Dancing and body image: Finding balance in the mirror

An exploration of dance as empowering or debilitating for personal body image


Madison Dixon says it can be extremely difficult not to pick apart what she looks like when she’s dressed in a leotard and tights standing in front of a mirror trying to be perfect 9 a.m.

The junior communication and dance major and other dancers have to not only meet a certain standard of physical functionality that includes strength, acrobatic prowess and speed, but also have to meet an aesthetic standard based on professional taste.

According to a 2013 study by Jon Arcelus, Gemma L. Witcomb and Alex Mitchell entitled “Prevalence of Eating Disorders amongst Dancers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” dancers are three times more likely to suffer from eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa and eating disorders not otherwise specified.

The dance world has often has criteria on what makes movement attractive, which dancers have to meet in their appearance. Combined with the general body image expectations placed upon women by society, everyday life can be intimidating when you feel like you have to look like someone else.

Defining a healthy body image from a dancer’s perspective

Defining what is and is not a healthy body image may seem easy, on paper – a healthy body image is one that accepts itself for the way it is. It is someone that is confident, proud and comfortable about his or her body, while an unhealthy body image is one that has a distorted perception of shape and size.

Dancers are one of the demographics that face this problem the most.

The ideal body image for dancers is not easily defined – mainly because it is different for everyone.

“I am a skinny dancer. I have an ‘ideal’ physique.” said Deja Stevens, a junior dance major. “It is weird because being skinny isn’t attractive and the idea of a skinny dancer is still alive but outdated.”

Many dances require different movement and so the ideal body image for each changes.

Someone who focuses on ballet may favor a physique that is slender with slim hips, slouched shoulders, long arms and legs, while modern dance may desire more of an athletic physique and hip-hop demands one that is lean and curvy.

The “ideal” dancer’s body can be anything in between.

Dealing with these issues positively

A positive body image can be achieved by going to the gym, eating healthy, getting proper sleep and simply listening to your body’s needs and wants.

“I was raised to see my body, especially my height, as a gift so I’ve always kept that thought in my mind,” said Brittany Hill, a junior dance major.

Hill, who has been dancing in Buffalo since she was young, also teaches ballet and jazz at a local studio. She stresses to her students the importance of feeling comfortable in their own skin.

“Of course there are always those days where I feel bad about myself, but no one has a perfect body and I remind myself of that during those times,” she said. “The most important thing a dancer can do is notice what their body needs in order to function properly and fuel it appropriately. This can be applied mentally, emotionally and physically.”

When dancers cannot meet the physical expectation regarding their appearance, they often start to dislike their body image.

Having a negative body image can result in mental illness.

These illnesses include but are not limited to anxiety, depression, body dimorphism and eating disorders.

“Both myself and many people that I know have struggled with body image and keeping it healthy. It’s very difficult in this line of work to stay healthy, mentally, emotionally and physically,” Dixon said.

When this does happen it is good to learn to stay in your own mind, accepting a situation on how your body is or your movement and know there is going to be good dance days and bad dance days, she said.

Looking for help in the right places

The dance program has a Wellness Board run by instructors that post articles on how to stay healthy and have brought nutritionist in for lectures.

Conditioning exercises designed for movements dancers will be performing throughout a course are offered as well.

“Even though the program does make efforts to address some of these issues, they are still lacking. Some dance classes openly address dancers weight,” said a senior dance major, who did not want to speak publicly about her body issues. “Eating disorders are taken seriously, but it’s a double-edged sword because if you didn't know the girl had a problem she would look ideal. The theater and dance program just tries to prepare us for what we are going to have to deal with after college. In a way, they are a lot kinder than they will be after school.”

On the other hand, some have differing views about how these issues are met. Many believe that the theater and dance program nurtures a healthy body image.

“The dance world accepts many bodies, but there’s still a lot of discrimination for bigger dancers.” Stevens said. “The dance industry is tough. If you want to go into the commercial industry it is all about your look, your height, you skin, your hair color. Looks are everything.”

The professional dance world is very competitive and in order to be successful, dancers need to have the most appealing body.

On top being the ideal women and dancer in order to get casted, fitting the character personality-wise is just as important as looking it.

“Our constructs of what beauty is need to be challenged. We cannot change our society’s perception of beauty, but we are not slaves to society's perception of beauty either,” Stevens said. “We have to stop comparing ourselves and doubting ourselves, it is a shame how much time and money we spend to try to look beautiful for others. There is nothing wrong with looking beautiful. It is important to be healthy, you love your body, fuel it well, and maintain yourself.”

Dancers may feel like they are living an inconsistent battle, but it is vital to have a balance and understand that dance allows you to express yourself freely, no matter what your looks.

Counseling Services in 120 Richmond Quad is available to help anyone struggling with body image – dancer or non-dancer.

email: arts@ubspectrum.com

Giovanni Gaglianese is a staff writer and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com