How to talk about bodies
Can you talk about weight to your students? What language can you use to ensure you won’t cause body image issues? Karen van Ulzen finds out.
Talking to student dancers about their bodies is just about the most complex and sensitive aspect of a teacher’s work. Most dancers, and especially dance students, are hyperaware of their appearance and their weight. Body dysmorphia and unhealthy dieting are on-going concerns in the dance world, affecting all levels, from students to professionals. Studies show that one in six dancers suffer from an eating disorder, many of them serious.
Sadly, studies also show that, when it comes to negative body image among ballet students, the number one influencer is their teacher. A word or comment, often made with the best intentions, can all too easily take the student down a path of obsessive dieting and self-hatred.
And yet dance, and particularly ballet, requires an exceptionally lean physique, and not being lean enough can make or break a promising student’s employment prospects. So how does a teacher balance the expectations of the profession with their students’ health and welfare? Can they talk to them about their weight?
Dance Australia put some questions to Fumi Somehara, owner and principal dietitian for DDD (DancersDon’tDiet) Centre for Recovery, based in Sydney. With a background in ballet and a double degree in exercise and sports medicine, she knows the tug-of-war between the need for dancers to be slim and the need to be healthy.
Q What if a pupil is very talented but is being held back because he/she is overweight by the standards of the profession? Should the teacher say anything?
According to Somehara, the simple answer is no. “When a teacher tells a pupil to lose weight or get fit, most dancers will turn to restricting food intake,” she explains. “This often leads to disordered eating and also eating disorders.
“When these things happen, the dancer’s body image deteriorates, because they can only see their worth as their body size. That is, they think that if they lose weight and keep it off they are ‘good’ (worthy) and if they gain weight they are ‘bad’ (unworthy).
“These thoughts about their body and food start taking up so much space in their brain that they won’t have enough space for dance, artistry, friendships, relationships and all the other important factors that make up a great dancer.”
Somehara says that given the amount of judgement about body size from society as a whole, a dance studio should aim to be the one place where young people don’t feel judged – “an oasis”.
“Having a teacher who truly doesn’t discriminate against the student based on their body size means the world to them. Don’t ignore the fact that her body size is different but don’t criticise it. It’s a good time to educate all students that there is weight stigma and bias in society and that this stigma is even stronger in the dance industry. You can say, ‘I want you to know you have great talent and you never have to be ashamed of your body. If you feel ashamed of your body because of your size, know that it’s not you, it’s because society and the dance industry judges that size”.
Q That’s all very well, but in the dance world being “overweight” is not just a matter of stigma, it is often a job requirement.
Fumi argues that, ultimately, the health and welfare of the student is too important to be sacrificed to the requirements of the career.
“It’s true that the ballet world only selects thin dancers,” Fumi replies, “but if the teachers support that it only perpetuates the problem. Don’t say (to your students) anything that supports weight loss. It could be that one thing that triggers an eating disorder for dancers that will last for the next 20 years (or worse).”
Q What if it is clear to the teacher that the student is embarrassed by his/her weight? Post-pandemic lockdowns, some students are reluctant to return to class because they feeling fat and unattractive. Should the teacher say anything?
Somehara says it is to counter such negative attitudes that teachers should cultivate a welcoming and non-judgemental dance studio to begin with, one that is free of diet talk or body comparisons. “Have a policy and or structure in place at your school as to what you can and can’t say in the studio in terms of nutrition, eating disorders and body care. You can make your studio or a part of your studio a ‘diet-talk’ or ‘weight-talk free’ zone.
“If you do see a student is suffering, take her aside and have a private chat with her. You can say: ‘I’m a bit worried about how you are these days. I’ve noticed you’ve started to cover up your body a lot, is there something going on?’
“If the student admits she is embarrassed or ashamed, you can say you are sorry she feels that way but you don’t want her to feel embarrassed. We have been in a lockdown! If your body had to gain weight, it had to gain weight. Ask if there something you can do to make the student feel more comfortable.”
She says young dancers should be taught that their bodies will change depending on the amount of activity – just as athletes’ bodies change over their on- and off-seasons.
“During their most active periods, the body is actually often in a state of weight suppression,” Fumi says. “Then it restores itself to a more normal weight during rest periods or holidays.”
Q: What about the revealing practice clothes?
One way to make the classroom more welcoming is to have a flexible approach to uniforms. Is it really necessary, Fumi asks, for all dance students to wear revealing clothes to all classes? If they don’t feel comfortable in leotards and tights, let them wear something else, likes shorts or a skirt, she advises. “You can make it clear that for some situations, like exams, they might have to wear a certain type of uniform, but in your class it can be a safe haven.”
The ideal body type for dance is strict – good proportions, arched feet, even the right-sized head – all of which are out of our control. For some aspiring dancers, however, losing weight is the one thing they believe they can control, the one way they can improve their appearance. “But weight is not something you can control,” Somehara says. “Everyone has their own set point determined by genetics and the environment.”
She points out that physical female ideal the dance world admires is actually the prepubescent body – narrow hips, no bust, no curves. It is a near impossible vision of feminine beauty which does not reflect real adult women. This is not the aesthetic the art form should continue to promote. “We need to see that an adult and a child have a different bodies; especially if they’re female, there are meant to be curves,” Fumi says.
Fumi Somehara is owner and principal dietitian for DDD (DancersDon’tDiet) Centre for Recovery, based in Sydney.
This article first appeared in the Oct/Nov/Dec 21 issue of Dance Australia. Didn't get it? Subscribe and have every copy delivered straight to your inbox.