Body Standards in the Professional World of Dance
There are an estimated amount of 30 million people in the U.S. alone that suffer from an eating disorder. Approximately every hour, someone will die as a direct result. In the general population, there will be one person for every one hundred people to have some form of this mental illness. For dancers, it’s one for every five. Let that settle in your mind; that’s a whopping 20% of our dance community that deals with an eating disorder.
I am not a studio dancer, but I’ve heard stories from my peers where they had one teacher or instructor that told them their “tummy was talking” or that “no one wants to see a dancer that jiggles”.
As a child, I was made aware by my classmates that my body type was that “of a whale”, as they put it so delicately. I started counting calories at the age of 10. I would not let myself go past 1200 each day. I asked my step-mom at the time for one of her Pilates VHS’s. At first, it didn’t seem unhealthy for a child to want to get their weight under control by proper dieting and exercising, but by the time I was 12, I began to obsess over the fact my body didn’t look like the girls in my Seventeen magazines, or the “popular girls” in my middle school. I was still a CHILD thinking of such things.
This obsession led to social anxiety when I had to eat in public. It got to the point where the idea gave me legitimate anxiety attacks because I was so overcome with guilt.
By the age of 14, I discovered binging and the correct ways to do it (there were eHow’s back then, if you could believe it). I hid it so well, this could be the first time people close to me are finding out. By the time I was 15, I started taking beginner dance classes in high school. I would go home and obsessively practice, not wanting to eat afterwards because I thought eating after a “workout” would make me gain weight. This terrible habit continued for a time, until I reached a point of feeling complete weakness in my energy and body.
I’m not 100% sure what shifted, but all the sudden, I was ravaged after I practiced. I noticed my energy levels went up as I started eating more regularly (big shocker, right?), but as my food intake began to regulate, I started to gain weight again. I was mortified. I put my body through all that hell, and it was retaliating by holding onto anything it could get. By the time I graduated high school, I was...curvy, to put it nicely.
I had my first professional audition experience by the time I was 18, and it was the first moment I realized the importance of having a thin frame in the dance world, at least where I lived. My only feedback of why I didn’t make it to the finals, “Strong dancer, needs to tone up body”. This was about a year after boxing became a regular part of my day. I started eating less again, had another audition, got the same feedback. There were gigs I did get because the dancing was more important than my waistline, but those were far and few in between.
I traveled out of state, where my body wasn’t a problem, but my dancing wasn’t up to par with the other girls I was around. It was an amazing experience being in a setting where my curves were celebrated and not shamed. It was the first time I was in a city that celebrated such diversity. I came back to continue to audition in my hometown, constantly being told I was “a little too big in some places”. I never stopped working out since I got that first exercise tape as a young girl. I learned so much while I was training with the fighters where I boxed, that I was aware of what tones the body and what makes you lose weight. I became a personal trainer around the age of 20, and to this day, I still am.
My whole dance career, I’ve been made aware that my body is not typical of those who were born with the “right genetics.” I’ve heard countless amounts of my fellow dancers tell me they don’t feel small or toned enough. Even the girls (and boys) who were literally microscopic said such things, if you know what I mean.
Generations pass down to generations what a dancer’s body should look like (what EVERYONE’s bodies should look like), and most fail to express one person’s best won’t look like the next person’s best. Not every body was made to be thin and tall. Serena Williams will never have the body of Kate Moss. Margot Robbie will never have the body of Ronda Rousey. Some individuals hold onto muscle more than lose it. Most instructors don’t know the difference of when they’re telling a dancer to simply “tone up” or “lose the muscle weight, too”. Our words have so much weight, whether they’re our own or the people around us.
A healthy female walks around at about 18-24% BMI, and dancers are most commonly told 8-14% is ideal, whether directly or subliminally. To touch on the extent of such requests, many of us can look to prima ballerina Heidi Guenther, who died of heart failure after being ordered to lose weight by her artistic director. She was only 93 lbs and 22 years old when she passed. This is not only an issue in the dance world of ballet, but in the commercial industry, club industry; all of them.
Instead of elevating one body standard above the others, we need to practice appreciating a true melange of shapes. If your genetics gave you a naturally thin frame, awesome. If you were born with thicker hips and boobs, that’s amazing. If you build muscle without lifting heavy weights six times a week, you are so blessed. Hypocrisy needs to lie it’s head to rest. Instead of claiming that we celebrate the diverse shapes of men and women, we need to actually practice what we preach. Our bodies do so much for us, it’s a shame that we or anyone else would try to be anything but kind to it. Exercising and eating nutritiously is the ultimate kindness to our bodies, but knowing the difference between health and obsession for a certain ideal is crucial. If we keep ourselves aware, maybe the others will catch on soon.