by Daphne Williams
In my senior year of high school, every senior in our mentoring program for incoming students was asked to present a “minute on the mic,” a short speech that gave some insight into who they were. I saw this speech as an opportunity to address the size discrimination and lack of size diversity at our school and especially our dance department. I presented the following speech to over four hundred people, and their response was immediate and astounding. Students and faculty alike applauded and related to my story, and I soon began to wonder why we hadn’t had a school-wide discussion on body image before. As I have continued to reflect on its fluid and impressionable nature, I have realized that body image is especially important to address in high school. For me and many others, this was the time when I both grew into my body and developed both the positive and negative attitudes that would influence my relationship with my body for years.
I’m Daphne Williams, and this is my Minute on the Mic. Many of you know me from class, Freshman Retreat, our Gender and Sexuality Awareness club, the dance show, or just from singing (sometimes loudly) across campus. You might have also noticed that I’m one of the largest students at College Prep. Today, I want to share with you my personal journey towards body positivity.
When I came to College Prep, I soon realized that I was on one end of the spectrum of body size. Sometime during freshman year, I got the idea into my head that the one thing holding me back from being beautiful was my weight. I thought that if I could lose five pounds, fifteen pounds, thirty pounds, I would be exactly where I needed to be. One of my most acute memories of sophomore year was when a friend outside of school told me that if I lost weight, I would be even more beautiful and desirable than she was. I wanted this honesty, this acknowledgement. So I took this to be the truth – that my weight was my flaw.
This idea that my body needed to change to be beautiful was reinforced by my environment, from the people in my life encouraging me to lose weight to the standards our society so often associates with beauty. Exhibit A, “You look beautiful, Daphne. Have you lost weight?” To which I say, “Thanks. No, I haven’t.” Exhibit B, while the word “fat” is an adjective that can simply describe size, it also has a lot of negative connotations, such as ugly, unhealthy, and lazy. When people say, “I feel so fat today,” I understand that what they mean is that they’re not feeling beautiful. Still, as someone who is fatter than most of the people surrounding me, this can be a little hard to hear.
I started taking dance in sophomore year at College Prep. It was a wonderful experience, and I got so much out of it – from strength building and the opportunity for artistic expression to the solidarity I felt with my classmates. When it came time to order costumes, however, I suddenly felt a certain alienation. The translucent, skin-tight leggings we ordered didn’t come in my size. The leggings I was given, unlike those of the rest of the girls in my class, were made from cut-off jazz pants. I realized at this point that I was the biggest dancer in my class, but I didn’t want to stand out for this. If I stood out for anything, I wanted it to be for my other qualities, such as my musicality and strength. I promised myself I would lose weight before the show. I didn’t.
I experienced a more intense repeat of this during costume time last year. Our leotards for our A Chorus Line number came in sizes up to extra-large. When I first grabbed this leotard and saw how small even an extra-large was, my face turned bright red and my throat got thick. I didn’t dare pull it past my thighs in front of my class because I already knew it wouldn’t fit. I didn’t look at anyone as I put it in my costume bag. When I was describing this experience to a friend a few days ago, I found it hard to talk as I was holding back from crying; the anxiety is still so real even a year later.
For a person of any size, committing to the movement and artistry in dance requires vulnerability – a willingness to trust not only the audience but also oneself. I love dancing: the joy of it, the challenge — even the vulnerability it requires. I feel vulnerable right now just acknowledging the fact that I don’t have a stereotypical dancer’s body.
You might remember the samba performance at the end of our last International Day. I don’t think I’ve ever performed a dance that has required quite as much exertion or left me feeling so exposed. In anticipation of this performance, I understandably felt a little nervous. But suddenly, it dawned on me that, if I were in the audience, I would love to see a dancer with my body type on stage. If I could be that person for someone else, the inspiration for a self-conscious person to get up and start dancing, that would make my discomfort all worth it. When I dance like I own the place, when I tell my friends that I’m beautiful or strike a cute pose in front of a camera, it’s all a part of my process of learning to love myself, and hopefully, showing others the value of loving yourself. Whenever someone tells me that they love watching me dance or that they admire me, I know I’m doing something right.
Over the past four years, I’ve come from seeing my body as something that needed to be changed to something that has the power to induce change. I still feel pressure about how I should look, in the comments of those who don’t know who they might be hurting, in the size and shape of dance wear designed for thinner, leaner dancers. But I’ve charged myself with the duty to love myself, and would ask all of you to do the same. Today, I implore you: think about your environment and how it shapes you, how you shape it, the words you use to describe others and the ways their words define you. Think of the things you love and what they add to your life. Finally, please remember to speak up. You have the right to love yourself.
Daphne Williams is a student, singer, dancer, and writer from Oakland, California. She plunged into the world of size diversity and fat positivity during her high school years at The College Preparatory School, where she took inspiration and guidance from fat activists Tigress Osborne, Virgie Tovar, and Marilyn Wann. She is currently studying at Oberlin College, where she strives to learn more about size diversity through journaling, West African Dance, and her work as an accessibility advocate.