I started watching my body move in front of mirrors when I was three years old. From a toddler with chubby legs, to a teenager with a soft stomach, to a young woman with curves I did not want, I watched my body transform in front of those mirrors across years in skin-tight, black leotards and pink tights.
I was a ballerina until the age of 18. Dance was my sport, art, passion, and it shaped me into the person and the body I am today. I am forever appreciative for the person my dancing career shaped. But the body I am today has suffered from those mirrors and leotards and constant looks of rejection because my figure never molded into the perfect ballerina I wanted it to be.
Ballet has always and continues to idealize thinness. Consequently, dancers have a higher risk of suffering from eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Linda Hamilton, a former professional ballerina and a performing arts clinical psychologist, told The Washington Post “one out of two dancers suffer from an eating disorder.”
Beginning in the 1960s, George Balanchine, one of the most famous and influential contemporary ballet choreographers, amplified the fixation on a thin aesthetic, as his preference for long, lean woman dancers influenced ballet companies worldwide. In her autobiography “Dancing on My Grave,” Prima Ballerina Gelsey Kirkland wrote about the extreme pressures Balanchine placed on his dancers, as he repeatedly told them that he “must see the bones” and to “eat nothing.”
I trained under the Balanchine technique, characterized by quick movements coupled with an open use of the upper body. Although 40 years have passed since Balanchine’s era, most American companies and studios teach his style of ballet — a style still not fully separated from the preferred thin aesthetic of the bodies who dance it.
Whether at the barre or in rehearsals, my ballet instructors were constantly saying “Jac, stomach in.” This was always my critique. It never offended me, for they were pushing me to be better and for my body to match that betterment.
My studio did not explicitly promote a culture of thinness, but across every corner of the dance world, whether subtle or overt, a skinny ballerina has a greater chance at success. Over the years, I saw the girls who were petite, thin or long and lean placed in the front of the dances, chosen for the next round of auditions, smiled at with a satisfied nod of approval by the bony instructors, choreographers or judges.
Despite attempts to help manage the unhealthy standards of a ballet physique, the dance world has made little to no progress. From professional dance companies to small-town studios, there needs to be more awareness and conversations surrounding the prevalence of eating disorders, body shaming and the perverse relationship between thinness and success for a ballerina.
“The disorders start early, as young as 12,” Hamilton said. “The curves that come with puberty don’t fit the ballet look.”
I hit puberty early and was upset, wishing it had held off like many of the other girls at my studio. I became an exercise fanatic. On top of my five-hour dance rehearsals each night, I would wake up for 6 a.m. yoga classes before school and go on long runs during my free time. I tried out numerous diets, misused ADD medicine and went through phases of listing in a journal every piece of food I put in my body.
At the time, it never crossed my mind that I may have had some type of body dysmorphia or eating disorder. I never once craved thinness out of a personal desire to look skinny, nor was it a result of mental instability. I considered these extreme measures part of my obligation to ballet. I was excessively dedicated to my practice and knew I needed my body to show that dedication if I would ever make it professionally.
I have always been petite. I am 5-foot-2, little boned and perceived by most as skinny. But as a woman who spent her adolescence watching her body in mirrors, dedicated to an athletic artistry that fails to separate from its thin aesthetic, I still find myself admiring the perfect ballerina whose stomach is absent and bones are distinct. And I hope the other young girls growing in leotards in front of mirrors can recognize the beauty of their own bodies before surrendering them to ballet.