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Why Ballet Hasn’t Yet Caught Up to the Body Positivity Movement

People of all shapes and sizes want to dance, but not everyone is made to feel welcome

Lynette Davis
Mar 16 · 11 min read
Ballet at the Paris Opéra, by Edgar Degas (1877), via Wikimedia Commons
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I would assess my own cultural awareness as disputably out of touch. I’m rarely up to date on the latest trends or threads of cultural discourse. Even major, newsworthy events can occasionally escape my notice if my ostrich-like disposition finds a particularly large hole in the sand where I can store my head. This ignorance is neither malicious nor intentional (or so I have convinced myself). Rather, it’s a subconscious self-preservation instinct bent on limiting my own worries to those immediately visible around me.

Parenthetically, just as I avoid the observable results of the Earth’s cultural rotation (a highly irresponsible habit, I’m aware), I similarly avoid horror films. Blood and gore do little for my attention span besides informing it that it should be diverted elsewhere.

With both of these self-proclaimed truths in mind, my decision to watch Netflix’s 2019 drama Velvet Buzzsaw was bewildering, to say the least. (At the present moment, I mostly attribute this choice to the fact that a brooding and impeccably dressed Jake Gyllenhaal graced the title card.)

Since its late-January release onto the streaming platform, the film has garnered mediocre reviews. People who didn’t like the film often cite its minimal brutality as one of its primary flaws. Understandably (even for someone who tactfully evaded her eyes during any scenes of gore), the film hardly spilled enough blood to be taken seriously as a proper horror film. But despite this supposed shortcoming, I personally found the film interesting (although I did think the commentary was a bit heavy-handed). Velvet Buzzsaw’s conceit, which was a tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-hand takedown of the art world’s pretentious upper echelons, proved satisfying for us normies who can’t always distinguish the Fauves from the post-Impressionists, or the Baroque from Rococo.

However, the more I considered the film and its themes, the more I was able to draw direct comparisons between the film and a specific art form that’s very close to my own heart: classical ballet. Ballet is an art form that has maintained its own culture and ethos for centuries, much to the skeptical concern of the uninitiated. Like Velvet Buzzsaw’s snobbish caricatures of the artistic ruling class, ballet (at least from an outsider’s perspective) seems to thrive on notions of elitism and a marked divide between dance (the pastime) and ballet (the lifestyle). In both cases, there’s a sharp yet inscrutable distinction between art and Art.

My personal journey with ballet spans about a decade: I started taking classical ballet lessons at age seven and officially stopped my lessons when I left home to attend college at 17. My relationship with the craft has always been turbulent. Even as a child I was, shall we say, well-insulated. From the age of eight, I would trepidatiously ask my mother, a former ballet dancer herself, whether or not I should lose weight. She always assured me that my weight was not a concern, though this reassurance was generally accompanied by an instruction to watch my eating habits. To my young and unconfident ears, this was merely a sugar-coated affirmative.

Even now, I consider ballet to be an integral element in the development of my self-image, both physically and emotionally. I still carry with me many of the stresses and insecurities I developed as a result of dancing. Before I was even 10 years old, a self-awareness of my own weight compared to that of my peers colored my perception of my placement in the world. I soon recognized that, perhaps more so than the young dancers around me, I was expected to “earn my keep” by compensating for my comparatively large proportions.

Critiquing ballet’s impact on the health and body image of young girls is hardly groundbreaking. After all, the general public has hypothesized for years about the commonality of eating disorders among ballet dancers. Medical research has shown interest in corroborating these assumptions in the last several decades, too. And equally concerning is the fact that these effects of ballet culture aren’t limited to ballet’s professional elite: One study from 2003 found that non-elite female ballet dancers displayed the highest rates of disordered eating compared to non-professional female gymnasts and noncompetitive male bodybuilders. In the study, 1.8 percent of ballet dancers suffered from anorexia. 2.7 percent suffered from bulimia and 22.1 percent struggled with other, non-specific eating disorders.

Another study from 2005 found a 7.5 percent discrepancy between the average body masses of young ballet dancers aged eight to 13, and those of their non-dancing peers. More recently, a 2016 study found that during an average rehearsal week, high-level ballet dancers only consumed 71.6 percent of the recommended daily nutrients. In many ways, ballet dancers suffer from a dangerous yet beautified epidemic.

Despite my previous gripes, I consider myself fortunate to have attended a ballet school that was more focused on technique and artistry than size. All of my instructors were kind and encouraging, and I believe that each of them was genuinely invested in my personal development as a dancer. They urged all of their students to eat, hydrate, and rest properly. While eating disorders are often imperceptible to an outsider, I can’t recall any events or attitudes indicative of disordered eating among my fellow students. Unfortunately, as indicated by the above statistics, I believe my school and others like it are in the minority.

