There have been a lot of stories that have come forward from the dance world as of late regarding body image and expectations placed on dancers.
Here’s the thing, whether you’re a dancer or not: NO ONE SHOULD TELL YOU HOW YOUR BODY SHOULD LOOK. Including yourself, the word SHOULD is detrimental.
I can only speak from my experience in my own company, but I felt more pressure from my fellow dancers to be thin, than from the artistic staff (and this is my experience, I am APPALLED by some of the accounts given other places). We dancers are, in general, disciplined, type A, A+ students in school, look our best, held to be our best, and we hold onto that expectation forever. We dancers watched each other all the time so we could all somehow find some kind of baseline standard. I’m grateful this generation seems to be more aware of this sad behavior.
Before we keep saying that it’s only a ballet specific thing though, because nothing makes me more angry— it comes down to PEOPLE or CORPORATIONS making people feel a certain way about themselves, not just an art form. Societal culture teaches women we should be thinner. A Dr Pepper commercial I saw yesterday has a man drinking a full calorie drink and the woman with the diet version… like it’s some kind of thing, that that’s what we women should be drinking—the diet version, because we are better thinner or we women don’t need those calories, right? HMPH.
Also, as a current bride, let’s talk about that, there’s pressure to look the absolute best of your life on your big day, right? And most people say that your best is supposed to be your thinnest— guess what? I will not be the thinnest I’ve ever been on my wedding day, but I will feel in control of my body and strong, and that’s the best gift. Brides— stop thinking you have to be your thinnest to be beautiful.
When I was at Colorado Ballet, I started controlling my diet in an effort to be stronger. For my body to manage the massive athletic workload. To be a well oiled machine. I stuck to my “disciplined healthy way of counting calories” until I was 87lbs. My jumping suffered. I got weaker, but I danced my heart out and I felt seen, mainly even by my fellow dancers. One day, my director side tracked me and told me to gain weight. Then I was worried about whether or not I was gaining fast enough, if I was gaining enough, too much or too little. I wanted them to see me eating during our breaks to show I was trying. I wanted to be what someone else wanted.
Then I got injured. I gained quite a bit of weight, and I was so ashamed. Not because of the weight even necessarily, but because I wasn’t disciplined and I didn’t feel good. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t move. But I ate so my body could heal. Then I overate as therapy. Neither way was good for me.
Honestly? Between puberty and your early 20s it takes awhile for your body to settle in. It took me awhile to feel what weight or activity level I felt strong at in my adult years. That had nothing to do with the company, really, I needed to find where I felt good for myself. Maybe I felt pressured to figure it out quickly in the company, but mainly because I didn’t want to be seen as weak or non-deserving (when I already had so many things against me body wise that I was born with to be seen as a professional). Now, I eat when I’m hungry, or when I know I need more fuel. And I grab a Dairy Queen blizzard when my body and even mind is craving it. And when other people are like, “do you want a donut?” I honestly say no when I’m not feeling it. But when Yale asks if I want a McDonald’s breakfast burrito I say yes more than no (because I know it’ll fill me up and keep me moving for awhile).
I fluctuate a bit, but I NEVER weigh myself. I don’t own a scale and all I know is when I feel strong or when I don’t. My body feels better when I workout. I understand now which foods will make me feel like crap and which make me feel better. I can now tell by my energy levels when I need more or less carbs depending on how I feel and how my muscles activate. And that takes time to learn. But women should be allowed to figure that out, free of judgment. Some of it is hormonal too and completely out of our (a woman’s) control.
It took work for me to get here, but it started with putting boundaries on myself. What thoughts I would and wouldn’t allow. What behaviors I would and wouldn’t adopt.
I don’t speak about weight to my students. It’s a lot for me to speak about my experience on on social media. I’m scared it will make me seem like a bad example. But I don’t want any of them to think twice about the way their bodies are. I think I’d also do them a disservice to say nothing and society says enough garbage anyway that negatively affects them. And they should know if they want to, I went through my own learning story. But I now know, my body is perfect the way it is. Up and down 5lbs constantly, but that’s okay! I’m good with it because I learned to be! Their bodies are perfect the way they are RIGHT NOW. We will always fluctuate and we’re always changing because of LIFE. The only person that recognizes or cares about those changes or SHOULD (and I do say “should” purposefully here) is you. And ultimately, it’s about feeling good into your body. It’s about speaking to your body with kindness because isn’t it amazing what they do and deal with on any given day? I can’t believe I’ve been born with hip dysplasia and patella alta, have had surgery on the other hip, have been through a performing career and now have a very physical teaching career and I am humbled by what my body can do. I WILL treat it with kindness. No one else gets to decide that.
Even at 31, my body doesn’t bend the way it used to, but with this understanding, with the fuel and kindness I give my body now, I feel more capable of that ballet career now than I did then, because of the love I give my body. The understanding I have. So dancers, the restrictive way, doesn’t work. While my injury was not the direct result of my body control issues, it definitely wasn’t helped by it.
For seven years I have also taught fitness classes and it makes me sad how many women feel that they need to apologize for their weight when they come in the door, or they say “I’ll start classes when I’ve lost some weight.” What?! Why?! Start now! Don’t be ashamed of where you’re at! Just do something good for yourself today! Exercise is not punishment! The pressure of looking a certain way is everywhere. We have to stop it before we keep feeding this junk to the next generation. It’s not fair to them nor right for them. NOR US.
So… to today’s dancers and next generations dancers— don’t put up with directors and other dancers that want to make you feel a certain way about your body. It’s unacceptable. It’s our job to stand up for ourselves and for other dancers. Is there an aesthetic? yes. But you can make lines without being stick thin. Are you an athlete that should stand up to the physical athletic aspect of dancing 9 hours a day? yes. But it’s about the art. It’s about being a human. To share in passion and celebrate all of our differences. To women and men, boys and girls— do the things that make you feel good. Eat well. Exercise. Speak kindly to yourself. Do things that make you feel strong. Treat your body with respect. Honestly…. It’s really that simple. If we let it be. If that becomes the norm.