StEPS: How To Discuss Body Image Issues with Young Dancers

A woman dancing on a roof top in Apolla Compression Socks

Beyond the StEPS Season 1, Episode 2

How to discuss Body Image Issues with Young Dancers 

Welcome to Beyond the StEPS. 

Our question today is “What are the do's and don'ts of commenting on a student's body?”

From all of us who have been in the dance world, we have probably experienced this; if we haven't experienced it we can empathize with others, who we have seen struggle through these intrusive thoughts. We want to take the time to understand what's good and what's bad, what you might think is good, and is not as good as you think it is. In addition, we will be discussing the correct, nurturing, loving and kind things to say and do around our students to protect their body image.

Trigger Warning: The following topics that we will discuss may trigger some readers. This could be triggering for people who have had, or are currently experiencing intrusive thoughts regarding body image. We want you to make sure that you take every opportunity to protect your peace and protect your space. If you need to stop reading, please do so at any point, you can always return to our post when you are ready. We will be talking about body image, and will briefly touch on eating disorders, some of the experiences we have had in the past, and some of the things that we can do in the future to make sure we have the most positive body image possible as we move forward in life.

An article written by Psychology Today discusses the perception of body image and how it governs so many things in our lives. Negative body image affects several aspects of your life, it's not just what we see when we look in the mirror, but it's who we meet, who we marry, the nature of our interactions, our day-to-day comfort levels and so much more. Our body image indicates and informs all of those things.

According to this article by , only five percent of women naturally possess the body type that's often portrayed in American Media. FIVE PERCENT. All of the images that we are consistently being fed...only five percent of people naturally look that way, which is crazy because the media makes you feel like that's the "norm", when in reality only five percent of people actually look that way.

Students, especially women, who consume a substantial amount of mainstream media (movies, social media, and television shows) tend to place greater importance on their “sexiness” than their overall appearance, than those who don't consume a lot of mainstream media. As dance educators, who are often around children in their developmental stages, we must be hyper aware of what's happening out there already. It's important that we keep that in mind, as we are probably the biggest impressions on our students, because we see them day to day just like their parents do. The purpose and intention of these conversations is to get you to understand the impact of messages surrounding body image. We must understand the impact of what you say and how that lands on students because it's bigger than when they just leave class.

We brought Ashley Mowrey here today to share her knowledge and understanding of this topic. Ashley is a performance mindset coach and educator located in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Ashley holds a BA in psychology from the University of Arkansas, professional coach certification through “Coach Training World”, and is a certified and trained facilitator. Ashley was a competitive dancer, turned educator and company director, and now is a performance mindset coach. Ashley is also a dance specialist with “Doctors for Dancers”. You can find a dance specialist on . Ashley has also been featured on several podcasts including Dance Boss with Erin Pride (who is sponsored with Apolla, check out her podcast, it is amazing)! Erin and Ashley are also a part of Apolla's blog team called The Muse which gives you a 360 degree view of the dancer and promotes a happy healthy mind, body and soul of dancers.

Apolla co-founder Bri asked “I know the topic today is deeply personal for you and you've put a lot of time and care into researching this so we appreciate you sharing your experience with us because we know this is something common that needs to be addressed in our dance community so badly. Can you tell us before we get started and dig into the hard questions, tell us a little bit about what you do as a performance mindset coach.” 

Ashley stated, she was a competition dancer, who grew up in Dallas, Texas where it was a very competitive studio, she struggled with body image perfectionism, and being her own worst critic. In those times she just thought it was herself, “I thought like that's just how I was wired. I didn't really have any tools or resources to work through those things”. In college when she was getting her degree in Psychology she started teaching at a local studio in Fayetteville and started noticing these same things her my dancers too. She began to see it from a teacher's perspective and thought “you know what are we doing here why are we not giving these dancers tools and resources to have a healthier mindset and be able to just have healthier mental well-being as dancers”. She went through a lot of certifications and trainings and now she coaches full-time. The majority of her business is one-on-one coaching with dancers from pre-teens to professionals.  She works really closely with children under 18 and she works closely with their parents throughout the coaching process, and opens dialogues about the tools that they're using and the exercises that we're practicing .She also works with dance teachers on both mindset tools for them and how they can use them and then what they can do to help the mindsets of their students.

