Body shaming in the dance industry

The ideal ballet body type boils down to women with large eyes, a long neck, long legs, flexible back, flat chest, lean muscles, lots of hip rotation and a high instep. This doesn’t even include the expectation that dancers fit into the costumes made for specific roles. People who don’t dance fail to realize that costumes are made in one size for every specific role. This makes it so that the dancer who gets hired to play that role not only has to be talented enough to land the part, they also have to be the correct size and weight to fit into the costume. This is a huge problem in the dance industry and it is why so many ballerinas are diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia.

Ballet is an old art form and there has been almost no change when it comes to body-shaming within the industry. However, in 1997, large ballet companies were forced to realize the severity of the issue when Heidi Guenther collapsed while on vacation with her family. At the time she was 5’6” and weighed only 96 lbs. Her death showed the industry that ballet dancers were dying in order to further their careers and it’s horrible to think that it took the death of a 22 year-old to catch the industries attention. Many studies have been done looking at body image and eating disorders since Heidi’s death, but there has still been little to no change in how ballerina’s are treated.

Today there are eight large ballet corporations and they are all run by men. Men also lead in choreography, meaning that they cast the women into their roles and they are the ones that teach the choreography. Dancers don’t have any control over the trajectory of their careers. They are told what company they are good enough for, what level and parts they qualify for and how to execute specific movement and choreography. In our “culture, these judgments coming from a man can have even more force than they are meant to”. Men are given more opportunity in the dance world. As there are fewer of them, the casting people can’t afford to be as picky when choosing male dancers for specific roles. Women, however, can be cast out of an audition based solely on her appearance.

There have been slight improvements in the the industry that are helping to bring about a change for these poor dancers. For example, most pre-professional dance companies now require a nutritionist on their staff. This happened in response to research saying that “the highest risk of eating disorder development in ballet dancers is around ages 11-15”. Some influential ballet figures have also risen up to speak their mind on these issues.

Misty Copeland is the most recently famous for sharing her voice concerning the body-shaming industry. Copeland has published both a memoir and a dancer’s fitness and nutrition book in her efforts to expand the dance industry from only wanting cookie-cutter ballet dancer bodies. Copeland and others have worked very hard to open the conversation about how ballerina’s bodies should look.

So why do we even have to ask ourselves this question? The industry is so focused on what dancers should look like. What happened to caring about their talent? Why does it matter if a dancer is a size double zero versus a size six if it doesn’t affect her dancing? Dancers train their whole lives to perform with companies like the Boston Ballet Dance company, the New York City Ballet, and the Paris Opera ballet. Unfortunately, we still see unhealthy, stick-thin, sickly dancers fulfilling roles that were most likely wrenched away from much healthier and equally as talented dancers who were too tall, too big and too human.


Kaitlyn Pierce is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached be reached via email at kaitlyn.pierce@ucon.edu.