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How Aerial Arts Saved Me From My Eating Disorder

The writer hanging upside down from an aerial sling
Aerial slings, or hammock, uses a u-shaped silk.

In April of 2022, I started taking aerial arts classes, a form of dance originating from circus arts, where you dance from a hanging apparatus. It started with a pole class, but now I do all kinds of aerial arts, including hoop, silks, slings, and even flying trapeze. Aerial has been the single most healing thing I’ve ever done for my body and my mind; it sounds dramatic, but dance changed my life in a way that nothing else has. It healed my toxic relationships with food and exercise. It taught me how it feels to live in my body instead of in a constant battle against it. It even helped me discover a whole new kind of self-love. Of course, nothing heals all wounds, but I’ve never been healthier, and I truly owe it all to dance.

I’m an early career scientist and a writer and assistant editor here at Inspire the Mind. About a year ago, I wrote an article about my experience living with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or ARFID. More recently, I was on Inspire the Mind's podcast, At the Back of Your Mind, where I talked more about ARFID and how I've recovered since writing my article. For those who don’t know, ARFID is an eating disorder involving the avoidance of food and the restriction of one’s diet to just a few specific foods, causing nutritional deficiencies, weight changes, and anxiety. People can develop ARFID for many reasons. My experience is that the texture of food can make me feel sick and nauseous to the point where I physically can’t eat it.

When I wrote that article last year, I was severely underweight, malnourished, and my eating disorder was becoming a bigger danger to my health than ever before.

A lot has changed since then, so I wanted to write another article about how aerial arts have helped me heal.

The writer sitting on a static trapeze
Static trapeze, unlike flying trapeze, uses a stationary trapeze with thick ropes instead of cables.

For most of my life, I had a terrible relationship with food and exercise.

Growing up, I suffered from exercise-induced asthma and iron deficiency anaemia, largely due to the fact that I was living with an undiagnosed eating disorder. Even minimal exercise made me feel dizzy, sick, and exhausted. Sometimes I would even faint after only mild exertion. I believed that exercise was something that could only ever hurt and feel joyless, because for years, that had been my only experience. It was only when I exercised on my own terms that I began to heal from that idea. It turns out that I’m actually a really athletic person, I just hated gym class.

For a long time, I was worried that if I exercised, I would lose weight. I have been severely underweight to the point where my body started to fail me. For a long time, I ate so little that my hair would fall out and it was painful to lie on my stomach because my ribs would press into my skin. It hurts to be that thin, both physically and mentally. I had unconsciously learned to suppress my body’s natural hunger signals because feeling tuned in on what my body was saying meant I had to feel all the pain of being malnourished, so I never felt "in my body" in a positive way.

These days, hunger is accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment. Feeling hungry is a reminder that my body is healing, and it’s something I’ve been able to feel grateful for.

Thanks to dance, I am no longer held back by my body. I can walk up escalators now. I can have a day out with my friends without being exhausted the entire time. I put my suitcase in the overhead locker by myself. My body actually feels like something I own, not a burden that I must carry. I never thought I would be able to eat three meals a day and exercise a few times a week. To a lot of people, that doesn’t seem like much, but for me, being able to take care of my mental and physical health is my greatest accomplishment.

The writer dancing in an aerial hoop
Aerial hoop uses a steel hoop wrapped in fabric.

Aerial has helped me discover a whole new kind of self-love: loving not just what my body looks like, but what my body can do.

Loving yourself isn’t as simple as thinking you look beautiful, it’s loving how your body feels, how it supports your mind and soul, and how it provides you with the means to live each day. Of course, this will feel different for everyone, but by learning to love our capabilities as well as our appearance, we can practice self-love in a more holistic way.

I think many people could benefit from aerial. Research has shown that aerial can have lots of mental health benefits, such as better quality sleep and reduced stress. Lots of people say to me that they would love to try it out, but they don’t think they’re strong enough. But I didn’t start out strong. You build strength through time and practice. Nobody says that they’re not strong enough to start going to the gym. You get stronger by working at it. Before dance, I had never felt physically strong. After over two decades of being so weak that I even struggled to open some doors, having total strangers tell me that I’m strong has been one of the most surreal things to hear and the best feelings I’ve ever experienced.

Over the years, I’ve learned that while my eating disorder will never be cured, it can be managed. There are still times when all I can stomach is a bowl of plain white rice at the end of the day. But my body is no longer the largest limiting factor in my life. I’m finally happy with the way my body feels and I’m excited to see what I’ll be able to do a year from now. Dance has allowed me to discover how it feels to be healthy for the very first time in my life and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.

I want to thank all the wonderful instructors who helped me heal, especially everyone at London Dance Academy, Flying Fantastic, and HeppCare, and Katie, for being the one that started it all.


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