The Damaging Stereotype Dancers Are Tired Of Fighting

Photo: Courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The dance world is riddled with stereotypes: Male dancers are gay, ballerinas are uptight, and — perhaps the most damaging — everyone has an eating disorder. When laypeople meet dancers, it's not uncommon for small talk to turn into an unpleasant inquisition about food intake.

"You feel like you need a jury to be like, No, I swear I do eat!" says Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

Lovette says she's been asked if she actually eats more times than she can count. She used to try to overcompensate and show people that she did eat — tons, in fact. Friends and family would get excited to see her down mac and cheese or cookies, so she just went with it. "It was safer for me to be so far in the other direction because I’m a ballerina," she says. "I’ll eat the worst and prove to others that I’m not anorexic."

So, why do people automatically assume that all dancers have eating disorders? It's partly because, unfortunately, some do. Research suggests that dancers, particularly female ones, are at an increased risk for disordered eating. While it's hard to make generalizations about why this is the case, a 2012 study suggests that high standards of beauty, public body exposure, and repeated exposure to mirrors might contribute to the prevalence of eating disorders in professional ballet dancers. A 2014 study suggests that female dancers’ disordered eating habits stem from self-criticism.

Sadly, the way that dancers are seen and depicted by the outside world doesn't help. A lot of characteristics that are associated with good dancers — like perfectionism, excessive exercise, and never feeling good enough — are similar to the traits of someone with an eating disorder, says Johanna Kandel, a former professional dancer and founder of The Alliance For Eating Disorders. The archetypal dancer in pop culture often embodies these traits, like the characters in the movie Black Swan or the TV show Flesh and Bone. So, to the general population, this is just how dancers should act. Unfortunately for real-life dancers, there's pressure to be perfect from teachers, fellow dancers, TV shows, movies, and even themselves so comments from friends or strangers about body image can hurt.

Whether they're meant maliciously or not, remarks like, You’re a dancer, so you probably can’t eat this, or, I can’t believe you’re allowed to eat that, feed into the stereotype that dancers are anorexic. Anecdotally speaking, this may contribute to the amount of disordered eating in the dancer world, Kandel says. These assumptions normalize dangerous behaviors, because "if everybody is perceived as doing this [disordered eating], then it permeates into the community that it’s okay to do this," she says.

The happiest dancers are the ones that have really learned how to take care of their bodies and minds.
Rachael McLaren

"There’s always this negative connotation when it comes to what it means to be a dancer," says Rachael McLaren, a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "People think you must have a negative relationship with your body." Interestingly, people don't seem to question whether or not professional athletes in other sports have an eating disorder nearly as much, yet it's assumed that dancers of the same athletic caliber couldn't possibly have a healthy outlook on nutrition. It takes discipline to rise to the level of a professional a dancer, but McLaren says there’s a "weird misconception that we abuse ourselves, aren’t allowed to eat, and don’t know how to have a healthy life."

The reality is that tons of dancers care a lot about nutrition, strength-training, and mental health. "Dance is a profession that takes a lot of time and focus, and some people do get consumed with all the things that go into this profession," says Fana Tesfagiorgis, a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. "For the most part, professional dancers I know have extremely abundant lives outside of dance, and that's something that's not as celebrated."

So what has to change? Ultimately, progress must start within the dance world — after all, people need a reason to alter their assumptions.

For starters, there should be more awareness in dance schools about nutrition and body image, says Rachel Fine, MS, RD, CSSD, CDN, a dietitian who works specifically with dancers. "Many dance schools still haven't established nutrition as part of the curriculum from credentialed sources," Fine says. Perhaps if dancers grew up knowing how to take care of their bodies in a healthy way, that could make them less susceptible to the pressure around body image, she says. According to McLaren, having a positive relationship with food and her body is what fuels her as a dancer and an athlete. "I know I have to love my body in order to be able to use my body as an instrument," she says. "The happiest dancers are the ones that have really learned how to take care of their bodies and minds."

Leadership at dance companies should also be more accepting of different body types, Lovette says. A 2012 study found that for "aesthetic sports," such as ballet and gymnastics, teachers and coaches had the highest influence on young athletes developing eating disorders, compared to parents and peers. Lovette is starting to get a "taste of the other side," because she's choreographing for New York City Ballet, and is making a point to cast "healthy, strong people with different races, ages, walks of life," she says. "That's going to be a way I personally can make a difference in the dance world."

Tesfagiorgis says she feels like all body types are embraced at Ailey, although she recognizes that that's unique. "It's not about image, it's about the health and condition of your body to be prepared for what work is calling for," she says. Seeing diverse bodies celebrated in elite dance companies might help younger dancers realize that they can become a professional dancer, even if they don't look exactly like everyone else, McLaren adds. But even so, it's still extremely rare to see a professional dancer with a body that could be categorized as plus-size.

Thankfully, the commercial dance world has started to become a little more accepting of different body types. Plus-size dancers are finding their niche in groups like Pretty Big Movement, the dance troupe started by a former Beyoncé backup dancer, or Danza Voluminoza, a plus-size Cuban ballet company. And in January, a viral video of a "plus-size ballerina" doing consecutive fouetté turns got people talking about whether or not there's room for body positivity in the ballet world, specifically. But even with this increased representation, most mainstream concert dance companies are still made up of very thin dancers.

"I think a lot of eating disorders come from the idea that we have to be something that we're not, and that we're trapped in this idea of trying to look like one person or one type — or somehow we're lacking, so we have to fight and restrict eating in order to become this unobtainable thing," McLaren says. "But being able to nurture your body and mind, that's what creates a healthy dancer."

Beyond the dance world, Kandel says having open conversations about eating disorders can make a huge difference. "Shame, stigma, and a lack of understanding is a breeding ground for unhealthy and uneducated information," she says. "Creating a conversation beyond just dance, that we have to be careful of how we are talking about other people's bodies, period, is important."

And while this issue may be exasperated within the confines of dance studios, it's one people in general are grappling with: When Refinery29 polled 1,000 readers on their feelings about body image, 46% said they had been told, "You need some meat on your bones," and 41% said they first heard comments about their body when they were between the ages of 10 and 13. If people — in the dance community and outside of it — consistently assume it's okay to judge or comment on people's bodies, it only contributes to the already vicious cycle.

To be clear, thin privilege is definitely a thing — and people with slim, athletic bodies simply don't face the same discrimination and obstacles that those with larger bodies, or people who have disabilities, deal with every day. But words matter, and despite how supernatural dancers' abilities seem, they're not impervious to the effects of body talk. They may be able to crack their hips and pirouette without getting dizzy, but they're human, too.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.