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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.

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.
Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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True

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The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

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Meet the first four winners:

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Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

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Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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