How to talk about bodies
Talking to student dancers about their bodies is just about the most complex and sensitive aspect of a teacher’s job. Most dancers, and especially dance students, are hyper conscious of their appearance and weight. Body dysmorphia and unhealthy diets are constant concerns in the world of dance, affecting all levels, from students to professionals. Studies show that one in six dancers suffer from an eating disorder, many of which are serious.
Unfortunately, studies also show that when it comes to negative body image among ballet students, the number one influencer is their teacher. One word or comment, often made with the best of intentions, can all too easily lead the student down the path of obsessive dieting and self-loathing.
And yet, dancing, and especially ballet, requires an exceptionally lean physique, and not being lean enough can make or break a promising student’s job prospects. So how does a teacher balance the expectations of the profession with the health and well-being of their students? Can they tell them about their weight?
Dance Australia Ask a few questions to Fumi Somehara, owner and lead dietitian of Sydney-based DDD (DancersDon’tDiet) Recovery Centre. With a background in ballet and a dual degree in exercise and sports medicine, she knows the tug of war between dancers’ need to be lean and the need to be healthy.
Q What if a student is very gifted but is held back because they are overweight by professional standards? Should the teacher say something?
According to Somehara, the simple answer is no. “When a teacher tells a student to lose weight or get in shape, most dancers turn to restricting food intake,” she explains. “This often leads to eating disorders and also eating disorders.
“When these things happen, the dancer’s body image deteriorates, because they can only see their worth by their size. In other words, they think that if they lose weight and keep it off, they are “good” (worthy) and if they gain weight, they are “bad” (unworthy).
“These thoughts about their body and their food are starting to take up so much space in their brains that they won’t have enough space for dance, art, friendships, relationships and all the other important factors that make a great dancer.”
Somehara says that given the degree of judgment on body size by society as a whole, a dance studio should aim to be the one place where young people don’t feel judged – “an oasis”.
“Having a teacher who really doesn’t discriminate against the student based on their body size means the world to them. Do not ignore the fact that its size is different, but do not criticize it. This is a good time to let all students know that there is weight stigma and bias in society and that this stigma is even stronger in the dance industry. You can say, “I want you to know that you have great talent and that you will never have to be ashamed of your body. If you’re ashamed of your body because of your height, know that it’s not you, it’s because society and the dance industry judge your height”.
Q That’s great, but in the world of dance, being “overweight” isn’t just about stigma, it’s often a job requirement.
Fumi argues that ultimately the health and well-being of the student is too important to be sacrificed to the demands of the career.
“It’s true that the ballet world selects only thin dancers,” Fumi replies, “but if the teachers support that, it just perpetuates the problem. Don’t say anything (to your students) that promotes weight loss. It could be this one thing that triggers an eating disorder in dancers that will last for the next 20 years (or worse).
Q What if it is clear to the teacher that the student is bothered by their weight? Post-pandemic lockdowns, some students are reluctant to return to class because they feel fat and unattractive. Should the teacher say something?
Somehara says it’s to counter such negative attitudes that teachers should start by cultivating a welcoming, non-judgmental dance studio, not to mention dieting or body comparisons. “Have a policy and/or structure in place at your school about what you can and cannot say in the studio in terms of nutrition, eating disorders and body care. You can make your studio or part of your studio a “diet talk” or “no weight talk” zone.
“If you see a student in pain, take her aside and talk to her privately. You can say, “I’m a little worried about how you’re doing these days. I noticed you started to cover your body a lot, is there something going on?’
“If the student admits she’s embarrassed or ashamed, you can say you’re sorry she feels that way, but you don’t want her to feel embarrassed. We have been confined! If your body was going to gain weight, it had to gain weight. Ask if there is anything you can do to make the student feel more comfortable.
She says young dancers should be taught that their bodies will change with the amount of activity — just as athletes’ bodies change through their seasons and off-seasons.
“During their most active times, the body is actually often in a weight-suppressing state,” says Fumi. “Then he returns to a more normal weight during periods of rest or holidays.”
Q: What about revealing workout clothes?
One way to make the classroom more welcoming is to have a flexible approach to uniforms. Is it really necessary, asks Fumi, that all dance students wear revealing clothes to all classes? If they don’t feel comfortable in leotards and tights, let them wear something else, like shorts or a skirt, she advises. “You can make it clear that in certain situations, like exams, they might have to wear a certain type of uniform, but in your class that can be a safe haven.”
The ideal body type for dancing is strict – good proportions, arched feet, even a good sized head – all of which are beyond our control. For some aspiring dancers, however, losing weight is the only thing they think they can control, the only way to improve their appearance. “But weight is not something you can control,” Somehara says. “Everyone has their own set point determined by genetics and environment.”
She points out that the female physical ideal that the dance world admires is actually the prepubescent body – narrow hips, no bust, no curves. It’s an almost impossible view of female beauty that doesn’t reflect real adult women. It is not the aesthetic that the art form should continue to promote. “We have to see that an adult and a child have a different body; especially if it’s women, there have to be curves,” says Fumi.
Fumi Somehara is owner and lead dietitian of the Sydney-based DDD (DancersDon’tDiet) Center for Recovery.
https://dddcfr.com.au or Instagram @ddd_centre_for_recovery
This article first appeared in the 21 October/November/December issue of Dance Australia. You did not understand ? Subscribe and get every copy delivered straight to your inbox.