Skin, Bones, and Success: The Ballet Culture and Unrealistic Body Weight Expectations

Growing up, I was a ballet dancer. From the age of three years old until I graduated from high school, I would spend countless hours every week in my local studio perfecting my pirouettes and plies. My summers were spent completing intensive ballet programs with companies in Austin, Houston, and New York and the audition season created a looming sense of anxiety in me, growing greater as spring approached each year. By the time that I turned ten years old, I noticed that instructors were beginning to have “honest conversations” with several of my female peers and these discussions almost always centered around body weight, shape, and type.

Ballet is a sport that celebrates the body, its lines, its movements, its ability – and its leanness. Successful dancers need to be almost sylphlike to appear weightless as they leap, spin, and bound across the stage. The ballet culture, which perpetuates the stereotype that female ballet dancers must be long and slender, is pervasive and is often ingrained in students when they are very young. According to Linda Hamilton, a New York psychologist who works specifically with ballerinas with eating disorders, “the disorders start early, as young as 12” as the curves that accompany puberty often fall outside of what is considered to be an acceptable ballet body type[1]. And once the young girls develop an eating disorder, it is hard for them to recover.

One in two ballerinas suffer from an eating disorder, the most common being anorexia nervosa[2]. Despite being undernourished, ballet dancers suffering from eating disorders are required to complete 8-12-hour days that are filled with physical exertion and taxing training. Not surprisingly, emaciated dancers are often unable to keep up with their peers. Peter Marshall, American Ballet Theatre’s physical therapist notes that, “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”[3]. Extreme malnutrition also has more sinister, longer lasting health effects including heart disease, osteoporosis, anemia, and amenorrhea, all of which are naturally more likely to manifest more severely in females[4].

Despite widespread pressure from the ballet community the stereotypical lean ballerina is an image that has continued to persist, and meaningful change may take more than a culture shift within the ballet world. Jennifer Ringer, a principal at New York City Ballet writes, “art can be a critical commentary on culture, but it can also display a culture at its extreme, and I think in ballet we see the continuation of today’s radically low-weight standard of beauty for women”[5]. If Ringer is correct in her assumption, then in order to see truly transformational change within the field, we would need to see societal standards of beauty shift as well.

While ballet is an elite sport that requires physical fitness and strength to compete, it is important to ensure that women in this field are not being asked to sacrifice their health and wellbeing in exchange for career success. The arts, and society as a whole, should strive to celebrate all body types and their abilities. Once we empower dancers to compete in a healthy environment at a size and weight that is natural for their bodies, then we will see a new form of artistry and true appreciation of the women who make this art possible.

-M.A.M.


[1] Rolz, I. (2018). A ballet of ‘living hell’: Ex-dancer recounts her battle with anorexia. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/a-ballet-of-living-hell-ex-dancer-recounts-her-battle-with-anorexia/2018/11/09/adad582c-d169-11e8-b2d2-f397227b43f0_story.htm

[2] Ibid

[3] Kelly, D. (2016). The cult of thin. Dance Magazine. https://www.dancemagazine.com/the-cult-of-thin-2307026233.html

[4] Eating Recovery Center. (2020). Health risks of anorexia. Eating Recovery Center. https://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/conditions/anorexia/health-risks

[5] Ibid

Image Sources

Ballerina- https://psycheblog.uk/2018/06/29/comorbid-psychiatric-diagnosis-and-psychological-correlates-of-eating-disorders-in-dance-students/

Ballet shoes- https://balletbabe96.wordpress.com/2014/11/27/relationship-between-ballet-and-eating-disorders/

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