Mbungu S – Gold Unit 1: Part D

Are ballet dancers and gymnasts under too much pressure to be skinny?

Why I chose this issue

I remember when I was little and I wanted to do ballet. I was quite small then but my aunty said that I wasn’t the right weight, even though I was quite skinny back then. I think there should be more different body types in the dance industry. In the ballerina world there’s people with different genetics so people might have wide hips and there’s nothing they can do about that. It puts unrealistic expectations on young girls. There’s some really good ballet schools but because young people expect that they have to be skinny they still end up losing too much weight and developing eating disorders because that’s what the media tells them they have to do. In the gymnastic world its really tough and there is so much pressure to achieve. Too much pressure I think. I saw this video of a girl who was being forced into the splits even though it hurt her and she was crying. They also get really stressed out. It can be different for male ballerinas and gymnasts but I think that they are at risk of exercise addiction. It’s not just body shape that is a problem, when I was little I thought that ballet shoes were supposed to be pink and I only recently found out that black ballerinas dyed their ballet shoes and its only recently that you could get dark ballet shoes. It’s a bit like how the modelling industry sees the models more like coat hangers than people. There is a younger audience out there who would see ballerinas and models and think that they have to be like that.

Before I started researching, I did a quick poll at my school (my school is very small, this is all the teachers and students who were in on the day I started):

  • Helen had an interesting story about her Granddaughter auditioning for ballet school that I would like to hear more about.
  • Fiona said that, although it was bad, it was part of the definition of a ballerina to be skinny. So maybe the question should be whether we should have ballerinas at all.
  • I want to find out more about these comments when I do my survey.

Information I found Online

I mean think about it, who are you competing against in ballet? Yourself, and all the other girls in the classroom. Not only do you want to be the the best, you need to be the best to get any sort of job in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 20.4 thousand jobs available for dancers who wish to become professional in the US, and the rate of growth is 4% lower than the average job. This means that only the best get the jobs, and the best all have the same body type. I mean think about it, who are you competing against in ballet? Yourself, and all the other girls in the classroom. Not only do you want to be the the best, you need to be the best to get any sort of job in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 20.4 thousand jobs available for dancers who wish to become professional in the US, and the rate of growth is 4% lower than the average job. This means that only the best get the jobs, and the best all have the same body type.

From a Medium.com article called “Why Are Ballerinas So Skinny”

If the profession needs to be vigilant, those of us who watch dance also need to guard against the stereotype of size. One of the surprising things about Channel 4’s current Big Ballet series, in which 18 generously proportioned amateurs are trained up to perform a version of Swan Lake, has been its willingness to celebrate the physical talents of its participants, rather than obsess over their shape and size.

From a Guardian Article called Dance Needs to Stop Fetishising Thin.

There is also pressure for gymnasts to hold up traditional feminine ideals regarding looks.

From a Stuff article called The lighter you are the faster you twist

A lean athlete, not just a skinny athlete, will perform better. There is no correlation between body weight and the skills necessary for an elite gymnast—running speed, jumping height and hand strength. … The average female gymnast gets her first period at age 15 ½ compared to the average girl at age 13.

From a KSSN article called Gymnastics: A Sport that Prevents Girls from Growing into Women

Research into this issue – This is all the research I did before writing my magazine article

I looked up some of the major ballet schools to see if they had a message about weight and fitness on their websites.
I found that the Royal Ballet School have a Healthy Dancer Programme and use words like: Healthy, Reslient, Happy “Best they can be.”Strong, determined, powerful, expressive Give 100%
It looks like they expect a lot from you They employ clinical psychologists and rehab specialists

Bolshoi Ballet Dance SchoolBallet dancer Sarah Burrows: “We would have regular weigh-ins at the school and then you would be called in to see the director to be told how much weight you needed to lose.”Some girls would faint from hunger. One was congratulated on her gastroenteritis weight loss. A teenage boy was told his fat was hanging over his underwear and to ‘sort it’. They crash-dieted on watermelon or chewing gum

Here aer some of the sites I looked at
Facts and stats!

