Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance-Part 3
by Ashley Mowrey
Trigger Warning: Body shaming and eating disorders
You’re at the barre, tights and leotard on, ready for pliés, when you see it. That little stomach pooch trying to stick out over your tights. Is that “back fat” hanging over your leotard even more today? And ugh, those thighs. You will never see thigh gap with legs like yours. As class begins, you try to focus. But you can’t stop thinking about that pizza you had last night. You criticize yourself and vow to never eat pizza again. Vegetables and water for the rest of today to make up for it.
Have you been there before? Me too. I lived there for far too long. Growing up in front of mirrors is...weird. And hard. And confusing. Especially in body-conscious attire we dancers have to wear daily. The constant critiques and feedback, often referencing our bodies, can complicate our relationship with our body and how we see ourselves.
In my last 2 articles for Apolla Performance, we’ve explored toxic diet culture in dance and my experience of body shaming as a competitive dancer. Today we’ll focus on the last area of this series: body image.
Body image is what you see, think, and feel about your body, both in the mirror and in pictures of yourself, as well as the behaviors that result from these things. However, one’s body image is not always an accurate representation of how they actually look. This is due to several factors including cultural or societal beauty standards, social media, advertising, diet culture, one’s environment, as well as opinions and behavior from parents, friends, teachers, and other influential people in your life.
Think of body image as being on a continuum. Some people experience positive body image more often, while others experience negative. However, for many, it oscillates on a spectrum, sometimes very subtly, depending on our environment, behaviors, thoughts, and experiences. It can fluctuate minute to minute, day by day, and year to year.
The most serious form of poor body image is a mental health condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder, BDD, where individuals become fixated and obsessed with their body or appearance. According to the Doctors at John Hopkins, “symptoms of BDD include:
- Constantly checking yourself in the mirror
- Avoiding mirrors
- Trying to hide your body part under a hat, scarf, or makeup
- Constantly exercising or grooming
- Constantly comparing yourself with others
- Always asking other people whether you look OK
- Not believing other people when they say you look fine
- Avoiding social activities
- Not going out of the house, especially in the daytime
- Seeing many healthcare providers about your appearance
- Having unnecessary plastic surgeries
- Picking at your skin with fingers or tweezers
- Feeling anxious, depressed, and ashamed
- Thinking of suicide
BDD is typically treated through therapy and/or medication. If you suspect that you or someone you know may have BDD, check out Psychology Today to find a therapist in your area.
We often think that body positivity is the answer to negative body image, but the researchers at Beauty Redefined are offering a new approach: body image resilience. In her 2017 TED Talk “Body Positivity or Body Obsession”, Dr. Lindsay Kite from Beauty Redefined and More Than A Body said, “Over the last 15 years or so, lots of well-meaning people and companies have tried to improve women’s body image by pushing this message that ‘all women are beautiful – flaws and all!’ This is a really nice message, but it is not fixing the problem. Girls and women aren’t only suffering because of the unattainable ways beauty is being defined, they’re suffering because they are being defined by beauty. They are bodies first and people second.”
Ah, yes. So often we are taught we are bodies first and people second. For dancers, this distinction can be especially complicated since our instrument IS our body. Therefore, it is crucial, we regard ourselves and our dancers as people first and bodies second. This can be practiced in many ways such as: how we talk about our own body, the behaviors we model, how we give corrections (suck it in vs. belly button to spine), how we talk about others’ bodies, how we talk about dancers in costumes, and the value we put on weight and appearance above other parts of a person.
So how can we do this? Beauty Redefined suggests reframing how we look at bodies by focusing on their function over aesthetic. They explain, “Loving your body isn’t believing your body looks good; it is knowing your body is good, regardless of how it looks. It isn’t thinking you are beautiful; it is knowing you are more than beautiful. It is understanding that your body is an instrument for your use, not an ornament to be admired.”
One of the biggest ways we can start to value function over aesthetics is to stop commenting on what bodies look like (yours included). This isn’t to say don’t correct body placement, technique, or movement. However, we can shift the language of our corrections to correcting the action of the body instead of the weight, size, or shape of the dancer.
Another area to avoid when commenting on bodies is diet-talk or weight loss, as discussed further in my last post on Diet Culture. I reached out to Dr. Lucie Clements, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Chichester, UK and Dance Psychologist for her insight on commenting on dancer’s weight, even weight loss. She shared, “Parents and teachers should never praise weight, instead focusing on the investment of effort, e.g ‘You are working hard to ensure your body is fueled well for dance’. This will create an intrinsic motivation for the dancer to develop a healthy relationship with food and performance.”
Once we start to view our bodies as instruments instead of ornaments, we can then practice body positivity and body acceptance. Here are a few ideas:
- Be an advocate for diverse bodies. What kinds of bodies are in your company or in your lead roles? Who are the photos of in your studio and social media? Are there dancers of all colors, shapes, and sizes?
- Check who you’re following on social media. Are you following accounts that promote weight loss and diet culture? Or make you feel self-conscious about your body?
- When negative thoughts about your body come up, how can you neutralize them? Try shifting from “I’m so fat in this” to “My body feels a bit uncomfortable in this today, but I know I am more than a body and it’s okay to feel this way”. It’s okay if it feels weird or scary at first...it takes practice but you can do it.
- Question your fat-phobia, both with yourself and others. Are you equating fatness with bad? Why? Compassionately explore your beliefs about fat and challenge if they are true and helpful.
- Focus on parts of yourself other than your body, appearance, or weight. Are you giving as much attention to your mind and spirit? If you’re a teacher, how can your praise and corrections reflect these other aspects of your dancers?
Body image and diet culture are big, complicated issues, especially if you're new to exploring them. For more tips and resources, check out my November blog post on Diet Culture. If you’d like support while you go through this process, or if you’re interested in my work, head to my website. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Ashley Mowrey is a Mindset Coach and Educator for dancers. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach and Whole Person Certified Coach through Coach Training World, a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women, a specialist for Doctors for Dancers, and a blog contributor for Apolla Performance. Ashley has recently joined the faculty for the upcoming Embody Dance Conference, coming Summer 2021 in Hartford, CT where she will lead workshops for all ages, including parents and teachers, on mindset tools. She is also a Team Member of Dancer, 360 and will be a contributor to their upcoming book. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community to foster mental health and wellbeing. She sees clients in person and via Skype/Zoom all over the country as well as travels (mostly digitally these days) to studios for customized group workshops. Ashley has also been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast. Head to her website for more information, or her Instagram for free tools and resources to help you build a healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best.