“Throughout this work it's been so interesting. It went from me feeling it, and then me seeing it, seeing it in my students, and now I work with students all across the United States. All of it is so similar, it's all these mindsets that we have as dancers, we are all so similar. I would say the biggest things that pretty much all of my clients share, are really loud negative inner thoughts about body image, and a lot of fears. Fears surrounding performance or fears of putting themselves out there, or taking risks, going to the front of the class… “you're a failure” and then also getting wrapped up in that competition mindset, even if you're not on a competition team. The competitive nature that dance can just put us in, you know when there's only one lead role and there's only one first place overall and those are the main areas. I don't think it's really a normal mindset for dancers to have, but I want to do something to help them have the tools so that they can have healthier mindsets. We want them to be able to prolong their dance careers. Many times, what I see is that this leads to burnout in dancers and that was something that I was really passionate about. From a really young age I wanted to go to college for dance, and then by my senior year I was so done with this world, it's hard, but I felt like I was just losing myself and that it just didn't feel healthy. That led me to want to help other dancers elongate their careers in whatever way.”

Apolla asked, how much of a role does social media also play on that pressure that they feel in comparing their bodies and where they're in a comparison in general. What they're seeing flash across their screen every two seconds, how much does that play a part. 

Ashley reflected, “back in my day we only had, Hall of Fame competition, and they had just started posting their videos, and that's all we had to look at and compare! Dancers you know, on the internet and YouTube. Now it is a big thing I work on with my clients, we often talk with parents about a social media detox;  going through their followers and anybody who is bringing out those insecurities or that comparison and just really, either meeting them or unfollowing them, and making sure that they are seeing images and videos that are only promoting a healthy mindset.”

Our industry needs this, we need to come together and we need to start making some pretty big changes. It's time and we know we arent the only ones that feel that way. 

I have a burning question I'll definitely want to get started with…

How do we target costuming…?

I know it's something that's definitely affected my life and I know a lot of us are choosing costumes right now for recitals and competition. Costumes.. we have all done it, we have this vision, we have a song, we have choreography, and we have this vision for the costume or whatever it is that's what we see, we can't stop thinking about it, we're sleeping and we're dreaming about it, and we have a desire for a certain look and we go full steam ahead to make that happen. What considerations do we as teachers actually need to take as we make our costuming decisions when it comes to image?

First and foremost, the biggest consideration we need to be making regarding costumes and body images as a whole is that our students are humans first and dancers second. Fostering these relationships with them but also fostering them as humans. We need to be nurturing them as humans and one of the biggest values that we can bring into the studio is to create a culture where students know that their worth and their value is not dependent on their body size and on their shape and on their weight. Be open about that, have conversations about how you model that. That's through how you talk about your own body, that's how you talk about other people's bodies, that's how you talk about dancers at other studios' bodies, it's just how we talk about bodies. They're not getting the message that is tied into their self-worth so I would say that's number one, also I would say this principle you were talking about earlier Melissa, one of my very favorite quotes is from a non-profit called Beauty Redefined (they are experts on body image resilience and they're a great resource for you guys to follow, there's so much they do, so much research and advocacy in this area) but one of my favorite quotes from them is… 

“loving your body isn't believing your body looks good it's knowing that it is good regardless of how it looks. It isn't thinking you are beautiful, it's knowing you are more than beautiful. It's understanding that your body is an instrument for your use and not an ornament to be admired” 

Going back to the idea that our bodies are instruments, especially as dancers, that's our tool, that's our instrument. In regards to picking  costumes, knowing that their body is an instrument and then as an extension of that costumes are also an instrument. They're an instrument for your story, they're an instrument for your choreography, they're an instrument to Showcase your dancers' technique. Looking from that perspective, then also looking at what is going to make the dancers feel most confident and comfortable. You're going to have dancers of all shapes and all sizes, that feel really great and not so great. Size doesn't determine somebody's self-consciousness in a costume but you, as their dance teacher, have to be tapped into how they're feeling and what is going to make them feel their best and I think that, there's a way to do that. 

