Ballet is a splendid celebration of visual arts… A perfect illustration of dance, music, storytelling, and athleticism. Those perfect pirouettes, chaînés, and attitude is the outcome of tremendous dedication to rigorous training and practice. What the audience sees is beautiful artistry, but behind the curtains, the reality is pretty grim. Elite ballet dancers are vulnerable to body dysmorphia and disordered eating. In fact, the pervasiveness of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and Eating Disorders (ED) among ballet dancers is much higher than the general population. Ballet is known to have high and stringent standards of beauty. Acceptance beyond these boundaries is hard to find. It’s no secret that ballet celebrates thinness. Historically, ballerinas have always been impelled to look a certain way- slim, tall, lean, and not too muscular. Young dancers who enrol in ballet classes face acute body criticism from the beginning; they experience pressure to be lean and regal from a very early age. The strain of dealing with fierce judgements about their bodies and appearance as children make these dancers more susceptible to develop body image issues as adults. The development of BDD and ED in dancers is a consequence of profound perfectionist attitude towards their art. In ballet, everyone is terribly competitive, everyone is striving to perfect the technique alongside dealing with gruelling training schedules, tackling the pressures of public performances, and always under colossal pressure to maintain a certain body aesthetics.
While distorted body image issues are prevalent in both male and female ballet dancers, research has known that female dancers have a higher preoccupation with their body weight, eating habits, and physical appearance. Thus, female ballet dancers have a greater propensity to develop BDD and ED than their male colleagues, other athletes, and non-athletes. The common diagnosis among ballerinas is anorexia, bulimia, and purging disorder. The obsession to be thin creates a negative relationship with food and results in maladaptive eating habits. People with body dysmorphia and eating disorders always have a predisposition, which could be genetics, personality traits, mental conditioning, or other factors. For ballet dancers, besides genetic and other predispositions, the culpability principally falls on the taxing culture of ballet which demands perfection in every aspect.
Ballerinas train in front of mirrors for long hours; scrutinising every movement, every twirl, and their bodies. They see themselves in the mirror and become utterly fixated on minor imperfections. The leotards, tutus, and tights cling to the body and reveal the body shape. This only exacerbates the inherent self-consciousness. To add to this, the ceaseless criticism and comparison that dancers face routinely further prepend to their low self-esteem. The imagery obsession in ballet engenders dancers to become neurotic about even the slightest blemish. This distortion in self-reflection can begin in dancers as young as 12 years old. Even outside the ballet world, the impossible beauty and body standards that the society emboldens as ideal just adds more pressure on young dancers and reinforce their insecurities. Most of them feel like they will never measure up to these standards and increasingly grow intolerant to any changes to their physical aesthetics. Dancers start becoming obsessive about their calorie intake and exercise routines. They commence purging habits where they either limit their nutritional intake to specific groups of foods or use techniques like forced vomiting to avoid gaining weight.
The warning signs
Warning signs of eating disorders can range from the restrictive intake of food and water, lack of menstrual cycle for 3 months or more to constantly talking about food, dieting, and weight loss. Constant exhaustion or fatigue can also be a common symptom among people battling ED.
Low self-esteem, negative body image, and obsession with body weight and physical appearance are signs of BDD. The negative perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that people associate with their bodies can influence or alter how they view their body in their mind. BDD can manifest and exaggerate eating disorders. So, dancers face an uphill battle when dealing with these issues and diagnosis can sometimes be difficult. Recovery is a long road but therapy and timely medical intervention have been known to help those who struggle from BDD and ED.
Other red flags that everyone must keep in mind are:
- Constantly scrutinising oneself in the mirror
- Avoiding mirrors altogether
- Making disdainful comments about their body
- Frequently comparing their body to others
- Extreme self-consciousness
- Being fixated on minor imperfections
- Constantly obsessing over their weight fluctuations.
Acknowledging is empowering
Cliche as it may sound, the first step to healing is to acknowledge that there is a problem. It might be hard for most individuals to start the conversation and admit that they need help. But professing vulnerability is the stepping stone to recovery. You must try to identify potential triggers and recognise negative thoughts and behavioural patterns. Adopting a culture of healthy lifestyle where the focus is on healthy eating habits, moderate exercises, and a healthy outlook on life can shrink the physical and mental implications of disordered eating. The right role models can have the right influence. Leading dancers like Misty Copeland and Melissa Anduiza are exemplary role models who have been outspoken about the importance of self-love and dismissive of the strict ballerina aesthetics.
The responsibility of dancers’ well-being also lies with the instructors, family members, and friends. They must be equipped to recognise the alarming signs and provide emotional support to the sufferers. Undoubtedly, ballet companies must create a safe environment for their dancers. The teachers must be mindful that their critique is directed towards the technique and not how the dancer looks or their weight. Teachers and instructors must converse with their students privately to discuss what their diet should look like, how often to exercise, the importance of at least eight-hour sleep, and other self-care tips. Education and open discussions about mental and physical health can empower dancers to take better care of themselves as well as encourage them to pursue help when they feel unguarded.
If you struggle with BDD or ED, it’s important to confide in a trusted confidante or seek a professional therapist. If left undiagnosed or untreated, body image distortion can lead to severe depression and anxiety. It can affect the quality of life and in some events even cause death.
Our minds have the power to perpetuate assumptions about our bodies that are not necessarily true. It’s important to remember that it’s the talent and perseverance that defines your worth, not your body weight. As a professional ballet dancer, we must strive for perfection in technique instead of trying to meet unrealistic, harmful body standards. We have the tendency to self-contemplate and often very harshly. Positive changes in collective and individual attitude as well as widespread awareness will help abolish the culture of body shaming within the ballet world and build a more inclusive art form.
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