Though I was never directly pressured to lose weight or otherwise alter my appearance as a dancer, I can still vividly conjure the sensations of inadequacy, stress, and self-hatred that plagued my childhood and teenage years, merely as a result of partaking in the ballet world. While I managed to maintain some level of self-confidence in my everyday life, this confidence promptly dissipated inside the dance studio. In a vicious and seemingly inescapable cycle, each emotional crash would carry over to the following day when the battle for self-acceptance would begin anew. Ten years of ballet taught me that while fat girls can dance, only slender, long-limbed girls are truly encouraged to dance. Only the thinnest and most beautiful dancers are pushed to consider ballet as a potential career.

Ballet culture is a slippery concept, one that by necessity intertwines discussions of history, artistic intent, and overarching societal patterns. For the sake of concision, I will make the (unsurprising) assertion that ballet culture at large is shaped by persistent notions of the ideal female form (or at least, what some sections of society deem to be ideal).

When you trace ballet back to its historical roots in the 16th century, you’ll find that in the beginning, ballet placed focus on the artistry of the dancers’ external adornments. Costumes were lavish and consisted of countless layers that rendered any type of movement strenuous. Perhaps for this reason, ballet’s original steps were mostly comprised of “small hops, slides, curtsies, promenades, and gentle turns.” The instantly recognizable pointe shoe, now considered a defining element of the craft, was not designed and implemented until the early 19th century. This new “toe dancing” was reserved solely for women, eventually culminating in the development of a “romantic heroine,” a sylph-like fairy whose pristine goodness and purity inevitably triumphs over evil or injustice.

Within this character archetype, we find the root of ballet culture’s recurring issues: body-exclusivity, low self-esteem, disordered eating, and the like. While some of these effects may be chalked up to individual neuroses or even the typical pressures placed on women to conform to a variety of unattainable standards, there also seem to be unique pressures deeply rooted within the structure and culture of the craft itself.

Ballet’s artistry is, by design, contingent upon thinness, lightness, length. It’s focus is on a form of body that’s not the standard. What’s more, this supposed uniqueness is often purposefully inflicted. Ballet’s culture of necessary self-discipline and denounced indulgences imposes an intentional and potentially dangerous limitation on dancers’ bodies. Food that could serve as necessary sustenance is timidly shoved away; rest for aching bones and strained muscles is rebuffed in favor of another lengthy rehearsal. This pattern of renunciation, one that enforces a standard of refusal upon women for the benefit of the viewer, is exactly what separates ballet as an art form specifically designed for the wealthy elite.

Implicit in dancers’ self-denial is the opportunity to deny. Ballet is not a “poor” pastime. The tights, leotards, pointe shoes, and, of course, ballet lessons themselves can easily outgrow even a middle class parent’s expendable income. While ballet dancers could choose a life of relaxation or self-gratification, their time and resources are instead focused on restraint, self-discipline, and the maintenance of their all-consuming craft. Conversely, when the wealthy choose to patronize ballet companies (traditionally, they are the only group that is economically able to do so), they spend their extraneous income on the inadvertent encouragement (and some may even say exploitation) of dancers’ self-denial. This art form requires a level of economic certainty on both ends. As such, the “beauty” of ballet in its most capitalist sense is reliant upon wealth.

The aesthetic beauty of ballet also comes at the potential expense of a dancer’s well-being. This is much like the way that Vetril Dease, Velvet Buzzsaw’s enigmatic and tormented pivotal artist, injects his very essence into each of his pieces. Ballet dancers must also transform their own physicality into art.

The notion that entertainment comes at the expense of a woman’s comfort and well-being is hauntingly reminiscent of the supermodel arena of the 1990s. This was a period that, according to the decade’s own proclamations, was by-and-large defined by “girl power.” In an article for The Guardian, ane former Vogue editor wrote: “the longer I work with models, the more the food deprivation is obvious.” Prior to this assessment, her piece relayed several personal stories from the ’80s and ’90s detailing the effects of models’ coping methods. She’d seen multiple fainting spells per day, frequent hospitalization for IV drips, and more. She also noted that “beauties such as Cindy Crawford, Eva Herzigová and Claudia Schiffer look positively curvaceous compared to the sylphs of today.” Despite current media being purportedly drive by ideologies of feminism, acceptance, and body-positivity, disorder is becoming more and more prevalent in ballet culture.

The fashion world, much like the ballet world, benefits from the commodification of women’s bodies for the artistic benefit of the wealthy. Both fashion shows and ballets are formulated around exclusivity. They are considered to be “high art” and thus, few can afford entrance to either. This is by design. As declared by Velvet Buzzsaw’s cynical and obscenely wealthy gallery owner, Rhodora Haze, “None of this [artistic elitism] is new. It’s all been done since someone charged a bone to see the first cave painting.”