As a studio director, when you think about it … wouldn't you want all your students to be on stage at their most comfortable? So that they're not worrying and they're not feeling terrible while they're up there? They can give their best and focus on the performance and the technique and everything they have to put forth for a performance rather than being just totally self-conscious in this piece of cloth that for the most part gets a 10 out of 10 anyway? The reality is, that they're not taking points off for costumes regardless, so why are you gonna put this importance on this costume that doesn't make somebody feel good? 

When we talk about competition of course, there is a competition, there's a score that goes into it, it's usually about 10 points out of your 100 that you're giving,  how does uniformity in costuming play into this? When we think about it from a teacher's perspective, I think about “well all 10 of them are supposed to look the same, everybody has to have on the bra top and the shorts” and then you get into this mindset well I have to pick something that everybody looks the same in. Is that still a thing? Just to liken it to something everybody's doing now, these bridesmaids dresses, when they get married, everybody gets to choose their own style because nobody wants anybody to buy a bridesmaid dress that they're never going to wear again or that they don't look good in… That shift has been made, is that a shift that needs to be made in dance?

As dance educators, we would be super interested to see if that does become more of a trend. There's a way to have unity. What we need to challenge, and I'm saying we (me too), is that unity, also implies the same body type. Something that we as a dance industry have a lot of work to do, is that dancers of different body types might not all look the exact same in every costume but they can all look flattering and appropriate and comfortable and confident. We have to start shifting our minds from thinking that it's bad that different, or bigger bodies are going to look less uniform than the stereotypical thin dancer body. That's some challenging work that we could do within ourselves. How do we achieve uniformity without losing individuality?

Here's a great analogy of the gears and a clock, all the gears are different shapes and sizes but they are all swirling together beautifully to make something work that is visual that's beautiful.

There are phrases that have been passed down from dance educator to dance educator over the generations, and teachers have fallen into the spiral of “Well that's what my teacher said when she wanted me to _______ -or- What he/she said when I didn't like the costumes”  What we say, may not be what we need to be saying and doing right now to create an environment that truly just focuses on the beauty and utility of the body, versus feeling like you need a different body. Ways we can change this is by looking at the body you're in, and saying it's useful in this way, it's wonderful in this way, it's beautiful in this way rather than saying well how can I make it beautiful or useful in another way, those are the intentions we set for today.

Many times when we talk about this topic it's “are we too heavy, are we too thin" and it's the focus on that, Bri reflected on her past,“ you know when I was young I was very chesty and it was horrifying you know. Dance and all, everything is very body conscious and I'm going there and I was raised to be very confident in myself. I'm going to dance where I'm in these leotards and I didn't want to take my pants off for ballet, I didn't. I wanted to be in my sweatpants under my ballet skirt because I hated my my bottom half and I didn't want to take my t-shirt off because I didn't want anybody to see my chest and I'm talking about being 10-11 years old, and went home crying every day because I was being made fun of and nobody was doing anything and I think we need to talk about that too you know. What is the responsibility if you're seeing that, if you're hearing that? Is that damaging? I think for me, I didn't realize until I started going on this journey of evolution and realizing how far reaching words and actions are, or aren't. If you do or don't take action I'm realizing the impact that's had on me through my whole life and you know what the part that's played and the choices that I've made, the way that I feel about myself. As a young girl that was just debilitating for me, we had to deal with that a lot in our house and my parents had a big handful to deal with, you know their 10/11/12 year old coming home in a pile of tears saying I don't want to go back to school, I don't want to go back to dance because they're so mean…”

What are some of the things that we say that we think are well-meaning? We say things that we think are accommodating or well-meaning and sometimes it actually has the reverse effect on some students.

There is this misconception as a society, as a whole and definitely in the dance industry that complementing somebody's body or weight loss is always a good thing. There is so much research in the last few years that is showing that that is absolutely not the case. It's actually damaging especially to our teens and younger kids, it's putting that emphasis that their worth is entangled with their body size and shape and different body parts. You can view more of our references from our blog for Apolla in October (click to view below) 

