Body Image in Ballet: Perspective of a Dancer Who Didn’t Fit the Mold

I’m about to go on stage and my tutu is too tight. Not that I would say anything to the guy standing next to me getting ready to carry me across the stage. I swear it wasn’t this tight during the fittings– could I have gained weight? An old conversation drifts through my mind:  “Dancing on an empty stomach is easy, you just eat hard candy all day to keep your blood sugar up” a friend had told me. At the time I had brushed it off as bad advice to not be eating with such a big show coming up, but this too small costume got me thinking: Did I need to lose weight?

the ideal ballet bodyMy Experience as a Ballerina

At age 13 I did not resemble the stereotypical ballerina by any means. My feet were not very arched, my hips didn’t rotate enough, and my back was not as flexible as it should be. I did have long legs, but I was nowhere near the lean lines that are so sought after in ballet dancers. I was not over weight, I was not even on the high end of my age group in terms of weight, yet everywhere I looked I saw thinner dancers getting the parts that I wanted.

My experience was by no means unique. Many dancers have felt the pressure to lose a few pounds in order to get into the company they want or to get a certain part in a ballet. Tragically some dancers can take these kinds of pressures to the extreme. In 1997 a member of Boston Ballet, Heidi Guenther collapsed while on a family vacation. At the time she was 5’6” and weighed only 93 lbs. Her death forced large ballet companies to realize that girls were dying in order to advance their ballet careers. Since around this time, many studies have looked at body image and eating disorders in the ballet world.

ballerinas and dancers, such as Misty Copeland, may experience problems trying to achieve the ideal ballet lookThese studies have found that dancers, even non-professional dancers, are less satisfied with their bodies than people who don’t dance. In exploring some possible reasons for this phenomenon, a study of Australian pre-professional dance students found that dancers scored much higher for perfectionism and weight preoccupation, and much lower for body satisfaction. This does not mean that every dancer hates their body or has an eating disorder, but these psychological characteristics could create the perfect storm for some girls in the ballet world.

Every individual dancer has their own experience of the world, and there are tons of reasons why this dichotomy between dancers and non-dancers exists. After dancing for 15 years, 10 of those in a pre-professional ballet company, two of the largest possible reasons that I have noticed for why dancers struggle so much with positive body image are these: Our idea of what a ballerina’s body should look like is based mostly on genetic factors and the fact that most company directors and choreographers are men.

negative body image is very real in the ballet community The “Ballet Body”

An ideal female ballet dancer will have large eyes, a long neck, long legs, a flexible back, flat chest, lean muscles, lots of hip rotation, and a high instep. The catch is that most of these factors are completely or almost completely genetic. A lot of times the dancer can feel like her weight is the one thing about her body that she CAN control.

Often, young girls are entering the pre-professional or advanced levels of their dance schools around age 12 or 13. This means that the pressure is on to look and perform a certain way just when their bodies are changing the most. When a young dancer starts to develop more of a chest than is accepted for a ballet dancer or starts to put on some weight in her hips she can panic and think that she is gaining weight because she is eating too much. This leads young girls to try to diet without any knowledge about healthy dieting habits or what nutrients their body really needs. Often, these types of behaviors can lead to severe diet restriction or bingeing and purging behaviors.

ballet dancer practicing Men in Leadership Roles

In 1963, the Ford Foundation helped create eight ballet companies across the U.S. Most of these companies were founded and cultivated by leading female artistic directors. Today, all of these companies are headed by men. Additionally, men also lead in choreography.

This can have a particular influence on women in ballet because dancers do not have a lot of control over the trajectory of their career. A dancer (regardless of gender) is told if they are good enough to perform with a certain company, what level they are within that company, what parts they get, and even how to execute every tiny movement by a choreographer and/or company director. In our culture, these judgments coming from a man can have even more force than they are meant to.

dance schools have caught on to research that shows the highest risk of eating disorder development in ballet dancersAs a young dancer, I was one of 24 girls in my class. There were only 2 boys. From a young age, girls in ballet are a dime a dozen, and boys are much more in demand. Because of this, boys are given opportunities to choreograph and experiment with movement early on in their dance education whereas girls are taught to stand in straight lines. Since there are so many women in ballet, companies can afford to be much more selective in who they hire (and what they look like) with women than with men. Girls also learn early on that they are replaceable, and therefore must exemplify the standard in order to get a job in the corps de ballet.

Since Heidi Guenther’s tragic death, the dance world has improved, if slowly. Dance schools have caught on to research that shows the highest risk of eating disorder development in ballet dancers is around ages 11-15. Because of this most pre-professional dance schools now have a nutritionist on staff, though there is not much representation yet by psychologists in this area.

male leadership in the ballet community and dancerMisty Copeland on Body Image and The “Ballet Body”

Many well known female dancers are also contributing to a conversation about the cookie cutter ballet shape. The most well known of these leading ballerinas being Misty Copeland. Featured in documentaries, countless articles, and even publishing both a memoir and a dancer’s fitness and nutrition book; Copeland has been relentless in her fight to open the ballet world to women who don’t exactly fit the mold. Misty Copeland is not the only woman fighting back, Melissa Anduiza (Complexions Dance Company) has been very vocal about her experiences looking different in the ballet world. In 2015 Anduiza told dance Magazine, “I’m a big woman, just genetically. I’m 5’7”. My dad is Cuban and 6’5”; my mom is Filipino and 5’. I got Dad’s genes, I had insecurity about not looking like the smaller girls I danced with.”

These successful ballerinas have helped to open a conversation about what a ballerina’s body really should look like. They have helped to share their stories of insecurities and hope that inspire the up and coming dancers of tomorrow.

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Written by: Elizabeth Lampe

Elizabeth Lampe is a fourth-year psychology major at Bucknell University. She spent two of her best summers interning at Southeast Psych in Charlotte and a wonderful year living and studying in France. When she’s not studying psychology or French, Elizabeth is probably dancing.

She has been dancing for 16 years and would like to someday combine her passion for dance and her interest in eating disorders into a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

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