, unscathed. I didn’t know it at the time, but somewhere deep in my young 18-year-old soul, I wasn’t going to let my self-worth be defined by a number on a scale.
All names have been changed, and the lead photo is of a model, not the author.