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A dancer’s obsession: How body image myths almost killed her

Sara Dobie Bauer is a writer, model and mental health advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University. Her short story "Don't Ball the Boss" (inspired by her shameless crush on Benedict Cumberbatch) was nominated for the Pus...

The dirty dancing truth: "I limited my caloric intake to 300 a day"

As soon as you meet Tiffany Michelle Brown, you're enamored. She's a pithy redhead with a quick wit and sexy sway. Her career as a horror-story author is on the rise, and she is one half of a healthy, loving relationship.

This was not always so. Once upon a time, she was a professional dancer with severe body image issues who thought she could never, ever be thin enough.

She told me, "It all started when someone commented that I'd lost a little weight and I looked good. I decided I needed a goal: 115 pounds." That weight might sound OK for someone who’s five-foot-two, but as a high schooler, Tiffany was five-foot-seven with a body made of muscle. "I found out later that anything under 128 pounds would have been considered underweight for me due to my activity level."

By then it was too late. Tiffany was a dancer, and she'd become obsessed with weighing herself. If she ate too much, she took laxatives to flush her system. Her eating disorder was full-blown. Then the levee broke.

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She said, "First, my period disappeared, which I knew was a sign of my body breaking down. Then I started having suicidal thoughts, because I reasoned with myself I'd never reach my goal weight, never get my six-pack stomach. Finally, an aide found me in the bathroom at school trying to throw up my lunch, and I knew I'd been caught."

And it all started so well…

When Tiffany was 8 years old, she circled all the ballet studios in the phone book and showed her parents. By 18, she had traveled to France twice to study ballet; been to dance camp in California to train under the likes of Mia Michaels, Tina D'Amato and Tyce Diorio; and was putting in about 30 hours a week of rehearsal. She had found her passion, but her passion was starting to destroy her.

Tiffany said dancers are born. It's in their DNA, but it's not all tutus and pointe shoes. "We're masochists, pushing our bodies to do things they definitely weren't created to do naturally. We're artists, always looking for a story to create. We see the world differently and hear music differently than anyone else, in movement, rhythms, stories, reverberations. We're incredibly tapped into our bodies; it's an instrument we play every day." Until her instrument broke.

The most difficult part for Tiffany was being honest that she had a body image problem. She said, "It was really hard to admit to my parents that I had been hurting myself, that I needed some counseling and therapy, but that's exactly what I needed."

More: Fat-Haters Club: Eating disorders and teens

Due to her time spent with nutritionists and doctors, Tiffany began to mend, discover her confidence and eventually found herself the star of a Phoenix burlesque troupe, which changed her image of what a dancer should be.

"I realized that every body, shape and size in our company was gorgeous," she said. "And when women feel sexy and confident, they are their most beautiful, regardless of their dress size. I started owning every curve of my body, every inch of my skin. I started checking myself out in mirrors instead of judging myself."

She still has her moments of thinking Could I be thinner? Should I be thinner? But, according to Tiffany, these body image issues are universal and almost impossible to avoid thanks to the media.

She said, "We live in a society that is so obsessed with perfection and beauty. No two bodies on this planet are the same. I wish we embraced that more instead of airbrushing and Photoshopping everyone to look the same. Real beauty is in our differences."

More: Why you shouldn't compare your body to others'

Due to several very serious injuries, Tiffany had to give up her dancing career and now focuses her energy on creative writing. Her work has been published internationally, and she is making a name for herself as a noir queen.

But still, the ghosts of her performance career linger. She said, "Since I've stopped dancing, my body has softened. I don't have the same muscle mass or strength I had. I have more curves. Me and my body have a relationship that's like any other relationship. There are good days and there are bad days. On the good days, I pose for photo shoots, wear teeny tiny dresses, check myself out in mirrors and marvel at all my body has given me. On bad days, I try not to wallow. I try to focus on being healthy."

She admitted, "The pursuit of perfection is something I gave up a long time ago."

She wishes she could talk to her younger self and tell her to feel beautiful, but instead, she mentors others and lifts them above society's version of the ideal female form.

Her advice? "Burn your beauty and fashion magazines. Stop taking advice from strangers who are simply trying to sell something. Find real-life role models and mentors. Figure out what makes you f***ing fabulous. Because you are.”

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