What Fit Looks Like: A Black Woman’s Journey

I tried to fit into someone else’s standard of beauty for too long. Now I’m creating my own.

I have an unhealthy obsession with mirrors. It started when I was a teenager taking dance classes at first one, then two, then three different studios. Ballet, tap, jazz, modern, acrobatics — I did it all.

In the beginning, it was fun. I did it for the love of the art form and for the friends I made.

But somewhere around the age of 14, I began to take it more seriously and see it as a possible career — a future where I could combine my love for the performing arts with my love for writing. By 18, I decided I wanted to major in dance and English so I could write and choreograph musicals.

But I had a secret. I wasn’t healthy. I was purging to keep my weight down ahead of every major performance, audition, or anytime the scale crept up higher than my liking.

It’s no secret that the dance world has historically elevated a standard of beauty and fitness that’s unattainable for many — and for Black girls, especially.

My quest to pursue a professional dance career meant forcing myself to meet an expectation that wasn’t designed with me in mind.

It was the first time I felt what so many Black women have felt when trying to navigate the fitness world, where the message is that the “ideal” body isn’t a Black body.

Letting go of impossible standards

Rejection compounded the pressure I felt as a dancer. After auditioning for several university dance programs, the top programs said “no,” and those I was accepted into, I didn’t want to attend (though now as an adult I truly question my reasons for turning down Howard).

Rejection and unattainable standards are a potent combination.

I binged when I craved sweets and junk food, or anytime, really, because I also liked to eat. I enjoy food — it doesn’t matter if it’s baked salmon seasoned with dill and a side of sautéed kale with garlic, or a large chicken finger plate from Zaxby’s. Mealtime is a time that makes me and my stomach happy.

And afterward, I purged when I felt like I needed to control the outcome.

When I finally started college, I auditioned for the dance program at my university twice. I was rejected twice. At 19, I accepted the fact that dance was something I could not make a living doing, no matter how much I loved it.

I settled for dancing with an on-campus extracurricular company and switched my academic focus to journalism and creative writing.

By releasing the pressure I put on myself to excel at dance, I was able to release some of my unhealthy habits, too. Soon after I started undergraduate school, I stopped my cycle of binging and purging.

The “freshman 15” was my friend. I went to the gym when I felt like it, going through cycles of working out heavily to not wanting to work out at all. More than a decade later, these are still my habits, for better or worse.

Finding my own path to health

My relationship with my health, fitness, and overall wellness is complicated and messy. Right now, I’m in a period of not working out. I haven’t been on my yoga mat since October when I confirmed I was pregnant with my second child.

I look at the mat and know I should pull it out and go through a flow, especially since I continued to practice yoga until 36 weeks when I was pregnant with my son — but I don’t.

I’ve had gym memberships that I’ve actually used. I’d go three times a week, spend an hour doing cardio and another hour to 90 minutes doing strength training.

I’ve had memberships to various yoga studios that I would visit at least twice a week. Recently, when I was in a workout phase, I followed along to live Baptiste yoga podcast classes (because, free) and got my fitness in that way either with an electric heater running in my bedroom, or outside in the heat and humidity at the height of Florida summers.

Still, I am motivated by the mirror, my vanity, staring at my reflection and praying I see what I like in my body. But I’m not trying to be skinny. I don’t want to be.

I’m a Black woman. I’ve got boobs and booty — the latter I’d like to be a little thicker — along with some hips and thighs. I’m not mad about it. I’m not trying to get rid of it.

I want to keep my stomach as flat as possible but even there I give myself some grace. This body of mine has produced life and will do so again soon.

It has taken a long time for me to get to this place of acceptance. To look at the number on the scale and be kind of OK with it. To see myself in clothes and be like, “Damn, you fine girl.”

Still, when I look at the number in my body mass index (BMI) chart on my health app, it constantly says I’m overweight — even at my smallest. I dismiss it laughingly as “racist.”

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