On SuperWomen and Body Image

This weekend, I had two separate casual conversations with friends that ultimately dealt with the idea of body image, and they got me thinking. Like many dancers, I have long had a complicated relationship with my own body image.  At present, I have mostly come to terms with it, but at times I feel as though I am at a crossroads.  I am neither the lithe, sleek ballerina type or the powerhouse, totally jacked athletic modern dancer. I am, body-wise, altogether average.

The crossroads at which I stand are at the juncture of wanting to be a role model, and wanting to be taken seriously as a dance artist. For my students’ sake, and the sake of the little girls with “average” or “imperfect” bodies who sit in the audience at my shows, I want to own my shape and succeed in spite – heck, because of – it. I do not want to be the hypocrite who tells her students to love themselves and their bodies, while secretly trying all the time to change her own. On the other hand, when I go to performances or watch videos or see pictures of successful dance artists, I can’t help but think: Wouldn’t this all be easier if I looked like her? Wouldn’t people take me more seriously if I looked like their expectations of a “dancer?”

When I was growing up, the anorexic-chic look was all the rage. Especially as a ballet student, but even in my “outside” life, most girls were trying to attain a rail-thin, curve-less figure, by any means necessary. I saw friends drop several sizes in a few weeks, develop a thin layer of hair over their entire body, loose the ability to jump in class because they were so malnourished, and even – in one frightening case – turn orange from eating nothing but carrots. Even more frighteningly, I was jealous of them, orange hands and all.

I’m glad to see that that look has seemed to fallen out of favor, at least to some degree. Yes, in Hollywood and in the ballet studios, the sleek, petite look still prevails, and too many women still turn to dangerous dieting practices and struggle with diseases like  anorexia and bulimia. However, I see more and more women – even ballet dancers – who seem to be owning their muscles and their curves, and more choreographers and directors who seem to be accepting of this.

However, I am concerned that because of this acceptance, we have entered into a new phase of disordered body image, something along the lines of “bulkerexica” and “healthorexia.”  While some women, including dancers, have turned away from starving themselves, it seems from social media and personal experience that they are turning to new ways to exert control over their lives through controlling their food intake: cutting out gluten, dairy, or meat, obsessing over the amounts of protein, carbs, and artificial ingredients consumed, or following restrictive diets revolving around the “healthy” ideas of organic, natural, and whole foods. I have nothing against these measures; in fact, I try to eat as naturally as possible (although I will admit to indulging myself perhaps more often than most!).  I applaud people who try to eat in ways that are respectful to their bodies and the planet. What worries me is that these “healthy” diets are taking the place of the calorie counting, cigarettes, and Diet Coke of yesterday. Might these measures at times just be another way for us to feel in control of ourselves by controlling our diets so that we can fit into societal-made images of how we should look and feel?

Add to this the fitness-industrial complex, that monster mash-up of gyms, DVDs, vitamin companies, home workouts, Lulu-lemons, and energy drinks shaming women into mastering Yogalates, power lifting, marathons, and the incredibly demeaning sounding “Mudderella” (a ladies-only version of the Tough Mudder, of which my knowledge is admittedly second-hand). I know that some women truly do enjoy exercising, and truly feel fulfilled by the meeting of intense physical challenges.  However, I wonder how much of our contemporary love affair with exercise is yet another version of anorexia 2.0. How many women take on extreme forms of exercise not to feel empowered, but to mold their shapes to fit today’s societal ideals?  These ideals have shifted, but they are dangerous nonetheless. Gone are the waifish, emaciated and little-boy like ideal shapes of the 90s, but in their place has arisen the ultra-buff, super-jacked, mega-ripped, 6-packed figure of the do-it-all, have-it-all, marathon-running, career-dominating, (organic) dinner-making, SuperWoman of the 2010s. Is this really that different?

I ask these questions with compassion, without judgement. I’m currently sitting on my couch, two helpings of mashed potatoes in my belly, cursing myself for not going to the gym today. I wish I was that SuperWoman. I will admit to trying to be her. I completely understand why any woman would also want to be her. The media has told us we have to be. Social media – especially Pinterest – has led u to believe that all the other women around us already are. In the dance world, I am constantly meeting women who forgo sleep and sanity to produce creative work, teach, research, advocate, and perform – all before tucking the kids in at night. Just the thought of existing along side of them is exhausting. Perhaps coincidentally, these are largely the same women with the willow ballerina silhouettes or the fierce powerhouse modern dance bodies, constructed at the shrine of the Pilates reformer (or in some cases just luck); these are the women who look like dancers.

