Body Image in the Dance World

  • How you see or picture yourself

  • How you feel others perceive you

  • What you believe about your physical appearance

  • How you feel about your body

  • How you feel in your body

What I have just listed out are all examples of body image. In dance, body image is both enhanced and undermined whether or not it is inadvertent or not. When one thinks of dance, particularly ballet, they think of a woman or man who is skinny and perfectly toned with zero fat. So why does the world equate dance with appearance?

One of the greatest artistic demands in dance is physical shape, contributing to the desire of a thinner body and the continuous self-dissatisfaction state because of the standard of the supposed “perfect body.” By investigating gender aspects, body image and dancers' eating disorders symptoms, study done by Ravaldi et al. shows that over concern with the body aesthetics is present in dance.

For dancers, there are so many times when they feel uncomfortable and awkward in their body. It is really the constant battle of consistently recognizing and respecting one’s body. This can definitely be hard; for me, there were so many times I felt like I couldn’t do anything and there were times I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror when I was dancing. But it is a persistent fight with ourselves to develop and maintain a positive body image. It is perhaps demanding to ask someone to love their body, but a certain level of acceptance is necessary especially for dancers.

If not, negative body images will take over: negative body images are more likely to develop conditions such as eating disorders, depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and obsessions with weight loss. One of the main symptoms of the eating disorders is body image disturb, marked by the negative self-evaluation of the individual related to their weight and body shape. Eating disorders are increasing in both genders as society puts forth unreasonable standards of what a dancer’s body or even just a regular body should look like. Especially among professional dancers, there is a high frequency of dissatisfaction with their bodies. A lot of these dancers feel that to be accepted in their environment, they have to have very thin bodies and they self-objectify themselves. This again leads to stimulating the practice of risk behaviors to eating disorders, bringing severe consequence to the professional dancers health.

Body image issues (which are not only prevalent in dance but also in our society as a whole), is abetted by advertisements that we see on magazines or social media of unrealistic perfection that are mostly photoshopped and air brushed.

Self-confidence origins from accepting that you are a human being with imperfections. Jenifer Ringer, who is a former New York City Ballet principal who now directs the Colburn Dance Academy in Los Angeles, says “Being hypercritical makes a dancer her own worst enemy. Knowing that you're not defined by any one performance frees you to be the artist you want to be, and people who are able to do that are the most effective performers." Dr. Brian Goonan, who is a Houston Ballet's psychologist, says students and young professionals are particularly vulnerable to confidence problems. He notes “Early in their careers, dancers don't have a fully developed sense of self yet.They form their view of themselves based on the perception and feedback of others. And they can end up taking in a lot of negativity."

Here are some ways to build a better body image and self-confidence:

1. Start with cutting back on time looking in the mirror.

Of course, we as dancers are looking at the mirror all the time when we are dancing. Nevertheless, using the mirror only when necessary for alignment and form and looking at the broader picture will help you significantly. I have been taking zoom classes lately, and one of the few advantages of taking zoom classes is not being able to look at myself in the mirror all the time.

2. However, don't avoid your body.

However, that doesn’t mean you need to avoid your body. Not looking at the mirror will prevent you from obsessing over your body and how it looks, but avoiding looking at your body too much can make you feel uncomfortable in your body. You can challenge yourself with exposures by trying things like putting on a new leotard without a skirt or getting a self-massage. This will allow you to be more connected with your body.

3. Stop comparing yourself to others.

We are often comparing ourselves to others and we are biased in how we do them. When criticizing your body ask yourself, “Will I say this to my friend?” Treat your body like your friend, show grace and be gentle with yourself.

4. Ask yourself these questions on poor body image days.

There are what we call “poor body image days.” These are the days when we feel less confident than usual and we judge ourselves harshly. In fact, emotion or sensation such as fatigue are often lurking behind these days. I have had days like this countless times, and I even remember crying multiple times because I just got so frustrated. But when these days happen, I learned to ask myself “Why am I feeling this way today?” And next time you feel upset or feel down about a specific part of your body, ask yourself a simple question: “What has this body part done for me and how can I say thank you?” Research has shown that shifting something negative into appreciation increases your self-confidence and decreases your stress.

5. Enhance other aspects of your life apart from dance.

Remember, even though you are a dancer and is part of your identity, you are also a human being. You are also a daughter, a son, a brother, a sister, a mom, a dad, and so much more. Don’t put too much emphasis on body shape and weight, and try to focus on other things which will allow you to be more resilient. When you dance, shift your attention to what really matters: your dancing.

There is a difference between staying in shape and punishing yourself. Do not let your body take away the joy and happiness that dance gives you. Loving your body is easier said than done, but it is definitely possible and achievable. So I ask yourself again to do one thing: love your body.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet Photograph: Complexions Contemporary Ballet



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