Historically, ballet has been known for idealizing a thin body. According to the Guardian, this has become a “breeding ground for anorexia” because of the extreme that ballet as an art form has stimulated. Most professional ballet dancers are naturally slender; however, even those with these genes who are selected at a young age for their physique feel that their bodies aren’t good or skinny enough. There has been the notion that being skinny will help one get the award or help them be promoted in the company. Although there has been a lot of progress in the world of ballet, being slim and skinny with extreme dangers in health has still been prevalent in the ballet community.
About a century ago, dancers were not expected to be excessively thin like now, they rather had bodies that were more shaped through years of ballet training and being more physically active than others. In the mid-1920s however, these conceptions of ballet dancers’ bodies changed; women, in general, were under a novel pressure to become more slender by the zeitgeist, which encouraged boyish hips and flat breasts, promoted by field such as the the beauty and advertising industries.
This was further encouraged by the idea of an androgynous body, highlighted by the changing choreographic aesthetic. As the concept of abstraction became more and more popular, choreographers such as George Balanchine focused on shape and line rather than the story and character in the ballet. This also created the leotard and dancers now wear in classes and sometimes even on stage for a design simpler and gives more clarity.
A lot of dancers didn’t like the leotard as it made them conscious of their weight. Thus, it is evident why dancers now have a difficult time reaching this “ideal weight” for ballet dancers, especially when they wear a leotard every day in class. Some people have argued that there has been a fetishisation of the “perfect” slim body that a ballet dancer needs to have with is destructive in itself.
This image of this “perfect” body for ballet dancers has also been detrimental to their performance as well. American Ballet Theater physical therapist Peter Marshall said, “Extreme thinness often leads to individuals cannibalizing their protein stores, which results in losses in strength and power, and, in my experience, increases their chances of injury, particularly stress fractures.” As dancers are trying to lose weight rapidly, they are also getting weaker and weaker. For a lot of dancers, losing weight leads to starvation, purging, and addictions to appetite suppressants. In addition, it doesn’t help that a lot of companies have been turning a blind eye to the culture of eating disorders that have been caused by the “perfect” body notion.
In 2012, ballet’s first-ever international conference on eating disorders was hosted by Dance UK in London. Former Ballet artistic director Monica Mason announced, “Any director of a company who said they have never had an anorexic dancer would have to have been lying,” she stated. Ever since then, more ballet companies have been calling for change to instill a healthy body image among dancers within the company and beyond.
However, there is still hope and there have been improvements in recent years. For instance, Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare has promised professional psychological support and expert physical therapy for his dancers, while Tamara Rojo at the English National Ballet, announced that she was determined to instill the importance of a healthy body image and to root out any remaining instances of disordered eating among her dancers. Looking forward, it is essential to change the body image of ballet dancers in the ballet community.
Image from DanceSpirit