Sharing the struggles and celebrating the triumphs of being African American in the ballet world and beyond.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thin is in!...Yeah, we know


A small post on the website Any Body reads:

Ballet (if you can believe it) is an even sicker industry than fashion. Not only are students and professional dancers constantly suffering from body anxiety and emotional and psychological abuse from their teachers, most ballet dancers also have eating disorders. If you've seen "Black Swan" you've seen how horrible the life of a ballet dancer can be. How can we help them to heal and change the standards of the ballet industry?

I am not sure that we could ever really "change" these standards. However, there is finally an ever so gradual trend developing towards broadening ballet’s perspective. But for many dancers, the damage has already been done.

My struggle with my body image began as a very young woman and sadly continues to this day. After continuous involvement with a career that puts such emphasis on the body, and the media, from Hollywood to high fashion, perpetuating a "rail thin" aesthetic, it's no wonder so many women and girls find it hard to overcome this struggle. While many friends and colleagues would tell me how great I looked,  I received no such reassurance from my instructors until I began to shed significant weight from already constantly conditioned physique. This lack of approval made me question the sincerity and/or credibility of my supporters. I couldn’t possibly look good without the blessings of my company masters could I? I tried to come to terms with ballet’s rigid expectations, as well as my own high standards. Although,  I wanted desperately to meet the approval of directors and instructors, my own good sense and grounding refused to allow the extreme to become my reality. I would often stall my own progress in the name of rationality. Whenever I would get midway through yet another starvation-like diet, I would then retreat for fear that I was giving into something which I didn't believe in. I created a vicious cycle that caused a lot of frustration throughout my career. I remember trying almost every diet known to man. However, at the end of the day, a button I recall seeing as a child summed these experiences up best: " I have been on a diet for a week and all I lost was seven days!" How many times that expression rang true for me. 

Looking back, I can laugh at all the ridiculous fads I experimented with, but for some dancers, this is no laughing matter. I empathize with those dancers who suffer so much with self-image, especially at very young ages. I know there are more and more efforts being made towards helping younger dancers deal with issues of weight and my prayer is that such efforts will be successful. I must admit I am a bit skeptical. It seems a bit contradictory to expect dancers to reach unhealthy goals in a healthy way. Maybe it is possible...we shall see.

I found this video not only disturbing, but it truly saddens me. Unfortunately, I know of far too many with this same mentality.


  1. I find that ballerinas and fashion models don't quite look the same. Fashion models are for the most part androgynous thin and gaunt. One example is the Freja Beha Erichsen. Currently, she is heavily used in the fashion magazines. I must Another example is the very popular Allison Harvard from America's Next Top Model. One noteable model who bucks the system is Lara Stone who is popular whether she is slender or a few pounds up.

    Because ballerinas actually use their bodies in an athletic manner, they are a bit more filled out with muscle in the legs, shoulders, etc. I keep hearing it said that a ballerina is no good if she gets so weak that she can't perform to the rigourous physical demands of her trade. Their bodies have to be able to repair the wear that tear. And that requires nutrients and ballet teachers should know this.

    Models and supermodels can be eating disorder junkies and as long as they can stand up for one hour of time and look sultry, they are golden. (Not picking on Kate Moss.)

    Not being 1) a female and 2) a female ballerina, I don't know anything about those sort of female pressures. However, I started taking adult ballet classes after many, many years of weightlifting. So, at 5 foot 10, I am 215 lbs, which is 30 pounds heavier than the MAXIMUM allowable weight for a male ballet dancer (According to Classical Ballet Technique by Gretchen W. Warren) So, when I am in class trying to graceful as I can possibly be, I still look in the mirror and see a moose on tippy toes. Until I can somehow manage to strip off 30 pounds of upper body muscle, I will never quite look 'ballet'.

    But then some guy will come into class who obviously had a few years of ballet as a child ... and he is within the ballet weight tolerance ... and he is so proportional and graceful that the women in class fall all over themselves with excitement. He becomes the talk of the class for weeks.

