The Great Body Image Debate: Why Staying Quiet Isn't the Answer

Earlier this week, a post was released from Pointe Magazine titled "The Danger of Fat Talk." Written by Jennifer Stahl, the article discussed the perils of verbalizing negative body image -- going so far as to quote an undoubtedly true study that claims women use "fat talk" as a way to bond with each other. Much like the article suggests, stick around in a girl's dressing room, locker room, or bedroom long enough and you will immediately realize it is disturbingly accurate. "Fat talk" is so common amongst young women, it even rears its ugly head in cultural phenomenons such as the film Mean Girls, in the infamous moment where four teenage girls stand in front of mirrors, critiquing everything from their "man shoulders" to pores to bad morning breath.

Though body issues are far too "normal" among girls in general, any young girl who has stood in a leotard understands a special type of scrutiny. Though female athletes are also expected to live up to certain physical expectations, it still seems as though even they, the girls in sports who perform at elite levels, have more leeway with how their bodies look. Muscle is anticipated and hailed as "strong," whereas too often in local ballet schools, young girls are expected to look like a willowy pre-teen boy and move with the strength of an athlete. In some (not all) cases, it is simply impossible to have both, to be both, and to look both. It just pleads the questions: Where do those girls fit? It's all about fit.

To say body image and weight are sore subjects in regard to ballet is an understatement. The line for reasonable expectations continues to be blurred. The honesty of reality can be brutal: The fact of the matter is, there is a certain body type necessary to classical ballet, especially in a professional company or pre-professional program. If there was ever a catch 22, here it is. How do we tell young ballet dancers to accept themselves if sometimes it seems that ballet doesn't accept them?

So what do we do? I agree with Pointe Magazine and commend them for bringing up a topic that is so tender, especially in the dance world. When your career is, in a sense, your body, it is a treacherous balance trying to find the line between "the look" and the nutrition and physicality necessary to actually carrying out your job. Pointe suggests that the next time a friend mentions her body complaints, instead of responding with a complaint of your own, simply change the subject. It's true: Negative increases negative.

I wonder, though, how often changing the subject is seen as avoiding the problem. I undoubtedly believe in the old adage "mind over matter," and think that your thoughts affect your behavior, outlook, and self-esteem. But I don't think the great body image debate stops at negative self-talk: As we know, thoughts manifest as actions. What happens when the young girl who thinks she's too fat stops eating? What can we do to help it?

I am not a nutritionist, child psychologist, or body image expert. I'm just a more grown-up version of the aforementioned little girl in a leotard, standing in front of the wall of mirrors, wondering desperately why she doesn't look right. Something has to be done about it. I am of the mindset that professional ballet schools need a dietitian on staff at least in some capacity, preferably one trained in sports and nutrition. Many schools pay for physical therapists to prevent injuries; why don't we further the prevention of injury by looking out for the nutritional health and mental state of students as well? Obviously cost is an issue to some local training programs. What about seminars on nutrition, injury prevention, and cross-training? All of the above increase the overall training of a classical ballet student. If there was a way to offer nutritional counseling via a dietician dancers seeking to lose weight could do so in a healthy manner, those with body image issues could be acknowledged and assisted as necessary, and most importantly, all students, regardless of size or professional plans, could be taught to eat healthily. That's a skill everyone needs, dancer or non-dancer, athlete or non-athlete.

If a dancer needs to lose weight, there are ways to do it that don't involve starvation, laxatives, and vomiting. The problem is, those don't get acknowledged as viable options. Perhaps it is because we spend so much time dwelling on the "dark side" of ballet, we forget what it is at its simplest: An art form manifested in physicality. The "dark side" isn't glamorous, and isn't where the focus should be. Young dancers who don't believe they look "right" shouldn't be dismissed. They should be treated to an open dialogue that presents feasible, healthy alternatives to the all-too-common crash diet that spins into eating disorders. They have earned that. They deserve it.

It is easy to replace dancers or students who cause a stir with their issues, or can't seem to get their act together in regard to their weight. It is easy to ignore it. It's easy to say it is a "personal issue," and that teachers or artistic directors shouldn't meddle. The alternative is not going to be popular, easy, or cheap: Someone has to help them. The thing about body image issues is that when you hang up your pointe shoes, your swiftly-declining self-worth doesn't stay put in the studio. It comes with you, into your life, your relationships, and your other experiences. This is about more than fat talk. This is about more than just ballet.

Your body doesn't make you worthless, even if it means you don't get cast in a production or accepted into a company. Your body is what you live in, not just dance in. I think it's important that we remind students (and professionals, for that matter) that they aren't just dancers. They're people. Nothing good can come from hating your body. It won't make you dance better, look better, or feel better. Similarly, talking about your body won't change anything. Ignoring "fat talk," or body complaints, won't make them go away. It doesn't change anything.

What will is making sure young dancers, and people, have access to the resources they need to be healthy and fit. There is not a concrete solution to this problem yet, but there are things to lessen the burden of body image.

Your body isn't all you are, but it is what you live in, what you dance in. It's not time to sit down and stay quiet, it's time to speak up and get strong, literally and figuratively. In order for ballet to take its next steps forward, the body image discussion needs to come right along with it. Sometimes, we need to talk about it. We need to acknowledge it. We need to help it.

The little girl in the mirror will thank you.