The overall prevalence of eating disorders was 12.0%(16.4% for ballet dancers), 2.0% (4% for ballet dancers) for anorexia, 4.4% (2% for ballet dancers) for bulimia and 9.5% (14.9%

The study concluded that as dancers had a three times higher risk of suffering from eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa and EDNOS, “There is an unspoken competitiveness between dancers,”Victoria is one of about 1.6 million people in the UK affected by eating disorders, of which 11% are men.Making yourself sick is not normal. I knew it was not right but I felt in control. It affected my mind and social relationships because I was being so secretive.
BBCThe Guardian

Negative anecdotes from real dancers online

Ballet celebrates the body — and thinness. Despite demands for change from dancers who have experienced problems and from psychologists specializing in eating disorders, the stereotype that a dancer must be elegant and lean persists. Ballerinas become vulnerable to self-consciousness about their bodies, and they face increased risk of anorexia, bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders.

“I remember that when she didn’t get in, it was her mother who contacted me and we spoke about her weak muscle tone,” says Norma Pera, the dance department head. “We are looking for a body that is physically fit enough to aerobically do the work.”

Garcia started school at a normal and healthy weight, about 115 pounds. By the end of her sophomore year, she had lost 15 pounds, and in the high-pressure environment, her weight kept dropping. “I slowly slipped into a dangerous spiral of wanting to please my teachers,” Garcia says.When she won the lead role of Clara in “The Nutcracker,” in her senior year of high school, she felt that reinforced the idea that “being skinnier was better.” She began using laxatives, purging, skipping meals and overexercising, to lose still more weight.

She understood she was ill and “that my sickness was only going to get worse and that anorexia had taken everything that once made me happy, and just made it a living hell,” she says.
“I thought she was quite happy at Baltimore School for the Arts,” Pera says. “I am sorry that she feels she had to lose weight to get a role, but that’s not true.”

Megan Brewer, 22, from Lincoln, aspired to tour the world with a dance companyBut the teaching assistant’s hobby soon turned into a dangerous obsession She was relying on caffeine pills and nine cups of coffee to get through the dayMegan’s ‘demon’ saw her skin turn grey as she plummeted to 5 stone 9 lbsAfter seeking help for her eating disorder last year she is now much 

What do others think?

I made a survey to send to my school and to some dancers I know to get their thoughts – please wait for the images to load.

Counter Arguments – Here are some people who think ballet is heatlhy and good rather than dangerous
This story has some interesting points about ballet being a good thing: https://search.yahoo.com/search?ei=utf-8&fr=aaplw&p=royal+school+of+ballet&vm=r 
Here are some of the health benefits of ballet, copy some of the most interesting ones here :Boosts confidence
 Anyone can do ballet. It begins with the innate desire to pursue ballet and setting achievable goals along the way. A study found that ballet training increased the diversity of subjects’ foot configuration. However, an experienced and amateur met comparable levels of postural control and stance difficulty. You will be amazed at yourself when you complete a posture that used to intimidate you.Burns caloriesYour body weight affects the number of calories burned in a 90-minute session. A person weighing over 120 pounds can burn about 200 calories or more in just 30 minutes, which is approximately 600 calories per session.
Nutritional consciousnessWhether you’re doing ballet as a casual or serious activity, you don’t want to feel bloated in class. Therefore, being mindful of what you eat will tremendously influence your experience. A well-balanced diet nourishes your body with the right things to complement your internal and external health.
Is Ballet changing? Are people trying to change it?”Having more diversity in color and culture will definitely change body standards,” Williams says. “Part of keeping ballet progressive is accepting change in that visual architecture, the look of the body itself. And I hope ballet companies realize that if they allow different body types into their world, they will also discover more about movement.” For body standards to meaningfully evolve, directors must take an active stance and cast dancers who break the current mold. Twenty to 30 years from now, when today’s dancers are at the helm of major companies, Morgan sees this as a possibility. Time will tell.
The ideal female Western ballet body is an image that persists as the norm of what a ballerina should look like. This ideal includes a slender woman with long legs and arms, a small head, little to no bust line, and a short torso. It is an image that continues to be synonymous with success and beauty as a ballet dancer. Social and historical research indicated that this long held belief and damaging ideal pervades the way past, and present ballet dancers view themselves, their bodies, as well as their performance in other dance forms such as modern and jazz dance. This paper will focus on Western ballet relative to the impact the ideal ballet body has on its participants and on dance in general. This ideal is still very much a part of today’s ballet and concert dance culture in the west. In addition, this paper will also offer that positive influences do exist that challenge the persistent falsities spread by this ideal and argue that more education needs to be presented to teachers and students alike to stop the dangerous implications of this ideal. As a result, such education could support much needed body positivity in the realm of ballet and in the overall Western concert dance world.