    I do think that the ballet look is the best look of them all. It makes humans look noble.

    By the way, yeah that video was disturbing. Practically psychotic.

  2. Oh ... and I have seen you in the workout DVD and other video footage and you looked ballet slender to me.

  3. Hello Ballermane3,

    I received this response from a former classmate of mine. I thought you might find her response interesting:

    Excellent commentary about an extremely important topic. Kudos! I think that almost every dancer is affected by the expectation of an unhealthy weight (even naturally thin dancers and males). I like that you tied the weight issue to the need for approval and the effect it has on self esteem. Ballet affects you at such a young age when your ideas of self start to take shape. This fact makes the emotional trauma much more permanent and damaging than if it would have occurred as an adult.

    I am not sure that the problem can ever be fixed since almost by definition, ballet is all about reaching an unreachable ideal. How can such a contradiction ever be resolved? Would sylphs lose their supernatural appeal if they were not underweight and sickly-looking? Maria Taglioni certainly did not have a Kate Moss body!

    It seems that the modern-day ballet results from the incorporation of more and more extreme ideals. Not just in body weight, but also in technical ability, strength, endurance, etc. Maybe this is just the natural progression of refining any art or sport...pushing the boundaries so to speak. As you noted, the trend towards “stick-thin” dancers has certainly been influenced by Hollywood and high fashion (the Twiggys and Kate Mosses), but I feel that it was also caused by the desire to achieve a higher technicality.

    Weight in ballet is not solely an aesthetic concern, but also one of practicality. Defying gravity (what I call ballet), is easier when there is less weight. It is simple physics: less weight has less gravitational pull towards the Earth. A dancer has an easier time flying through the air and standing on their toes when they weigh less.

    The problem comes when both factors, Hollywood ideals and pushing technical boundaries, are driving the evolution of ballet. This is because an even more contradictory ideal is demanded: dancers with model –thin bodies who must have the abilites of an athlete. Have you ever seen the legs of fashion models? They are long and skinny with little to no muscle mass. Muscle weighs a lot more than skin and bones.

    That is the problem of modern-day ballet: contradictory ideals are pushing for an impossible solution that only a few individuals will ever be able to comfortably attain.

  4. What a great read. I appreciate your exposure and thoughts on this. As a model, dancer, and late bloomer by ballet-world standards (I started training in ballet at age 22), I can definitely say that I have been haunted by this thin-is-best mindset.

    In 2010, I was awakened after losing consciousness from collapsing on my living room floor and later to find out that I had suffered heart failure. My family and I were very surprised of this diagnosis due to an unblemished medical history, active lifestyle, and no genetic history of heart disease in my family.

    Although my heart failure was a postpartum weakened heart (or in other words my baby sucked all the life and strength from my immune system), your blog post has me pondering the thought: Did I not have enough balance between eating healthy and physical activity in my life before having children? I mean I did enjoy the southern pleasures of soul food cooking, triscuits and fruit, baked meats, rice, and plenty of water-so its not like I was anywhere near starving myself-LOL (just ask my friends). As I am now a survivor of heart disease and an ambassador for the American Heart Association, I choose to focus on the small joys of life and enjoy the breath and gracefulness that ballet brings to my body and my dancing.

    I believe that every young girl and woman should be surrounded with true women, instructors, teachers, and role models that will show her how to love herself regardless of her weight and her body physique. Although I have never struggled with eating disorders or with dieting regimens, my size is still in the single digits and I constantly hear from women, "I would kill to be your size". This is “The Problem”-women are killing themselves trying to look like somebody else. I always respond with, “You are beautiful and God wants to use you just as you are”. With the honor of bearing 2 kids, experiencing the growth of life in my belly, and not being as thin as I was before childbearing (which was pretty much a size 0), I have come to love just concentrating on toning, making sure I eat healthy, continue to do my passion of dancing, be an inspiration to others, and ensure that I pass on healthy values and a legacy to my children.