BODY SHAMING and ballet
How do we reconcile the dangers of body shaming with the physical requirements of dance? asks Karen van Ulzen.
The awarding of the body positive advocate Taryn Brumfitt as Australian of the Year has brought to the fore the crisis among young people of self-hatred and psychological damage due to unhealthy body image.
Body dysmorphia and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia have been around a long time, but there is increasing awareness of the devastating, life threatening consequences and the role society plays in their cause and treatment, especially with the increased awareness of mental health in general. Criticism of body types and shapes,”body shaming”, is no longer acceptable in our society.
How does this fit with the aesthetic ideals of dance, and especially ballet?
Ballet dancers are traditionally required to have a very lean physique and “ideal” physical proportions: long legs, long neck, highly arched feet, and so on. While proportions can’t be changed, the requirement for leanness has brought about terrible consequences. Dancers have long been particularly prone to eating disorders. In the past, a culture developed of deliberate starvation. Dancers were weighed in before class, insulted and ostracised by their directors and coaches and commanded to lose weight without being provided with any dietary or psychological support. Such deprivation found fertile ground in an old-fashioned mythology that suffering for art was to be admired, especially when combined with a more modern, American-inspired, “you can do anything you want if you try hard enough” philosophy. Not having the “right” body was seen as a personal failure.
Times have changed, thank goodness, and our approach to diet and health is much more sophisticated. Health and fitness are valued more than mere appearance, or rather, it is understood that it is through good nutrition and exercise, rather than starvation, that the body can reach its peak performance. Aided by research in sport and similar fields such as gymnastics and swimming, some professional dance companies and large vocational schools have dedicated medical teams on hand to help with a dancer’s nutritional and mental health needs and to support their physical goals.
Despite all this, however, anecdotally the incidence of body dysmorphia and eating disorders is still on the rise. Why? Where once we might have blamed Balanchine, or the mirror, or those skin tight leotards, the finger is now firmly pointed at social media, with its endless airbrushed and carefully doctored images, creating a new kind of distorted, physical “ideal”.
Young dancers in particular are presented with thin, prepubescent bodies in acrobatic poses. The constant comparison is deflating and demoralising.
Another recent factor is the Covid19 pandemic and the associated increase in mental health problems generally.
It’s a paradox, because in the real world of professional dance, the physical ideal for a ballet dancer is changing and evolving and has little connection with what one sees on social media. Artistic directors and choreographers are quite diverse in their expectations and there is no single perfect type that suits all genres. Even the most traditional of ballet companies include some contemporary repertoire. Many of today’s choreographers value variety and are inspired by the different attributes a body can offer. This development in the artform is a reflection of the changes in social attitudes and fashion: feminism, for instance, and the increased emphasis on strength and fitness.
As Zara Gomes says, “I don’t think there is a perfect body type for all genres anymore.”
Gomes has worked as a physiotherapist for 27 years with companies that include the Australian Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ballett Frankfurt and, for the last 12 years, Queensland Ballet. Her role is to manage the Performance Health team which looks after the elite Queensland Ballet Academy students and Queensland Ballet professional dancers. The Performance Health team also completes the physical screening assessments of dancers who are selected for the Queensland Ballet Academy and company.
“I think there’s a bit of mismatch between the expectations of some students at that auditioning age and the actual expectations of companies,” she says. “We still hear some old fashioned ideas being voiced by parents and students regarding physical requirements, which we try to correct.”
With regard to the Academy’s selection process, the focus is on the training, rather than whether students have the right proportions, according to the director, Christian Tatchev. “At the QBA we are concentrating more on identifying the students’ strengths and what their place might be in the dance profession as a whole, not solely ballet.”
In addition to today’s broader notion of what a dancer looks like, dance training is now based on a much more informed approach, both scientific and psychological, including how to achieve and maintain optimum body weight. Many professional companies have a team of medical professionals dedicated to helping dancers achieve their peak health and fitness. This includes education and support in diet and nutrition, based on the understanding that a fit body and healthy mind is necessary in the creation of a professional dancer.