Apolla Article: Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance Part 1

Apolla Article: Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance Part 2

Apolla Article: Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance Part 3

Ashley stated “When I was 17 I was losing a lot of weight, I wasn't doing it in a healthy way. I was restricting my eating. In front of a huge company rehearsal, mini company up to senior company, my dance teacher in front of everyone, praised me “everybody look at Ashley oh look how skinny she looks, look how amazing her body looks in this costume”... it was a teeny, teeny tiny little bra and briefs. In just that moment it was like “oh I got praised, I got recognized as she approves of me” you know? I think we seek that approval from our dance teachers so much and at 17 that was really confusing and I think even for the little kids in that room I think that sends the message that oh weight loss is something to be sought after and weight loss is the goal here and that this is better, and look Ashley she is getting all this praise because of her weight loss and because of how her body looks in this teeny tiny costume. That's my been my experience, and there's also been a lot of research that dancers who experience fitness related learning (that's learning about being in an environment in a dance studio or dance classes where there is talk about the benefits of fitness talk, about diets talk, about eating talk, about restrictive eating, you can talk about cutting out different food groups, talk about bodies in you know a negative way or in a shaming way) that, they have done research that shows that learning in those environments is a predictor and it correlates to symptoms of eating disorders and so it is something that's really serious and can definitely lead to eating disorders and just a lifelong struggle with body image and a lot of confusion for kids and teens.”

The ballet world needs lot of work, most companies have a core that really do look all the same, so they don't have to worry about costumes looking different on different people, they don't hire diversity (which that's another thing right there), and dance students see that and see that they don't belong in that world. Our professional dance organizations affect our students too, talk about role models. That young kid, that's how they know that “I want to grow up and do this, I want to be that, I want to look like that, I want to do that” So what messages are we sending them that way, another one if you have a whole group of one body type, you can only create a finite amount of shapes and pictures if you put strong bodies with flexible bodies with big bodies and small bodies we can build more fantastic. Again it's this tradition and thinking, so how do we do it? It really does start with the Educators, the teachers, the studio owners. How do we evolve that mindset? How do we start, because again the problem is we're rooted in this tradition of “I learned this way and I'm fine, I'm here..and so I'm just gonna do what I was taught” and it's just breeding the cycle of repetition over and over and over so what is the answer to that ?

We need to put a little bug into the ear of costuming companies because, when our options are limited. When they are cut and designed for euro-centric body standards it makes the options very limited, we’re going to be really honest most booty shorts don't look good on anyone's bottom. If you have any type of bottom there's some leakage and slippage that is happening out of the bottom of those shorts. Why are they being cut like that? Same thing with bra tops, why are they being cut like that? Why are we only being offered in a catalog of 50 costumes, 48.5 of them are two pieces and one is a one piece that has layers and layers of ruffles and material and feathers and and all types of sticks and circles, and I mean we need to be as consistent. People who have their costumes made, which is extremely expensive, and people who are trying to choose from these costume catalogs. We really need to make sure we're calling out, as Studio owners and dance Educators, and making it clear “HEY we want more of a diverse offering in these catalogs that are complimentary of many body types!” 

We have been hearing that a lot of  “We need to talk to competitions and conventions about who they're hiring and who's teaching and what the hours that they have these kids dancing and what they're, you know putting in, and placing importance on, on these weekends!” BUT we're not talking about costume companies, and it's all great that we're talking about it but how, what are we gonna do about it? Costume companies, they're calling every year you know…“are you gonna place an order ?” That is the time when you go look because the only thing that's going to speak is the dollar, when these organizations are not making money they're not making money. Hand over fists they're going to sit up and pay attention and go, I need to make a change or I'm going to lose my business. How do we do that? You have to talk to your reps, you have to send emails, you have to not purchase costumes and put them together yourself or get them custom made or whatever it is a, go somewhere else. Get all of it together at retail and you alter your vision a little bit on what this costume is going to be, but you know if we don't do that it's going to stay the same. Everybody, start talking, start emailing the reps and talking to them and having those hard conversations because as a studio director and an educator we get stuck in our pattern of behavior. All year long, this month I have to get this done, and this month because our plates are so full and so overloaded that we don't have time for anything else, so to ask to change a system you know that's so efficient that's asking a lot of me especially during costume, competition and Convention season. I've got to spend a little time on this too. But all in all, talking about any child's weight is a no go. I mean wouldn't that be the rule?

