Colleen Werner tried lots of sports in school — including t-ball, softball, basketball and cheerleading — but her true love has always been dance. She remembers dancing around the house as a toddler, and she started taking dance classes at age three.
When we picture a ballerina, we typically think of someone thin. As an aspiring ballerina, Werner stopped fitting that mold around age six. She remembers her doctor telling her to eat “more salads” — without asking if she was already eating plenty of vegetables, which she was — and that it made her feel that there was something “bad” or “wrong” about her body.
Soon, she was very aware of her size — she didn’t always fit into her friends’ clothes, and her stomach didn’t “suck in” flat like her friends’ did. Her dance studio gave her a chart of sizes for costumes and her size difference was made even more clear — and public. Werner reflects that, at only eight years old, “it was a strange awareness for a young child.” She started her first diet at 10.
At 12, she moved to a new dance studio that was more competitive. While they didn’t say anything negative about her body, she was hyper-aware of the ways in which her body was different, and she believed that she wouldn’t be able to dance like she wanted if she wasn’t thin like the more advanced dancers she admired.
She continued to dance — and continued to diet. At 16 she moved to a new studio where she was on a professional track with the goal of dancing either in college or in a company.
[SEE: Eating Disorder Statistics.]
Eating Disorder Culture
Her dieting developed into a clinically significant eating disorder. Though she was unwell, she found that she got a lot of praise for the changes to her body. Meanwhile her ballet teacher would monitor her food intake and shame her, continually reinforcing the message that a thinner body was a better body.
Werner’s dreams came true when she was accepted into Hunter College in New York City. She started taking classes to be a dance major. There she found that her eating disorder was very normalized — until she was in a limo on the way to see Kinky Boots on Broadway with a friend from high school and a group of her friends.
[READ: Anorexia Recovery Stories.]
Werner recalls, “what they were talking about sounded like what I was doing, but since they were forced into treatment and I hadn’t been, I convinced myself that I must be fine.” But the conversation kept replaying in her mind. And she finally recognized that she had problem and needed help. She entered recovery at age 19, the summer before her sophomore year of college.
The therapy she received in recovery not only helped her with her eating disorder, but it also showed her new options for her future. She decided that instead of choosing dance as her major, she would pursue a psychology major with a minor in dance to give herself a break from the environment that had perpetuated and supported her eating disorder. She transferred to CUNY Westbury, a more affordable school, majored in psychology and started dancing with a small contemporary company one day a week.
It all seemed like a good plan. However, with diet culture being so pervasive in both, she had difficulty adjusting back to college life and the dance world so soon after her time in treatment. Then in February 2018, two weeks after her 21st birthday, she lost her great aunt and grandmother in quick succession. Her recovery took a downturn, but she caught it quickly, changed therapists and broke her contract with the dance company in order to have time to “breathe and live.” Yet she struggled with the idea that if she wasn’t in a company or a dance major in college, she wasn’t a dancer.
In September of that year, her mom convinced her to start taking some classes at her old studio. She was surprised to find that she could enjoy taking classes if she didn’t have a strict regimen. That spring, she moved to Nashville for graduate school and learned that the Nashville ballet has an excellent community program, where she started taking classes.
[READ: Is Weight Loss Even Important?]
Pandemic Pause Benefits
While she struggled with feeling out of shape, everyone was friendly and soon she was dancing four to five days a week until the pandemic hit. That “forced” pause allowed Werner to discover that “having time away allowed me to redefine my relationship with dance and my body to explore movement from a joyful and mindful place.” She was also able to delve deeper into the concepts of Health at Every Size and intuitive eating, which she had first heard about in recovery.
Werner became more active on Instagram (@colleenmwerner), connecting not just with other dancers, but with the fat positive movement. She began adding her own pictures and videos. She still dreamed of dancing, but she also knew that no matter how talented, getting representation as a fat dancer is much more difficult. Her efforts developed a strong following, and in 2019 Discount Dance Supply hired her as an ambassador for their dance products.
Then Gaynor Minden, a company famous for their pointe shoes, chose her for a highly coveted position as one of their “Gaynor Girls.” In 2020, more of her dreams came true when she signed a contract with Black Sheet Ballet, a virtual company committed to highlighting the diversity of dancers, not just in size, but also in gender and color. During the pandemic lockdown, Werner began offering virtual ballet and stretch classes.
She’s committed to using these opportunities not just for her own future, but also to create space for more dancers, including those who are still left out. She is aware that dance apparel companies that fit her still leave many larger dancers out, and she often works with marketing teams to show them both how and why they should expand their offerings.
Now with ambassadorships, a dance company contract and over 60,000 Instagram followers, Werner continues to study for her masters in clinical mental health counseling and has entered her masters-level therapy internship. One day, she hopes to create an eating disorders program for dancers and, of course, continue to entertain and inspire through her own dancing.
More from U.S. News