Dancers and Body Image

      Merriam Webster Dictionary defines body image as a picture of one’s physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others. 

Dancers are given the opportunity to observe themselves daily in full-length mirrors while wearing only tights and a leotard and must learn to live in harmony with their bodies.  They, unlike other athletes, are constantly faced with the challenge of developing the muscles required to perform well while making certain that the lines they produce are clean and aesthetically pleasing to the audience.  Additionally, dancers are in constant competition with their classmates for the teacher’s attention or for a coveted role in a performance.

Therefore, it is not surprising that dancers judge themselves harshly and are extremely critical of their bodies:  their legs are never long enough, their feet are never arched enough and their stomachs are never flat enough.  In a 2010 interview about body image, Pilobolus’ Jeffrey Huang said, “Criticizing our bodies is second nature to dancers.”    One need only mention the possibility of wearing white unitards to a group of dancers to hear groans and observe the, perhaps subconscious, movement of arms being placed across abdomens to hide stomachs.

            In 1996, the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine published a very scary study about adolescent ballet students and body image.  When given a questionnaire about body image, all of the dancers overestimated their weights and the weights of their peers.  The study also asked dance teachers and academic teachers to estimate the dancers’ weights.  The academic teachers underestimated the weight measurements, but the dance teachers significantly overestimated the weights of all the dancers.  The researchers concluded that dancers are unable to view themselves and others objectively.

            If body image is based upon our observations coupled with the reactions of those around us, it is easy to see why dancers must constantly struggle with developing a positive body image.  It is extremely important that today’s dance educators be aware of the message they send to their students.  It is necessary to focus upon creating healthy dancers by: providing them with knowledge about their bodies and nutrition, helping them to feel comfortable with their bodies by discouraging the wearing of layers of clothing in class to hide who they are and encouraging dancers to acknowledge the positive qualities of themselves and their peers.  A wise teacher of mine once said, “If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, you had better change the image you’re looking for.”

            That is exactly what young dancers must be taught.  Dancers cannot possibly care for themselves and give freely of themselves to an audience without first loving who they are. 

Add a comment to this post to be entered into The Healthy Dancer's month long contest.  Click this link for more information!