I don’t think I’ve looked like a dancer for at least 10 years, and I certainly spend more time on the couch then I do at the gym. (Though admittedly, I don’t have much time left over at the end of the day for the couch, either). And I want to be okay with that, because I want my students to be okay with that as well – if that’s what they want. I want them to know they can be beautiful, lithe, powerful, athletic dancers no matter what their BMI is, and that being healthy – physically and mentally – is far more important than looking any certain way. I want them to know they can be dancers, or doctors, or moms, or explorers, or thinkers – whatever they decide is best for them. And they can work hard but still get 8 hours of sleep a night and eat frozen pizza sometimes instead of homecooked meals and savor the time they have to rest and relax and enjoy their lives. I want them to know that they ARE SuperWomen, already, just by being themselves.

But how can I convince them of that if I don’t set the example myself?

…..

This is a great piece on the perception of what a dancer SHOULD look like (and what it feels like when you don’t):  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/20/arts/dance/20laro.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

……

This is my wish for Dance Teachers concerning the development of healthy body image for their students:

1.) Don’t let your students wear “dance bras” and “booty shorts.” Just don’t. It’s not necessary, it’s demeaning, and it can be incredibly damaging. A leotard at least covers up the rolls and subtle imperfections that student dancers WILL focus on, distracting them from work on their technique and artistry.

2.) Be aware that we come in all sizes. Some of your students will have big boobs. Some will have hips. Some will be all elbows and knees. Some (like me) will carry a few extra pounds no matter how much they manage their diet and exercise.  Chances are that ALL will be self-conscious about how they look. Be sensitive when choosing costumes.

3.) Be aware of your biases concerning the look of the “ideal” dancer. Do you always put the tall, skinny girl with long legs in the front? Switch it up and let your dancers know they are valued no matter what their body type.

4.) TALK about body image, in a safe, non-judgmental way. Let students express their feelings and concerns. Recommend help when you think it is appropriate. Don’t glamorize, joke about, or encourage disordered eating in any way. It is easy for a dancer to begin dieting to “fit in” with what the rest of the group is doing or to meet the teacher’s presumed expectations, but that can quickly spiral into full blown eating disorders or other body image issues.

5.) Teach your students about nutrition, conditioning, and cross-training in a healthy way. If you aren’t 100% sure you know how to do this, hire an expert to help.

…..

This is my wishlist for all women, dancers and not-yet-dancers, concerning their own body image. These are things I have been trying to incorporate in my own life. They are difficult, but they have made a difference in many, often surprising, ways:

1.) Think about what you consider beautiful, and why. Do you really care about fitting in to that size X? Or do you feel that way because a certain celebrity wears it, because your best friend just lost 10 pounds, or because you are afraid your partner won’t be attracted to you unless you look a certain way? If its any of those options, reconsider.  Even if it’s “I’ll just feel better about myself,” think about why a number on a pair of pants or a dress has that kind of power in your life, and in the lives of so many.  Who determines what is “better,” and why is that tied to the size you wear?

2.) Think about how and why you spend your money. We’ve all been guilt-ed into spending WAY too much at a Mary Kay party, while in the beauty aisle at Target, or online shopping. But consider why you’re buying that $50 eye cream, and how else that money could be used – a charitable investment, maybe, or a good book, a movie date with friends. We all have physical imperfections, and if we all own them with confidence and grace, there’d be no need to hide behind eye creams and concealers in the first place.

3.) Think about how you talk to other women and girls. Is the first thing you say some variation on “You look good/You lost weight/Love your scarf?”  What does that tell us about what we value in our female friends? Even though they are complimentary statements, they still focus the attention on physical appearance, and reaffirm the belief that we are what we wear, what we weigh, and how we manipulate our looks. Especially for young girls, consider shifting the focus to what they are experiencing, doing, learning, feeling, and believing.  Turn “You are wearing a pretty coat” to “What are you learning in school?” Maybe we if all tried this, we could raise a generation of girls who were less swayed by conventional standards of beauty, less worried about what looked like and what they owned, and more confident in who they are under the surface, where it really counts. Lisa Bloom writes more eloquently on this topic than I ever could: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html

4.) Think about who your role models are. My entire concept of body image changed when I discovered feminism and role models in the women’s movement. Body image is a feminist issue – women (and men) are held back by the constant focus on and expectations for our appearance, by the media, the workforce, our communities, and ourselves.  Introductory women’s studies books like “Fight Like A Girl” by Meghan Seeley and “Feminism is for Everyone” by bell hooks showed me the hidden aspect of patriarchy that undermined my body image, and showed me that changing how I think about my appearance was a rebellious, radical feminist act of the best kind. I still struggle with this, clearly, but when I start to slip I remember their words and know I’m not alone in this struggle. And neither are you.

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