Thus, the wealthy patronize ballet, an ancient form which ostensibly requires (and enforces) a very specific female body type. This (often unhealthy) type has been, over generations, upheld as a standard of beauty. High art therefore necessitates and benefits from a prescriptive female form, one that is sold as neither typical nor attainable but is nonetheless considered ideal.

This rather tangled confluence of money, beauty, and art presents a rather unsettling hypothesis about the transformation and consequent consumption of women’s bodies for the purpose of artfulness. Both historically and currently, women have been used as decoration. Slim, stunning women in movies and TV commercials often serve as “arm candy,” hanging onto the arm of a dashing man solely for the purpose of proving his desirability, wealth, and success. Even First Ladies, despite their initiatives to impact children’s health, curb the nation’s opioid abuse, or “beautify” cities and highways, are most frequently discussed in relation to their wardrobes. The antiquated notion of a story’s hero “getting the girl” as a reward for his exploits is frequent in fairytales and cinema. This storyline is predicated upon an understanding of women as necessarily beautiful objects and, ultimately, as prizes to be won.

Ballet requires great strength, flexibility, and endurance but it is also ultimately decorative. Unlike sports, in which a competition may deliver a concrete victor, ballet is fluid. It is a form of visual storytelling and, as such, it focuses on dancers not as individuals with enhanced skill sets, but as vehicles through which the beauty of the ideal human body may be demonstrated. This precept is hardly cause for alarm; however, alarm may be warranted when that notion of ideal beauty becomes a litmus test for performative femininity, both literal and figurative. Ballet’s prescriptive culture, which is rooted as deeply as the craft’s centuries-old origins, sources its power through the aforementioned “sylph-like” ideal. The visual of a lithe and graceful fairy-like creature does not simply serve as an occasional character archetype; rather, it becomes the standard by which all women within ballet’s enclosed universe must abide, on penalty of expulsion. I don’t wish to denounce the beauty of the slender, elegant women I reference; however, this notion of beauty is extremely exclusionary and even harmful for those without the biological propensity for such an appearance.

We live in an age of purported body positivity when women are encouraged (in theory, if not in practice) to take pride in their bodies and find value in themselves past numbered sizes. And within this framework, ballet’s implicit and persistent expectations for long limbs, slender waists, narrow hips, and swan-like necks seems at least slightly out of touch. Obtaining the typical ballerina form is impossible for most but it is exactly this exclusivity that gives ballerinas their power. Elitism necessitates exclusion and privatization, and ballet, which is an artistic exploration of ideal beauty dependent on some level of wealth, fulfills this objective in spades.

Should ballet adapt its culture and expectations for a modern, body-inclusive audience? I think this question is nebulous. Personally, I hope it can and will. But this hope remains firmly tethered to the ground by the unforgiving shackles of realism. In order to include a wider array of body types — not just plus-sized women, but those of all shapes — ballet must reassess its understanding of what constitutes beauty and, by extension, art. Long lines and slim waists are beautiful but must this assessment of physical beauty be mutually exclusive?

A devil’s advocate may propose that the craft of ballet only attracts those who are naturally slender and dainty. They might say that the very movements of ballet encourage the development of long, sleek muscles to make up the typical “ballerina” form. That is true, at least in part. Dancers who start young do tend to develop a pattern of motion that is generally more fluid and graceful than that of non-dancers. And by extension, from my personal experience and observation, people with naturally smaller bodies may find their involvement in the ballet realm to be easier than will those of other shapes. But for me, the underlying issue here rests in whether or not dancers outside of the typical form should be encouraged to partake in ballet. In general (and, again, from my personal observation), the more elite the ballet company, the more prescriptive the visual standards. People of all shapes and sizes want to dance, but not everyone is made to feel welcome.

As a former dancer, I understand and appreciate ballet as a craft. In fact, I’m often struck by a nostalgia for dancing, for its movements and its emotive expression, and even for the impression that I was somehow making use of my body in a way that atoned for the perceived offense of occupying space. I don’t think ballet is evil. I don’t think it’s supporters are evil. I don’t think the art form is single-handedly responsible for an eating disorder epidemic among young girls. Ballet can affect women, men, and others in a myriad of ways, many of which are positive. I myself reaped its positive effects with the implementation of routine and reasonable self-moderation, by learning social development, and even (though only on occasion) by growing self-confidence.

Much like the art world I saw in Velvet Buzzsaw, ballet has been extrapolated, adapted, and even formed in ways that could be harmful. And while I am hardly advocating for an atonement bloodbath such as that which viscerally intertwines Buzzsaw’s characters, I do hope those of all body types will eventually be able to experience and enjoy ballet for its exploration of human artistry, shape and size unbarred.

Lynette Davis

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An editor by trade and a writer by stubbornness. I enjoy reading, complaining, and getting ignored by stray cats I greet on the sidewalk.