“The last week has been shocking,” Howell, 15, tells PEOPLE. “I never expected this all to happen on a video I posted last November. All the support is amazing, but I’m not sure why it’s such a big deal, as I’ve been [dancing] my whole life.”
It may be a surprise for the high school sophomore from Delaware, but people were thrilled to see videos of Howell — who represents a body size atypical from the average ballerina — killing it at the barre.
Howell started dancing at age 5, and loved the joy she got from ballet.
“I enjoy the emotional release it gives me,” she says. “If I had a good day, I go to dance. If I had a bad day, I go to dance.”
But she constantly dealt with criticism about her weight, until she finally found a studio that works.
“My previous dance teacher would tell me that unless I lost weight, I would have the same roles in the Nutcracker for the rest of my life, because the costumes wouldn’t fit me,” Howell says. “At my current studio, they work with me, to give me a part I can not only handle, but that they can make a costume for.”
“Moving past [the criticism] was hard. I just have to remember why I stick with [ballet] — I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Dance became particularly important to Howell after she was diagnosed with pseudotumor cerebri, which is an increase in pressure inside the head. Howell lost her vision for two minutes when she first developed the symptoms, and then would get major headaches.
“I take lots of medications to keep it all under control,” Howell says. “Some change my mood, so I have to take a medicine for that. Lots and lots of medicine.”
On top of that, she also suffers from anxiety. Dance is how Howell feels better again.
“I get anxious about the smallest things in life. If my aunt puts away a shirt in the wrong drawer, I take everything out the whole set, and put it in over and over again. Then I clear out the living room and just dance,” she says.
Her determination to do what she loves — dance — despite these hardships made Howell an inspiration for others — just don’t call her “plus sized.”
“I like being a role model to others, especially to younger girls struggling to find themselves,” Howell says, adding. “I don’t like being called a ‘plus sized’ dancer because if I can do everything anyone else can, why should I be categorized differently?”