Don't talk about it,  you're not a doctor,  you're not a dietitian, you're not a nutritionist. You don't have any certifications in this and it does so much more harm than good.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that words aren't damaging if you're not directly referencing a student's body or eating habits negatively, right? We’re not harping on them but it can be equally damaging and have an adverse reaction when you're delivering seemingly positive feedback and praise as well and you've just shared your experience with that so we had Ashley comment on that a bit.

Ashley stated “It's reinforcing this idea, that this is better and that there is a certain body type that should be achieved by every dancer and it's also sending the message that that's how you get praise and approval from your dance teachers and your mentors. As Dance Educators I think we probably have some clues into if they are doing this in a healthy way but sometimes we might not know if they are losing weight in a healthy way and so I think it's just better to err on the side of complimenting them for their work and for their effort and not for their body. “WOW you're working so hard I can tell you have so much energy, and you really fueled your body today to have a great stamina throughout class or OH your jumps are getting so high that looks amazing!”  Different compliments that are not about their weight or their bodies, but about the effort and hard work that they do.”

Let’s talk about nutrition when it comes to fueling their body properly as athletes to get through the rigorous schedule that they're keeping, not only just at the studio but also with school making sure they're eating the right foods to fuel their body to sustain their schedule that they have. Which was often very very overloaded, and jam-packed, so you know is that an okay conversation topic to have or is that kind of walking the line?

“It should never come from the place of your body, not from a place that your body's not going to look good if you eat that or, like this is because you need to lose weight or you know those kinds of things. If we are talking about fueling the body and they need energy and they have these huge schedules I think that's completely appropriate and I think also, this is a great time that I think right now where we are in the dance community, is we have so much access to experts both through Apolla and your blog “The Muse”, “Doctors for Dancers”...and I think that number one, sometimes dancers listen more when it comes from another expert than their teacher. I do think there are some really amazing nutritionists for dancers and registered dietitians for dancers, eating disorder specialists for dancers that create amazing content on Instagram. Here are three of my favorites

Dr Kristen Koskinen 

Monica Saigal , MS , RD , CEDRD-S

Allowing yourself to have the freedom to eat what you want and to not be restrictive but also about foods that fuel the dancer's body and nutrition to perform at your best. So I definitely think it's an appropriate conversation, but I also think you could follow it up with “here are some experts that post about this a lot”  and I have great websites and great resources too.” Ashley shared.

We posed this question to Kaycee, when we talk…is the the problem that we're seeing right now, is everybody thinks they're fine until like 10/15/20 years later and then we realize we're not fine? We've got these enormous massive issues that have affected who we have become in life and what we've done and the insecurities that we deal with and shoulder every single day and we're not fine so it is important that we recognize this and start doing something about it and talking to these costume companies because because in 20 years we don't want to see these kids shouldering those issues? We have so much rolling around in our heads in life that can impact us on an intimate level.

Some studio directors teach most of their own classes, some teach a little, some stay behind the desk and rely on a full faculty to run the classrooms for them, and they do the admin. What can a studio owner or directors do to make sure all the teachers in that studio, under that studio umbrella (because a lot of times these teachers are independent contractors they teach all over the place they're not your employee they are an independent contractor) how can you make sure that they are on the same page as you, and are aware of the importance of their words and the feedback in promoting a healthy body image? Because the studio is ultimately liable for the fallout from that. We asked Ashley to  talk a little bit about...How can you make your faculty understand the importance of this even if they're not technically your employee.?

Ashley statedThat's such a great topic so I would say, I think you know no matter what your day-to-day duties in your studio are, I think that it all does start from you and from your beliefs and from the culture that you create. So going back to how you talk about your own body, how you talk about other bodies, that's where it starts. I think COVID has shown us that online workshops and trainings are so much more accessible than we ever thought, I know we're probably also sick of them by now, but it's these experts, they are so accessible and I would suggest setting up like a day training get a registered dietitian who works with human answers, an eating disorder specialist, a mindset coach you know whatever it is and make a day Zoom training for your teachers, even your independent contractors. You might have to pay them for the hours that they're there,  but if this is something you know that you're really passionate about, that might be something to consider. Have them learn, show them this training, and go through a training with them and then I think from there I really think it's important  to create a policy regarding these issues at your studio so once you go through the training, sit down as a group and create the team values and culture that you want. How do you want the kids in your studio to feel about them, their bodies, and themselves? What is the policy for teachers and how can they uphold that and then from there have ongoing conversations. This toxic diet culture is so steeped into like all of us, that it isn't going to be like a next day thing. I even I do this, I still catch myself daily thinking some toxic diet culture thought about myself or about other people and so this is going to take some time this is going to take some really compassionate empathetic conversations with your team,   but holding them accountable, and also being picky about who you hire and who you fire. I think be really compassionate and have several conversations but if there is somebody on your team even if they're a famous choreographer, or even if they're somebody really well known in the industry even, if they're your best teacher if they are bringing this toxicity and you know we've talked, you have the chance now to break the cycle and I think you know that has some hard decisions that come with it. Be really mindful of the presence of the teachers and what they are doing in your studio.”

