“Meagan, your popo like watermelons! Mine like apple,” said Nida, a professional dancer in Fire of Anatolia. We were standing backstage in our underwear, preparing to change costumes.
I had been dancing in Turkey with Fire of Anatolia for two months. I actually thought my butt was in great shape from hours of squeezing it in ballet class. At the very least, I saw myself as more of a pear than a watermelon.
It was time to put Nida in her place. I made her follow me to a mirror in our skin-colored booty shorts.
“See!” I proclaimed. “ Not watermelons! Maybe not apples…but not watermelons!” I wouldn’t normally do this in a bathroom, but my rear end’s reputation was on the line.
Then Nida peeled away my confidence. She pointed and laughed at my butt, which appeared to be twice the size of hers. I had never so closely compared cheeks with anyone, and now I knew why. It made me feel inadequate, inferior, and fat.
Back home, friends call me “the skinny one.” I take good care of my body, and I’m healthy, strong, and confident. However, standing at the mirror with Nida, I couldn’t deny it anymore: dancing in Turkey was damaging my body image.
I was warned about the importance of sticking to a “dancer’s diet” if I wanted to fit into the company’s costumes. I was supposed to watch what I ate, but more often I found myself watching what the other dancers ate. They were filling their plates at the buffet with mounds of pasta and baklava. Yet, these women strutted around with slender stomachs and nearly non-existent inner thighs. I figured they burned through all the calories in class. I relished in the idea that I too could indulge in a few desserts and still have a six-pack.
At first, the calories didn’t catch up with me, and my stomach toned up from Pilates. After a few weeks of dining at the buffet, however, I stepped onto the scale and the numbers taunted me. I had gained weight, and I knew I couldn’t chalk it all up to extra muscle. Some of the dancers had already pointed in horror at my miniature potbelly. I would have probably never noticed it, but dancers can detect every ounce.
I was aware of certain physical standards I had to adhere to as a dancer, but I didn’t realize just how important those standards are at the professional level. I don’t dance for the muscles; I dance because it gives me joy. I wanted to be moving to music, not counting every calorie.
When Nida gave me the nickname “watermelon popo,” I reached the peak of my insecurities. I felt like a forbidden fruit, and I realized my body image could mirror how a culture perceives my shape, for better or for worse.
Similarly, within minutes of arriving in Hong Kong, I felt like I was starring in a film titled Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. I’m just below six feet tall, but I felt like a Hong Kong skyscraper. I towered over the crowds of petite women in this megacity. I walked onto the subway for the first time to see that most of the passengers barely reached my armpits, making me feel freakishly tall. I had to duck in doorways, crouch through alleys, and sleep with both feet dangling over the edge of my bed.
Just when I started getting used to standing tall in the crowd, a visit to the market brought my confidence back down. I was merely browsing through a rack of floral-printed skirts, when the shop owner promptly snatched the item I was holding. She slammed it back on the rack.
“No big sizes!! No big sizes!!” she declared, frantically waving her arms around. It was as if she was banishing me from the shop for being too large. I’m only 148 pounds, a perfectly acceptable weight for my height. I told myself the owner didn’t really mean big, she meant tall, so I moved on to another stall to try on some t-shirts. Even the alleged XL shirts barely covered my belly button.
I thought back to the last time I went shopping abroad, which had a markedly different effect on my body image. In Rwanda, I felt as confident as ever, surrounded by other pear shapes just like me.
A month into my stay, I had fallen into a fashion funk of cargo-pants, sandals and t-shirts. I decided it was time to don my floral yellow sundress. Little did I know, my dress would drive the Rwandans wild.
The maid, the cook, and the guard stopped in their tracks. “You look so smart,” they told me. As I walked towards to the local newspaper where I worked, a car slammed on the brakes, kicking up a cloud of red dust.
“I love your dress. It is very beautiful and it makes you look beautiful.” I stood there in astonishment, showered in dirt and compliments. I had a bounce in my step for the rest of the day.
While in Turkey the other dancers saw any extra ounce of fat as negative, our Rwandan cook Mary kept telling me to eat more because I needed some meat on my bones. For dinner, she often filled the plate with a parade of carbohydrates: spaghetti, potatoes and rice. A few pounds soon crept up around my waist.
At first, I freaked out, and began to devise a way to lose the weight. Mary, however, made a point of affectionately grabbing my little muffin top. It made me take a good look in the mirror, and I recognized that I had blown things out of proportion. Mary was right. My body looked great.
Travel changes perceptions about everything: life, love, freedom, and culture. That’s the best part of travel in my opinion: as I open myself up to other points of view, my point of view transforms. The same can go for body image while traveling. Different cultures have different ideas of what constitutes feminine beauty. I’m trying to learn how to appreciate the cultural norm while still managing to appreciate myself.
I made the first step in Turkey. After Nida made her fruity comments about my backside, this is what I told her:
“You bet I have a watermelon butt: juicy and delicious.”