Circus Performer Kayla Dyches is Using Aerial Art to Overcome Anorexia
If any of you haven’t already watched Great Big Story’s video about American circus artist Kayla Dyches, “How the Circus Saved My Life,” then you need to go watch it right now! In this inspiring and unique video, Kayla talks about her struggles with anorexia and how her passion for aerial continues to pull her away from her eating disorder. Kayla’s story is one that is simultaneously relatable, empowering, compelling, and unique. In this exclusive interview, Kayla discusses her turning point, what recovery means to her, body image, and more.
Anna Kilar: What does recovery mean to you?
Kayla Dyches: For me, recovery means growth and strength. I think I always wanted to be strong and powerful, and clinging to the idea of “skinny” was counterproductive. Letting go of it, and changing my habits and thought patterns has allowed me to progress and transform myself, mentally and physically, beyond what I could have ever imagined for myself.
AK: Are there days you have negative body image? If so, what are some things you tell yourself to fight those thoughts/mindset?
KD: Yes, photoshoots give me anxiety because I immediately want to start picking myself apart. When I’m traveling and my training routine is interrupted, I get that same anxiety as well. I have to tell myself, and so does my partner, that “this is good, your body needs rest, you won’t ‘get fat’ and if anything you’ll come back better and stronger than ever.” Mentally, I have to collect myself and realize my goals: get stronger, do better than you did yesterday, and don’t lose sight of your goals.
AK: What message (or words of wisdom) do you want to give to others who are suffering/recovering from an eating disorder?
KD: If it doesn’t make you happy, let it go. Even when I saw the numbers on the scale go down and as my clothes got loose, I did not find myself any happier. If anything, the opposite happens, because it was never good enough. The weight was never low enough, I wasn’t pretty enough; I was miserable. Sometimes, people hang on to things and ideas out of habit, and because change is scary. It’s not the change in itself; it’s the fear that we might fail. I don’t look at it as failure though, because everything is a lesson. You learn and you try again. The real failure is not even trying or giving up.
AK: What are some ways that helped you build a healthy relationship with food and your body?
KD: As I studied aerial and for my personal trainer certification, I knew I wanted to succeed. To succeed meant having to be strong mentally and physically. Strength meant success. Being strong requires a healthy relationship with food despite what the eating disorder is telling you. I learned how to make a strong body with a combination of weight lifting and healthy eating habits. Strength and the confidence I have in it cannot come without a nourishing diet.
AK: How has suffering from an eating disorder changed your perspective on life or pursuing your passion?
KD: I really don’t let anything hold me back anymore. The eating disorder left me without any confidence, and I was highly critical about myself and others. Looking back, I projected a lot of my frustration onto others. I recognize the insecurity I had then. Now, I am a highly capable person, confident and secure in myself. There’s nothing I can’t handle.
Before, I would see an aerial maneuver and think, “I’ll never be able to do that.” Now, when I see extremely technical and difficult aerial routines, I think, “Yeah, I can (learn to) do that.” And then I do. An example is my role model in aerial, Jonathan Fortin. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest aerial straps artists in the world today, and he teaches.
When I first discovered him, I lacked confidence and believed I could never be good enough to learn from him. Then I grew, and my mindset changed as I let go of my eating disorder and thought better of myself. I’m currently sitting on a train on my way back from Montreal after training with Jonathan for the third time in less than a year.
AK: How has the circus art community helped you grow and what role did it play in your recovery?
KD: Circus arts require strength at a certain point. You don’t need it to start, but to perform and teach others. There is certainly a baseline level of strength and knowledge required to safely do both. It gave me the inspiration to grow and I’ve met amazing instructors along the way that encourage me to push myself.
This trip to train with Jonathan Fortin, there was a moment when he asked me to perform a transition into a move I had previously stayed away from for fear of injury, and I told him as much. He looked at me with wide eyes and very sternly said, “You can do it, I know you can do it, and I can see your strength. You know the destination. Up!” And then I did it. That support to push forward without hesitation has been the most encouraging and empowering force in my learning process.
AK: What was the turning point while suffering from an eating disorder that made you realize you wanted to recover?
KD: I had been doing aerial for a while and was not progressing as much as I would have liked. One day, frustrated at not getting an aerial movement, I asked my trainer, “What is wrong with me?” She looked at me and said, “You need to eat.” I was tired all the time and wiped out after just fifteen minute in class. That sparked me to find out how I could improve by developing a healthy relationship with food.
Additionally, I remember seeing an aerial straps act for the first time. It’s predominately a male apparatus as it can be similar to Olympic rings. When I was younger and in gymnastics, I remember looking at the rings and saying to my coach, “I want to try those.” He said to me, “Those are only for the boys.” What a challenge!
Seeing the aerial straps instantly brought me back to that experience as a young girl, and I knew I wanted to become a straps artist at that moment. At this point, I had been doing aerial for a few years and knew it would require even more strength and discipline to accomplish this apparatus. Since learning straps, I have become even more conscious of my relationship with food and my body image for my growth and progression.
AK: Who/what do you look for inspiration?
KD: Humble people who let their achievements and abilities speak for them; the people who encourage others to be the best possible versions of themselves. Those people are who I want to surround myself with and from whom I want to learn.
AK: Do you think society today needs to change the way we talk about body image? What’s one thing you would change?
KD: I feel like we are slowly coming away from skinny being the desirable body, but the way society goes about it is all wrong. You see so many pushing the idea of quick fixes, 30 days or less exercise and/or diet programs and magic pills and “cleanses” to achieve your ideal body, be it strong, healthy, or fit. There is no quick fix.
It’s a lifestyle to achieve and maintain the body you desire (in whatever shape or size that is for each individual). As a personal trainer, I get asked all the time, “How long will it take for my legs to look like yours?” It took me eight years to look like this. “Can I lose X pounds in a month?” Absolutely not, without severely compromising your health. TV shows, infomercials, and 21-day diet fixes are giving people a warped sense of reality in how to get the body you desire and it certainly does not teach or promote the lifestyle changes required to maintain it.
What I have done for my students, personal training clients, and the occasional question from someone on social media is to encourage them to set goals and make small, progressive changes. Small adjustments in daily life and routines over time will make the necessary lifestyle changes that will shape your body and mind positively and promotes confidence in yourself that nothing is impossible, it just takes time.
AK: You mentioned in a Great Big Story video that anorexia will always be “there.” What are some ways you continue to push yourself and reach new goals and push the eating disorder thoughts out of your head?
KD: Yes, there are days when I get very stressed and when I look in the mirror, I think I look “fat.” Stress is a big trigger, because it feels like I don’t have control. The eating disorder is a way to feel in control when everything else seems to be falling apart. I have surrounded myself with positive, encouraging people. People that want to see me succeed and grow. They believe in me so much, so how could I let them down after coming so far?
I ask myself, “It’s taken me eight years to get from there to here, why throw it away?” I realize I can do amazing things, and I’m only getting stronger. So, I’ll go to my training space and practice. I’ll do aerial moves I’m good at and exercises for the things that I’m still learning. Instead of going backwards, I choose to move forward. Even if I feel off or that the practice was terrible, it’s better than nothing at all or giving in. Then I’ll feed my body what it needs to grow from it, because no matter how stuck I felt before, that can only make me better and move me forward.
This interview was originally published on the National Eating Disorders Association's blog.