More

As a little girl, abuse made her ashamed of her body. Then she decided to dance.

The ballet world can be hard for dancers' relationships with their bodies. But for her, it saved her sense of herself.

As a little girl, abuse made her ashamed of her body. Then she decided to dance.

Ophélia is a 16-year-old ballerina — and a survivor of sexual abuse.

She started ballet several years after her abuse ended and was amazed at how deeply dance healed her.


Through ballet, she rejected her abuser's shaming and reclaimed her body as her own sacred space. She even was able to feel comfortable doing partnered dance with a young man.

Now she travels around the world studying dance and advocates for victims of sexual violence in her home community.

Her story, in her own words, is below. It's long, but trust me. It's worth the read.

If you know of anyone who has struggled with body image or recovery from abuse of any kind — or who could just appreciate the healing power of dance — scroll to the bottom to share Ophélia's story.

It may be just the inspiration someone needs today.


Sexual Abuse, Body Image, and The Healing Power of Dance

by Ophélia Martin-Weber

Ballet requires dedication, strength, confidence, bravery, endurance, grace, hope, joy, passion, concentration, memory, self-esteem, flexibility, knowing who you are, critical analysis, adaptability, ability to learn quickly, pain tolerance, and eventually, really ugly feet. Sometimes, when I take a step back, I wonder why anyone would put themselves through this, especially girls today. You put on a leotard and tights that reveal your body shape and form completely, move around in front of others, and constantly have people tell how you are doing it wrong. Judgment, judgment, judgment. Rejection. Why would anyone put up with that?

But I know why. When I dance, I feel free.

I started dancing when I was 11 years old. It was all I wanted for my 11th birthday, and I promised my parents I would never ask for an MP3 player or iPhone or even a car ever again if I could start ballet classes. If they wouldn't put me in classes, because ballet is very expensive and I knew we didn't have the funds for real classes, I asked for ballet in a box, a video and books to follow, so I could teach myself. My parents decided that maybe they should make real ballet classes happen. Starting ballet at 11 is pretty late, so I was the tallest kid in my level 1 class. Most of the other students were 7 & 8 years old. I stuck out like an awkward sore thumb. Except, I loved it. Nine months later I went en pointe and a year after that I was invited to join my studio's Company Two. I really started to get serious about ballet. A secret hope began to bloom that maybe I could do ballet professionally. My instructors and my parents kept encouraging me, telling me that I had talent. Tall for my age, at the time, and all gangly arms and legs, ballet just felt right in my body. In a leotard and tights, when dancing, I was so oblivious of my technique, I just felt free. Being able to move in such a different way was liberating. The music, the movements, and the lack of fear were and still are my favorite things in the world.

I didn't use the mirror to watch myself. I didn't like to look in the mirror.

I still don't, honestly. Seeing myself made me uncomfortable. I thought I wasn't pretty, and I didn't look as graceful as I felt, but the studio mirror is one of the main tools a dancer has to work on their art. Eventually I had to face myself. It wasn't easy.

When I was 5, long before I was dancing, I went through a very traumatic experience that changed my family, changed me, and trapped me in a secret bondage. I became more aware of bad things in the world and terrified of just about everything in life as a result of the sexual assault I experienced at the hands of a family friend. A teenage boy whose family had been very close with my family repeatedly abused me before my parents found out and put a stop to it.

There's a lot I don't remember, but I do remember different scenes. Mostly I remember fear and shame. Shame was the primary tool the boy used to control me, telling me my parents wouldn't love me if they found out, that they would spank me, and that I deserved what he did to me. He threatened to hurt my family if I ever told. To this day, even with lots and lots of counseling, I still struggle with that fear and shame.

But, when I dance, I feel free.

This is me at my first pointe shoe fitting, 9 months after I started taking weekly ballet classes.

My 11-year-old self just wanted to dance because it was fun. What I didn't know was that ballet would also be healing. If I'm having a bad day, even if I don't want to go in the studio and dance, I almost always feel better when I do. On the dance floor, I'm distracted from whatever stress I'm dealing with at the time. It is just a one on one conversation with me, my teacher and my body. Even if I'm struggling with a specific technique or choreography, when I'm at the barre or in center, I don't have to focus on anything else but that moment with the music and my body. Frustration, fear, anger, I can squash them on the dance floor, sweat them out of my system, leap over them to music. I never imagined that it could so healing, sometimes dance feels as important to my vitality as breathing. Dance is my favorite therapy. I feel so alive and free when I dance, even with other people's steps.

You may not think that a sexual abuse survivor would find healing in putting on a leotard and displaying her body for others to judge but that's exactly what my journey has been.

Learning to trust my partners and feel comfortable dancing with young men, teen boys, has helped me develop a confidence in communicating what I am comfortable with. This past Christmas season as I danced the Dewdrop Fairy in The Nutcracker, my first full partnering role onstage, I had to deal with my insecurities regarding my body and trusting someone else to touch me. Communication is key in a ballet pas de deux. My partner patiently supported me until I was fully comfortable with our performance. Ballet has given me so many opportunities to address my insecurities and know who I really am. I'm not done growing, and I have a long way to go still, but any time I put on my slippers or pointe shoes I feel like I'm getting closer.

Because when I dance, I feel free.

Ballet is notorious for criticizing the bodies of dancers. There is a lot of pressure to be a certain body type. When my boobs began to really grow, I got scared that they would be too big for dance. As my hips widened a little bit and I was no longer just skinny arms and legs, I was nervous about being the wrong body type. This is still a fear for me, and I'm pretty sure I didn't get into a couple of the programs I auditioned for recently because of my body. Still, I am learning more and more to appreciate the strengths of my body, even as I discipline myself in training it, even as I am careful about how I fuel it. This body of mine can do amazing things. I have strong jumps that are powered by my thighs. While I didn't get into some programs, I did get into others and have new opportunities I never imagined. I have my teachers, training, and yes, even my body to thank for that.

Life isn't all rainbows and butterflies in ballet, there are politics, drama, blisters, muscle pain, injury, and sometimes fear and shame. I've moved studios four times in just five years of dance, recently losing my mentor due to politics, a loss that sent me into a month-long depression during a crucial audition season. Those are gifts, too, and I've learned how to fight through the hard stuff because the beauty and freedom I find within the art form is so fulfilling. I have moments where I consider walking away but I'm more me with ballet and I'm grateful my parents and others helped me get to the barre to remember that. There are hard times in life, times when we will bleed, times when we will be left, times when we will be injured and feel like we can't go on. I've learned how to go on thanks to ballet.

It has been five years since I started ballet in that weekly class where I stood a good head or two taller than everyone else. It has been ten and a half years since my sexual abuse when I became a very scared and timid little girl filled with shame, silenced into hiding my pain. Now, I speak out, I challenge myself and those around me to consider how our culture enables abuse. I am learning how not to live in fear and shame. Hopefully, I will reach my goal of becoming a professional ballerina, but either way, I will never stop dancing.

For when I dance, I am free.
True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

Keep Reading Show less