'Body shaming' review - Editor's comment

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Rather unusually, the Australian Ballet was in the headlines this week. The Artistic Director, David Hallberg, issued a press release, in which he objected strongly to a comment by a reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald that the company dancers looked "unusually thin this season". He felt compelled, he said, to speak out because "commentary regarding body image is not acceptable . . . Comments about weight, shape and body comparisons can have a serious negative impact on a person’s self-esteem and body image and can be detrimental to individuals’ mental and physical health.”

David Hallberg. Photo: Daniel Boud
David Hallberg. Photo by Daniel Boud

It's unusual for a ballet director to speak out so publicly about such issues and he certainly got a lot of coverage in the press. His passion and concern for his dancers were palpable. He received hundreds of supportive comments on social media and the Queensland Ballet has endorsed his comments.

Hallberg raises an interesting dilemma. Should critics mention the dancers' body shape? It depends. A critic must give their readers an honest opinion and description of the performance, even if they know their opinion might cause offence. In my view, if the critic had noticed a concerning trend or change in the dancers' physiques, it is her duty to mention it. She should mention it for aesthetic reasons. And she should mention it on health grounds. If remarking on it can cause harm, I would say that not mentioning it could also cause harm.

Every case is different, of course, and critics should not be cruel or target and embarrass an individual. This particular critic seems to have made the comment rather glibly. But if all critics have to self-censor their observations, or avoid words like "thin", because of the possibility that someone might be triggered into a mental crisis, well – how do we have open discussions about such important topics?

Also, we must distinguish between the care of students and the care of professional dancers. Of course we must take care with our language and attitude towards children and adolescents. But the Australian Ballet dancers are adults. Their art involves presenting their bodies, in very revealing costumes, to the public. One would hope that by the time dancers reach professional level, they would be mature and robust enough to deal with reviews. If not, perhaps it would be better to provide them with resilience training rather than shelter them from the reality of public performance.

Look out for a further opinion by Dance Australia Melbourne critic Susan Bendall on this topic in the near future.


See article on the SMH review and Hallberg's response here.


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