Even if you're not there, you have to really listen to the parents. Make sure you're encouraging your parents and your students, that they can come to you anytime with concerns and that they're safe to do that and also let your teachers know where you stand and this is a zero tolerance policy. I think this is something that's definitely worthy of zero tolerance. 

Melissa looked back at an older memory, what do you do if a student (because I know I did at one point, to that same exact choreographer) says “okay, we're actually going into a bodysuit?!”  I'll never forget it was a blue velvet catsuit, and I was like "I don't want my butt to look big on stage” you know I'm gonna look bigger than everybody else, and I went to my choreographer and he was like “okay so at the beginning of every private we're gonna do leg lifts…” and he went through an exercise routine to help me (I guess firm up or slim down). What do you say when a student comes to you and wants to, they feel like they have identified a problematic area and they want your help?

This is a great time to outsource two experts. There are a lot of different dance scientists. We talked about earlier nutritionists, dietitians that work with dancers and they are going to have the training and the ability to talk with dancers about those areas that they want to fix. As a dance educator, you can come from the place of normalizing their feelings, making them feel like it's not wrong and that it's okay. Directors and teachers can also bring in athletic trainers that work with dancers or you can outsource those, but making it so that they are overall healthy and overall strong and not just saying “I want to lose my butt”. Ask them the questions where is this coming from, why do you want to do this, why do you want it?

Our actionable item for the week, we want to go beyond the steps; we leave you with an action item, what do we want you to do between now, and next week or, now and two weeks from now, what do we want you to do period.  Ashley has so graciously provided an activity and exercise to help you work through what you need to do to make sure that there's a positive body image culture in your studio.  

The PDF that Ashley created has six reflection questions. Answer these questions with an open heart and grounded mind, this is tough stuff you guys. It's hard to talk about, it's hard to reflect about our own experiences.Go into this with a lot of compassion and patience for yourself. The six questions here will help you process and digest what you learned today. Your biggest takeaways, your experiences with body shaming, and body image.  How those are going into your teaching, if they are at all, and then any changes or growth areas that you want to make and then an action step that you want to take in the next week based on all of this. It's quick and I think it would be best done, written. Grab a notebook and a pen and just get it all out of your mind and onto pen and paper.

It's really changing our verbiage, and being hyper aware of the visuals and the cues, and the verbiage that we're giving our students. It is so important. We really need to be taking a hard look and maybe there's some things that we need to change there as well. I want to recap our actionable items. We are going to start, if you're a dance educator, a studio owner, you are going to start talking to your costume companies, the reps, the people who are in charge of costuming and giving us our choices for the season. Take that chance, when you have the opportunity to have those conversations with your reps and or with the company itself. Make sure you give them the feedback that you want more options for more body types! It's time to have those honest conversations and write those thoughts down and see where you can start and make changes in yourself because when we know better we do better.

Check out a few of the resources that  has provided for you,

“Beyond the Steps 2020 Initiative"  -  is free professional development whether you're a studio owner, educator, dancer, parent of a dancer. It will tackle topics like racism, gender equity, diversity, sex abuse and prevention, dance science, nutrition, integrative dance. It's going to tackle a lot of really important topics, the modules have been provided by experts in the field and Apolla will be hosting it. It's 100% free, so there is no reason not to do it. You can go at your own pace and it's just extremely insightful.

PDF provided by Ashley Mowrey


Watch our full Beyond the StEPS video Below! 

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