Why I’m Done Using a Packer For Ballet: A Trans Dancer’s Journey

Dance is already a breeding ground for eating disorders, but add in a diverse gender identity and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

*CONTENT WARNING* EDs and Dysphoria

One of my earliest memories is of me in preschool ballet. I was walking down the hallway after my class and, looking through one of the one-way mirrors, saw there was a little boy in one of the other classes. I was livid. I thought boys weren’t allowed to do ballet!

If he was allowed to exist as himself in this space, why couldn’t I?

As someone who experiences dysphoria, dance is a paradox. On the one hand, dance is one of the ways that I feel most free in my body, using it to express the emotions I can’t always put into words. On the other hand, it’s incredibly difficult to work on a craft in which I have to be so painfully aware of my body when sometimes all I want is to never have to think about that very same body. Practicing an artform where tight clothes and walls of mirrors are required has been one of my biggest challenges as a trans person in the performing arts. I want to focus on the combo, but all I can see was my hips, my thighs, my chest.

I’ve had a long journey with dance and dysphoria. I like to say that puberty hit me like a bus hit Regina George: by 6th grade I had developed D cups. Seeing myself and then seeing the twig-thin boys my age, I knew that there was no way that anyone would ever see that I was one of them. Growing up, I switched dance studios a lot, but I could never find exactly what I was looking for. As it turns out, mirrors are the same no matter where you go.

Dance is already a breeding ground for eating disorders, but add in a diverse gender identity and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Photo Credit: Mack Hubbard

Sophomore year of high school, I started homeschooling so I could take online college courses to get dual-credit and start taking studio classes again. I finally felt that I was improving in my technique, but at this point in my life, I had the mirror in my room covered with a towel so that I couldn’t see myself changing. The required tights and leotard for dance combined with the full-length mirrors really didn’t do me any favors. I started to have panic attacks before every dance class. I would beg my mom to please let me not go to class that day.

Later that year I finally accepted myself and came out to my mom as transgender. I started wearing white shirts and black leggings over my tights and leos. The leos flattened my chest decently well, and the white shirt and leggings looked like what the guys in ballet wore. Further into the year, I came out to the director of the studio. He told me that he was “sorry to hear that” and that he still loved me for the person he “knew I was”… the one that “God created me to be.” Obviously, I stopped going there. As awful as that was, it was honestly a blessing in disguise – I needed a break.

After about a year and a half off, I started taking private ballet with someone I never dreamed I would get to work with: Sam Akins, a former member of the Los Angeles Ballet. After he heard about my studio’s awful response, he leapt (haha, get it?) at the chance to teach me privately. The private setting was everything that I needed at that point; I was still very self-conscious and was early on in my transition, so being in a room comparing myself to a bunch of cis dancers my age would not have been a good situation for me.

My journey with dysphoria has gotten significantly easier since I’ve been on testosterone, but it was eased the most from my top surgery. After top surgery, my disordered eating pretty much resolved itself. Although I do have to watch myself to make sure that I don’t slip into that mentality again, I’m slowly becoming more okay with the mirrors. It’s a fight that I have every time I step into the studio, but it gets easier and easier every day.

Currently, I am discovering that my challenge is less my perception of myself, but my fear of being invalidated by others because of my body. My body is ‘male enough’/’nonbinary enough’ simply because it is mine, but the people around me haven’t sufficiently challenged their pre-conceived notions to recognize that. Performance industry professionals desperately need dysphoria training.

Where I used to get self-conscious at the differences in my body and the bodies of my cis counterparts, I have realized that those differences are the very thing that makes my body so wonderfully powerful. My body is truthful. I am proud of everything that it represents, of all the overcoming and radical self-love and acceptance that led to its current and ever-growing states. The very presence of my body in that room is changing it. The ways that my body differs from the cis men around me isn’t a detriment to my identity; it is a connection to my journey, my struggle, my community, and my beauty.

Photo Credit: Mack Hubbard

So I’m done wearing a packer into the dance studio.

In order to exist in my full power, I cannot conform to binary standards in order to make my cis counterparts more ‘comfortable.’ I shouldn’t have to put a piece of plastic in my pants in order to be seen as ‘male enough’ by the people around me.

Saying this is scary for me. I know that I will be immediately invalidated in the minds of many when I walk into a room with the full content of my body. But I also know that truthfully existing in my body—accepting its radical non-conformance—will help change the culture of dance so that one day others can feel comfortable to do exactly the same. 🔥

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