Guest Post by Emily Read
Trigger Warning: This post contains stories of body shaming, eating disorders, anorexia and toxicity in ballet culture.
I’ve spent my entire life in the ballet world. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a single female dancer that hasn’t experienced disordered eating or an actual eating disorder. So often, it is the reason their careers end, whether the disorder itself is what causes them to stop dancing or, like me, an injury as a result of years of poor nutrition.
It’s so normalized in the dance community: I didn’t even think I had an eating disorder because my behaviors mirrored my surroundings. Even when it wasn’t the full-blown anorexia that developed later, I was by no means taking care of my body.
I barely ate during the day. I was praised for not getting my period because it meant my body fat levels were low. Still, I was encouraged to lose weight to “compensate for my height” all while hardly 18 — while my body was trying to go through puberty.
Telling a young girl that her worth lies in how her body looks is lying to her.
Telling her that if her body changes, she’d be worthless leads to dangerous thoughts. Telling her these things sets her up for distress the moment she begins to grow into a woman. I believed that my body was my only asset, that if I didn’t have this naturally long and lean physique, I’d have nothing. That’s something that I took in and held up as truth for years.
I never questioned this statement, never thought to assign my worth to my intelligence, compassion, or drive, just my body in all its superficiality. As I got older, my peers grew into women, and people began ignoring, shaming, and sexualizing them daily in classes and rehearsals. I was so afraid of having it happen to me.
I didn’t hit puberty until I was 18, and so I figured I would just always look like a ten-year-old. To go from being a dancer in a prepubescent body to a dancer with a woman’s frame in a short period of time, and so late, isn’t just uncomfortable physically but mentally. I was terrified of my changing body, and I hated that I was now one of those dancers being sexualized and shamed for how I looked.
I fought against my natural self with every ounce of me.
My eating disorder began as an attempt to revert back to my childlike body to protect myself. And it eventually resulted in me having to quit ballet.
When I finally received help, I had already pushed my body to the point of injury due to years of poor nutrition and overuse. At that point, I was in total denial of my disorder and attributed my behavior to “staying in shape” while I was off from ballet.
My therapist sat me down, looked me straight in the eyes, and told me that if I continued with what I was doing to myself, I would die. It took those words to snap me out of this state where the goal was thinness at any cost, where my safety and my value to society was held in shrinking myself.
While I am no longer in that same lethal headspace, my self-worth is still very much entrenched in my physical being. But it’s no longer the same fight that it was at the beginning.
I’m learning to forgive myself for putting my body through years of starvation and overuse, ultimately sabotaging my own career by placing weight at the forefront of my goals. I’m learning where these patterns come from; I’m tracing them all the way back to their roots. And in that is awareness, and in awareness there is power.
Though it looked promising, the recent New York Times article “What is a Ballet Body” was rather disappointing.
It seemed so resigned to the toxicity of ballet’s culture. I admire the dancers in the interview for being so open about their own struggles; however, the way the article is constructed leaves me feeling like we’ve already accepted that this is just how it is.
How can we move towards a healthier work environment when we’re resigned to this standard where a weight gain of 6 lb. during a break due to a global pandemic makes a woman think she no longer looks anything like a ballerina?
How can the dance world strive for body acceptance when the costumes matter more to the company than the dancers wearing them? I was raised in this world.
I understand the need to be in shape, and I understand the desire for the aesthetic. What I don’t understand is the need to create an environment in schools and companies that leaves dancers riddled with eating disorders, among other mental health problems. This culture of thinness as the absolute goal, whether it’s promoted openly in the studio or not, must change.
At some of my lowest weights, when I was clearly very unhealthy, my health was never a concern for anyone. I was praised for how I looked. How is rewarding starvation contributing to anyone’s artistic development?
Why is the desired physical aesthetic, for the most part, that of a prepubescent child? It is not necessary; it is not sustainable, and it is entirely unethical.
I should look like a woman, not a ten-year-old. I refuse to accept that the only way to have dancers look good on stage is through a rhetoric of idolizing extreme thinness above all else. Art does not require suffering; smallness does not hold the key to being powerful and gorgeous in one’s discipline.