Misty Copeland on Growing Up an African-American Ballerina: 'I Felt Like I Didn't Belong'

Misty Copeland on Growing Up an African-American Ballerina: 'I Felt Like I Didn't Belong'
Misty Copeland
Stephen Lovekin/Getty

07/21/2015 AT 08:20 PM EDT

There's no stopping this ballerina!

Misty Copeland, who was just named the first black female principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theater, spoke about her struggle to find success at the Soledad O'Brien and Brad Raymond Starfish Foundation's 2015 PowHERful Summit in New York City on Saturday.

"I was the only black woman in a company of 80 plus dancers for a decade. I felt like I didn't belong," Copeland, 32, said, according to a video of the summit. "I heard I wasn't right for the company. I wasn't right for ballet. My skin was too dark. I was too muscular. My bust was too big."

Copeland, who grew up in Los Angeles, acknowledges that it was her single mother who empowered her with the values and tools that she possesses to this day.



"Watching my mother fight and sacrifice to give us as much as she could definitely, I feel like, gave me those tools to apply to my life," Copeland said.

The ballerina continued, "She never gave up. I'm sure she heard 'No' a lot."

It was when Copeland made the move to New York City at just 17 years old that she heard those negative words regarding her race and body type for the first time.

Misty Copeland on Growing Up an African-American Ballerina: 'I Felt Like I Didn't Belong'| Bodywatch, BodyWatch, Soledad O'Brien

Misty Copeland and Soledad O'Brien

Stephen Lovekin / Getty

"It wasn't something that I ever thought about," Copeland admitted. "When I was in the studio, I was so focused and so in love and I finally had something that was mine and it gave me a voice. So, the color of my skin never crossed my mind. It was never brought to my attention."

Because the dancer started her active career at such a young age, her puberty was stunted until the age of 19, she said at the summit. It was then that Copeland began noticing the changes in her body that caused others to criticize her.

"I heard a lot of 'You're fat. Pretty much you need to lose weight. You're not right for this,' " Copeland said.

"Before, everything came so natural to me and I was considered a prodigy and it was the first time where I was like, 'If I really want this, I'm going to have to make some really big changes in how I view myself,' " Copeland said.

Despite the never-ending road blocks, she found a way to persevere.

"I had to reassess my diet and how I took care of my body. I think it was the first time I realized that my body is my instrument," Copeland admitted. "It's up to me. I have the control and the power to make it whatever I want it to be. That was a huge thing for me. It was powerful thing too."
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