Body & Fitness

Fed diet pills at 11: How yoga saved this Auckland woman’s life

Putting the fat-shaming behind her, proud mum Jennifer Allen wants to teach her children to love their bodies.

Clasping a bottle of diet pills, 11-year-old Jennifer Allen looked up at her dance teacher, who smiled back at her, nodding in encouragement.

It was the first of many days the adolescent, who was born in Baltimore, Maryland, would hear the words “she’s too fat to be on stage,” leading her down a disturbing path of perfectionism, starvation and forced vomiting.

It was a journey that almost opened the doors to sexual assault and eventually ended with a career-altering spinal injury.

“I was working with a competitive dance company and they sat down with my mother and father, and said, ‘She’s really talented, but she’s too fat,'” reveals Jennifer, now 37, sitting cross-legged on a couch at her new Auckland yoga studio.

Jennifer at ages 11 and 14.

“So I was handed diet pills and six months later, I’d lost 10kg.

“I vividly recall being made a positive example of in front of a big group of people because of the weight I’d lost. It really messed with my head and from there, I kept it up.”

Over cups of green tea, the mother of Matilda, eight, and Theo, four, tells Woman’s Day about her subsequent 25-year Broadway career, which saw her earn around $2000 a week by the age of 22, and tour around the world.

She also describes the downfall of her self-esteem and how many years of body criticism eventually led to a blossoming career as a yoga teacher and trainer.

For the past 18 months, after launching her brand Jayayoga with her music- teacher husband Cameron, Jennifer has helped around 80 people to qualify as yoga instructors, while also running classes from her Birkenhead-based studio.

Her home-away-from-home, overlooking an estuary, has vibrant orange walls and is filled with salt lamps and the lingering scent of incense. Barefoot, she explains how dancing and movement are in her blood, having grown up as a toddler in the dance studio where her mother taught.

Looking back, Jennifer describes taking hours off school in her teenage years to practise tap, jazz, ballet and modern dance, as well as singing and acting, before enrolling in the prestigious Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh.

Jennifer was there for less than two years, however, when she landed her dream job in a national Broadway tour. She left the university and spent three years travelling the world, performing in hit musicals such as 42nd Street, Funny Girl and West Side Story.

But behind the glitz and adrenaline rush of being on stage, she was tormented by her body image.

“I was dancing The Nutcracker one day and a teacher stopped mid-rehearsal and yelled, ‘What’s wrong with you – are you too fat to be lifted?'”

At the time, she recalls, he was one of the most influential ballet teachers in the US, but he was later imprisoned for sexually abusing his female students. Shuddering, Jennifer admits that it could have been her.

“He tried going there with me when I was about 17, but I was too old for his liking and was strong enough to say no,” she says quietly.

“He was married and in his 40s, so that was also very confusing.”

She landed the lead in shows like Chicago (left) and Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical (right), but her Broadway dream almost destroyed her.

Eventually, undernourished and overworking her body, Jennifer reached rock bottom when an undiagnosed spinal injury saw her collapse while trying to get out of bed.

“I’d done a kick in a dance class and felt something in my back, then pain down my right leg,” she says.

“I knew I was set to go back on tour, so I ignored it and had a physio niggle me back into place.”

Relying on prescription drugs, she rested on ice packs between performances and “got really good at telling people I was fine”.

As it turned out, Jennifer’s spine had given way under the pressure of a rupture to her fifth lumbar vertebra and she had to leave what was to be her last-ever tour. After visiting an orthopaedic surgeon who refused to operate on the spine of a 22-year-old, Jennifer saw a chiropractor, who advised Pilates and yoga.

Putting the fat-shaming behind her, the proud mum wants to teach Matilda (left) and Theo to love their bodies.

As fate would have it, a new passion was born. “I absolutely fell in love with yoga and being able to express myself in a way that didn’t hurt.”

Fifteen years on, Jennifer has still never had spinal surgery and is determined to embrace her body and “the beautiful, strong things it’s capable of”.

“I’m loving the journey I’m on now,” she asserts.

“Everyone needs something in their life like yoga that grounds them.”

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