This weekend I watched the movie Dumplin’ with not only a rockin’ Dolly Parton sound track but the fabulous (and Australian) Danielle MacDonald and Jennifer Aniston playing the lead roles. This is a beautiful story about life and death and grief and growing up different, all with a good kick of much needed happy ever after.
And half way through the movie I had to hit pause because I really really needed to cry – like a lot.
Because half way through this movie a part of my life that still carries all of the emotional baggage and shame gremlins (thanks Brene Brown!) with it was being reflected back at me from this film. Willowdean (played by MacDonald) is the small town local fat girl, full of fun and confidence and va va voom as she grows up, but arriving in her teenage years with the realization that she is judged by how she looks and being overweight she doesn’t look like everyone else, let alone the popular kids in school.
The film zooms in on Willowdean’s face as it dawns on her that she is different. It is a moment of innocence and freedom lost and it totally floored me. She had the look of not belonging and in a second it brought me right back to 1980’s small town Australia in my very own fat girl story.
I was probably about 9 years old and madly in love with ballet. I dreamed of being a ballerina and I had read all the books about the great dancers, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev (I can still write their names by heart and see their performances in my mind). I was lucky enough to be taking ballet lessons and when I think back I realize what an effort it was for my parents, my mother especially, to organize life and work and the rest of the family (including my younger brother and sister) around my ballet craze. I dreamed of being good enough to dance in pointe shoes and to take my first ballet exam.
And then one afternoon at my after school ballet class, my teacher Mrs Shriek (yes really!) literally shrieked at me in front of the entire class, telling everyone that I was too fat to be a ballerina and I shouldn’t waste my time. Writing this almost 40 years later brings all of those 9 year old feelings right back into the now, the immediate knowing that your body, the thing that is intrinsically yours, the thing you can’t get rid of, is the thing that is just not good enough. And it was my moment of sudden realization that I looked different to all the other little girls in the class and that not only they knew it, but the teacher knew it too.
For me it was a body that was different, for others it was wearing glasses, or being the only indigenous Australian in the class. For some of you it might have been which street you lived in, where your parents were born, your freckles or wearing a second-hand school uniform or the fact that you had curly hair.
These things that fundamentally make up who we are in all our perfect imperfection are also the things that are often the root of our shame and the memories that if possible, we would put a lid on forever.
Watching Dumplin’ last Saturday evening let my fat girl out of the bag and forced me to consider the role she has played in my life for so long. Is she a broken and ugly part of me that I wish I could bury and hide forever? If I’m honest, a part of me says yes. There are photos of her that I still cringe at. But this small child inside me that discovered in such a hellish way that she was different and did not belong in the world of ballet is also the small child that continued going to class in front of that damn Mrs Shriek, who took her ballet exams and who danced on pointe. Apparently, you can be different and not belong, and you can still love ballet, be made of steel and defy everyone else to do what you love.
I believe we all have our own version of the fat girl inside us, the imperfections that cause us shame but which also make us whole. We can choose what place these old memories and feelings play in our lives. Watching Dumplin’ and Miss Willowdean do her thing throughout this brilliant film was a reminder that we don’t just get to bury the hard stuff. It was a reminder that the hard stuff is still hard, and it was a reminder that feeling different, feeling like I don’t belong is also something that connects me deeply to most of the human race.
We are all broken and damaged and ugly in the eyes of someone. And we are all also perfectly imperfect with a life and a history that have made us the most wonderfully real version of ourselves right now, in this exact moment. My little 9 year old fat girl taught me not to quit on the things I love. My chubby little wanna be ballerina is why every week in my imperfect 46 year old body I stand up in front of people and teach yoga even though Instagram tells me I don’t belong to its image of yoga teacher perfection.
As well as watching movies this weekend I was also reading the worldly wise American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön who reminded me that we can make friends with what we reject or see as ‘bad’ in ourselves and other people. Pema says, ‘Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself…..By knowing yourself, you’re coming to know humanness altogether. We are all up against these things. We are all in this together.’
And that’s a fact right there people. For all our feelings of separateness and not belonging, of thinking that shame is an emotion, solely destined for us and us alone, the reality is that we are all in this broken, imperfect perfection together.
As watching Dumplin’ unexpectedly forced me to face a part of me I would have happily kept hidden, it also offered me a new realization. This time it was not one of innocence lost but a realization of deep compassion. Compassion for the 9 year old wanna be ballerina in me and all she faced in that very tough moment, and compassion for every person on the planet who has had a similar experience.
How can we all allow the things we loath about ourselves most, the memories we would most like to bury, to also be our greatest teachers so that instead of shame and embarrassment, we feel love and compassion? I know I’m still working on it and imagine I’ll be conversing with the fat kid inside me for many years to come. For now I’ll leave you with the words of the great Dolly Parton, ‘Find out who you are and do it on purpose’. NAMASTE