An industry where body-shaming is the norm.
Content Warning: racial stereotypes, eating disorders.
I spent many hours of my childhood in a leotard, in ballet, jazz, tap, modern and hip-hop classes. I now also fit into the 70% of former female ballerinas who statistically have or have had an eating disorder.
I remember being stood in that mirrored room at age 12, just starting puberty, and my ballet teacher saying to me “Lauren, your ribs should always stick out more than your boobs”. I remember her telling us regularly that she could “see our lunches” and that “big bums don’t work with tutus”. My most impressionable years were filled by the woman I looked up to, telling me I wasn’t good enough. Telling me to take up less space.
All dancing requires a great deal of perfectionism in form, but body image in ballet is by far the worst, as it has the strictest image of what a dancer should look like. They should be tall, but not too tall; slim but with muscles; not too muscular because that would be masculine; you can’t have noticeable boobs, because bras and leotards don’t work; and don’t even think about having a big bum. You must have perfectly silky hair that stays in a bun with no flyaway hairs; a long and slender neck; and very defined cheekbones. If you are too heavy, your pointe shoes will make too much noise and you’ll ruin the illusion of grace.
Everything about ballet and its costume is designed for people to be able to scrutinise you, and this is ingrained in the minds of people who dance from a young age. I did a jazz routine aged five in a bikini because it is so normalised to have a view of every part of a dancer’s body.
However, as a white girl, I didn’t even have it at its worst. I remember my teachers demanding that girls with natural hair had it relaxed from the age of eight if they wanted to be in dance performances. She warned them not to get too hopeful of a career in dance because Black girls were predisposed to be “heavier-set” and have more “chunky” features that weren’t becoming of ballerinas. Instead, they were encouraged to pursue hip-hop where “men like bigger women”. I grew up in the Middle East and there were a lot of South Asian girls in my dance classes. I remember them being told to wax their moustaches, legs and arms from the age of around 10. All the non-white girls were being forced to try and conform to western beauty standards that were designed to make them feel ugly. It’s little wonder that most of them stopped dancing.
It would be wrong not to mention boys who dance in this article but I would argue that they aren’t subjected to anywhere near the amount of scrutiny as girls are, especially if we are looking at recreational dance classes. They are encouraged to be masculine, just to find a graceful way of doing this: they are the ones who need to be strong enough to lift the women and so muscles are encouraged. This in turn can cause serious body image issues, I don’t dispute that. However, with the amount of work most ballerinas have to put in, the idealised male ballet-body naturally comes with it, which is likely why they are much less susceptible to the severe eating disorders that female ballerinas are.
The saddest thing about this article is there is no redemption arc. Unlike the modelling industry, ballet has made shockingly few efforts to tackle these issues. They haven’t even bothered with performative moves, they have just stuck to their elitist roots and refused to acknowledge criticism. It’s even sadder that they get away with it as the majority of people who consume professional dance performances are the middle and upper classes who don’t care. It wasn’t until 1990 that there was the first non-White principal ballerina at a major dance company when Lauren Anderson was made prima. There are currently only two Black dancers at the English National Ballet and, both of them are male, and not one dancer of colour in the Bolshoi Ballet.
While writing this, I put something on my Instagram about it and asked if people could share any experiences they had with dancing and body image. I had so many people message me with similar horrific stories like mine, from such a young age, and not a single person said dancing made them feel better about the way they looked. For something that the majority of young girls engage in, it’s truly appalling that we’ve normalised, and allowed, these narratives.
For such a beautiful sport that should be so joyful, it has a horrific underbelly and we must do more to tackle it.