“The way dancers view themselves is changing,” Gomes says. “They increasingly see themselves as elite athletes. They have to be athletic, have excellent nutrition, strength training, good mental health – all those things apply to dancers as much as they do to sports people, it’s just in an artistic realm.”
She goes on: “With dancers there has always been that question,” she smiles, “– are they artistic athletes or athletic artists?” They are both.
Those in charge of dancers’ careers – their employers and their teachers – are now much more aware of the seriousness of body dysmorphia and its consequences. Discussions about a dancer’s body are carefully managed. The bad old days of a director making a passing comment in the corridors, “fat talks”, weigh-ins or thoughtless demands on dancers to lose weight, are not considered acceptable. The risks associated with negative criticism and focus on a dancer’s appearance are too well known for any responsible teacher or director to make careless remarks.
Over the course of a career, dancers’ bodies do change, for many reasons, such as growth spurts, hormones or lifestyle changes. If dancers need help with their body image, or changes are noticed, Gomes says the initial approach should be from a welfare perspective. “What we need to find out,” she says, “is what is happening to that person to cause the change? Is it something in their life? Stress, academic or training workload? Have they moved interstate, had a relationship breakup – it could be any number of things. We can then discuss it and offer them appropriate support.”
But for those teachers and dance professionals who do not have access to sophisticated medical teams, what is the best way to support a dancer in their charge ? It is all too easy for a well-intended comment to be taken the wrong way by a sensitive young pupil. How do we guard against the perils of body dysmorphia and eating disorders?
There are many marvellous online resources that can be easily accessed and used for guidance. “I think it is important for teachers to understand that things have changed since they were students. It is very common and easy to make assumptions based on your own personal experience, we all do it, but I would encourage teachers to seek out professional development in this area and consult qualified health professionals and organisations, because body dysmorphia and eating disorders are very specialised areas and you can cause problems completely unwittingly,” Zara says.
The culture starts from the top.
Be a school or company that encourages healthy attitudes and discourages negative comparisons, that welcomes all participants and values their contribution and their talents.
Get social media literate.
Have frank and open discussions about what you or your students are watching. Why are they watching? Are they comparing themselves negatively with what they see or are they admiring or learning something? Is it making them feel bad about themselves?
Keep your options open.
Dancers: Learn different genres, watch examples of different companies and choreography with different dancers with different shapes and styles. Teachers: expose your students to different dance genres and present them as equally inspiring possibilities: don’t narrow their focus too early and make one style or look the only desirable goal.
Have a go-to list of trusted medical advisors.
Teachers, if in doubt, find a doctor or health professional to consult or refer students to if needed.
Make corrections impersonal.
Corrections should be anatomical, rather than appearance-based. Focus your intention and comments on the function and action of movements and in a positive way. Explain the goal of the step or phrase of choreography, how the movement is executed.
Use imagery that helps improve the technique rather than unhelpful comments about appearance. Not “you sound like herd of elephants!” but “how can you land like a flock of birds?” “Lengthen your abdominals” not “pull in your tummies”.
Rethink uniform requirements.
Do your students have to wear pale leotards? (Particularly if they are recreational students?) Skin-tight garb on stage? Yes, a teacher needs to see the muscles and lines of the body, but we have so many stretch fabrics and types of sports wear to choose from now. Practical dance wear can easily be found that reveals the body without being totally exposing.
Keep career options open.
Dance isn’t just about performance.
Dancer, jf you find yourself in a company or environment that makes you feel bad about yourself, leave. Australia is a small country and Australian dancers have a proud history of travelling to find their ideal job or school – travelling to find a happier place mentally is no different.
Where to find resources and help
Ausdance fact sheets
Australian Institute of Sport
National Eating Disorders Collaboration
There is no single perfect body type that suits all genres.
See Nicola's story here.
This article first appeared in the July/August/September 2023 issue of Dance Australia. Wish you'd seen it earlier? Subscribe and never miss an issue! Take advantage of our special Christmas offer: only $22 for an annual subscription (four issues). Just go here.