My blog post on this issue

I wrote a blog post for this issue which is posted here: https://treasuremedia.co.uk/ballet-dainty-or-dangerous/

You can also read the full blog below.

Ballet: Dainty or Dangerous?

Savannah Mbungu

I was really interested in ballet as a little girl. I’m still fascinated by it. I wanted to become a ballet dancer by the age of eight. I would look at dancers and performers online and I fell in love.

I briefly joined ballet in year 4 or  5in primary school. I did a few classes. Then I went to see a beautiful performance in real life with school. I decided I wanted to dance professionally and told my mum and she spoke to my aunty because she had connections with these kinds of activities. 

A few years later, my mum told me that my aunty’s friend who worked in the ballet industry had said I had no chance because I wasn’t slim enough. Even though I was a healthy weight at the time.

The ballet industry is famous for damaging its dancers for the entertainment of others. 1.4 million people in the UK have an eating disorder but this is much more likely if you are a dancer. 16.4% of ballet dancers have an eating disorder. On the website for the Royal Ballet they had support for students which is good but some of it seemed a bit dodgy because it made it seem very likely that you could have a mental break in the ballet world, they hire clinical psychologists and counsellors and rehab specialists which suggests that dancers could get addicted to drugs, exercise or losing weight. The video for student support didn’t really show the pain that comes with dancing, instead it showed that they expect a lot from you, the video says you have to give 100%. It used words like strong, determined and powerful. This is supposed to be a video about a support programme but it seems very stressful. The larger ballet schools in Russia and France didn’t even have a support page, which seems like they are keeping it quiet. Russia has a very strict culture and this was shown on the website. I also found out that the russian school monitors the dancer’s weight in front of everyone, humiliating them and forcing them onto diets of watermelon and chewing gum.

I asked everyone at my school about their opinions on ballet using a survey. I found other people;s opinions interesting, and hearing people with different views. Nobody thought that ballet should be replaced with a more accepting form of dance but they all mostly agreed that ballet dancers are under too much pressure to be skinny. One of the people who responded said that you do need exercise for any sport, and if you have extra weight it can be painful. I agree with this to an extent but people don’t have to fit into the standards set for them, being healthy is all that matters. Another person said that didn’t know much about ballet but they think there is gatekeeping for different body types to enter.

There are lots of reports online from ballet dancers who have had negative experiences in the ballet industry. Garcia started ballet school at a healthy weight and then lost 15 pounds believing that this would please her teachers. She used laxatives, purging, skip[ping meals and excessive exercise to lose wight. Megan wanted to lose weight and it turned into a dangerous obsession. She relied on caffeine pills and coffee to get through the day. This was because she wanted to tour the world with a dance company.

However, lots of people think that ballet is a healthy art form and has lots of benefits. Ballet can boost your confidence, which I agree with to some extent but it doesn’t really boost confidence if they expect you to lose weight. On the other hand, ballet can make you feel beautiful and elegant and that could boost confidence.

Ballet burns calories, this is a good think if you are eating a lot and need to lose weight but not if you have an eating disorder.  Ballet says it promotes nutritional consciousness but this could easily turn into an obsession where people weigh everything that they eat and can’t enjoy it.

Some people more diversity in ballet might change ballet for the better. Different cultures have different body types. There is still an idea that WOC aren’t allowed to be dainty and elegant, they are always seen as masculine and strong. 

Lots of dancers are tackling the negative body images in dance, for example Allison Buczkowski who is a plus size dancer and had a really supportive environment when she was training.

I still there is a lot of pressure for people to be skinny and look a certain way, to fit this one image that is perfection. I think other cultures should get involved in ballet and the industry should embrace diversity which will help with body image too. When I was a child I thought that ballet shoes were supposed to be pink. Black dancers had to dye their ballet shoes and it is only recently that you can buy black ballet shoes. I think as long as you are happy and healthy, you shouldn’t be rejected by any art form.

Evidence of sharing

I generated a report from my survey which I shared with everyone that had taken part. It is here: https://pd5kw0jy77p.typeform.com/report/rmmqYR17/VM70uMGJDwiCYY37

My final article was the centre page spread in the Art magazine made the Arts Award Class. There was a private view at the end of term everyone could read the mockup including my article. You can read more about the magazine and how it was promoted in my unit two evidence.

My centre page spread in the magazine

Go the next part of my project

Go back to the start