I did ballet for 8 years and its negative impact still echoes. Here’s why:
Ballet is a highly competitive and body-conscious sport that breeds perfectionism. Dancers are no different from conventional athletes and often rehearse long and hard hours with constant criticism of their form and technique, and are required to keep in shape.
Studies have shown that athletes are more at risk of symptoms of disordered eating in comparison to a regular population.
- Body Mass Index of 127 female pre-professional female dancer was found abnormal for 57.5% of the dancers, while 15.7% had a more or less severe degree of thinness. (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- 16.4% of female ballet dancers develop some form of eating disorder, according to an article in the European Eating Disorders Review.
- According to the 2020 survey by WeAreMindingTheGap, 75% of dancers said that they dealt with mental health challenges within five years of taking the survey.
- Approximately 15-20% of the population have an extra bone in the back of their ankle. (chop.edu)
- The perpetuation of the aesthetic, athletic girl image in the ballet community can be damaging to young girls, especially those who aspire to become stage performers and start training from a young age.
Growing up, I watched these waifish ballerinas take the stage, and while their movements were powerful and sure, the fact is, there is no other body type than conventionally thin in this industry.
In my own experience in ballet class, I was targeted by my ballet teacher, who often body-shamed her pupils. While this is not a universal experience, it was influenced by the stereotypical portrayal of the exclusively thin, graceful ballerina, which puts pressure on young, impressionable girls to attain an unrealistic body ideal.
Feeding into this mindset is the strive for perfection.
While the athletic culture has been somewhat reshaped with the narrative that failure is necessary for success, ballet seeks perfection in the minutiae. Perfectionistic self-presentation reflects the maladaptive need to appear perfect to others, and this is linked to the incidence of disordered eating among athletes. Fixating on being perfect is tempting, especially in the ballet culture, where a ballerina rehearses in a ballet studio surrounded by mirrors, wearing skin-tight leotards to better monitor body movement, guided by a teacher who must make individual criticism concise and direct as they have a big group of dancers to coach simultaneously. This might result in harsh comments that can dent one’s self-esteem, thus breeding anxiety and mental health issues.
Ballerinas are under constant surveillance, by their teachers, examiners, peers, and an audience. Surveillance, along with the nature of ‘thinness’ in ballet, breeds the habit of body-checking, which pressures ballerinas into monitoring their eating habits to an unhealthy extreme. Dryburgh, & Fortin (2010) interviewed 15 ballerinas on their perception of ballet culture, and have come to the consensus that, in ballet, the focus is on the ‘physical appearance’, ‘beautiful lines’, and an ‘ideal body type’. One ballerina reports that she lost her job because she was “too fat”.
“I knew it, they would tell me and it lasted for five years. I was told I had to lose weight all the time, so I felt as though I was under surveillance, that’s for sure. As soon as they would come into the studio, I felt that they were only looking at my weight. I did not want to be looked at anymore. When you feel that people think you are too fat and not pretty, you just want to hide.”
Paying attention to detail, form, and performance is important, but when it borders on obsessive when it begins to compromise your mental health, it is more important to take a step back and remember that the pursuit of perfection is not the ultimate path of the athlete.
A study by Paixão, Oliveira, & Ferreira (2020) on young female athletes from aesthetic sports reported that 46% of body image-related perfectionist self-presentation was explained by body image-related cognitive fusion. Cognitive fusion is defined as an excessive involvement with internal events. This develops experiential avoidance, the reluctance to experience internal events that are appraised negatively, resulting in behaviors that temporarily decrease the discomfort raised by those internal events.
Instead of being present, dancers can get caught up in the mistakes, or the fear of making a mistake that prevents them from trying.
Part of the sport is trial and error, but when there is fear of failure, getting to the trial part can be intimidating. Cementing this inflexible mindset into oneself through hours of rigor can lead to a lasting impact on daily life.
I am still growing and learning, as is everyone, and my struggle is connected to my fear of failure cultivated by my obsession with perfectionism. Rather than allowing myself to enjoy the learning process or even the flow of the dance, I often got stuck on the movement and technique, unable to see past my anxieties and frustration. This, coupled with disordered eating, took a mental toll on me at a young age, which continues to affect me, years later, outside of the ballet studio, even though the dawn of adulthood.
The bias of psychological inflexibility can present itself in various ways. Such as the inability to speak my mind or ask questions without fear of judgment, avoiding public performances due to a lack of confidence in my abilities, and being perceived as incurious, when the opposite is true—these are just some of my struggles as a result of this bias. Overcoming such struggles is challenging, and can be daunting. Granted, the only way out is through. Forcing yourself through uncomfortable situations is necessary for experience. Anxiety is a huge factor in avoidance.
This prevents us from having enriching experiences to solidify our confidence and build character. To counter these negative side-effects of a highly rewarding and enjoyable sport, we must also reform the culture of the ballet industry.
- Less fixation on body image and more focus on function would benefit the development of young athletes.
- Educating dancers on healthy nutritional habits should also be implemented during classes, as ballet, especially with the long hours, is physically demanding and requires a lot of energy. Diverse body representation is extremely crucial to facilitate such change.
- Practicing mindfulness, especially with teachers, as the comments they make can have a long-lasting impact on their athletes, whether negative or positive. Learning how to regulate your anxiety and emotions is important.
- We must extend the same kindness and compassion we give to others to ourselves. I highly recommend therapy as a means to work on oneself and one’s mindset, giving way to a better quality of life