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Issues for Men :: Cultural Roles :: The Media
Ballet Dancers :: In The Old Days
Ballet Dancers

I received a copy of this essay from a young woman who chose to write an essay on this subject for her International Baccaulaureate Diploma. All candidates had to submit a 4000 word essay on the subject of their choice. After she recovered from a minor case of anorexia herself, this topic sparked an interest.

The Incidence rate of Anorexia in ballet dancers


Anorexia is a growing disorder in our society. Eating disorders affect thousands of people throughout the world. A select group, young female ballet dancers are molded into thinking that the only way to succeed with their dream is to be thin. Exploring causes of eating disorders leads to the young girls' obsession with weight. Why is there such a high incidence of anorexia nervosa in ballet dancers? The causes of anorexia will give an indication of why ballet dancers are at high risk of getting this disease. It will explore what drives them to be thin and why no simple means will end their obsession.

What is Anorexia Nervosa? :

Anorexia nervosa is a serious psychological and physiological disorder. "Due to cultural ideals of feminine beauty, young women feel a strong desire to be thinner than their bodies naturally tend to be." (Counseling Centre, State University of New York and Buffalo, 1995) As a result, they change their eating patterns and they may develop eating disorders. An anorexic will avoid eating to the point of emaciation where the damage done to her body is irreversible.. Some anorexics also are compulsive exercisers. This is a common trait in a dancer due to her busy schedule of dance classes. This disease is most commonly found in young girls in upper middle class families but it can develop in both sexes of all ages. In accordance with information given by the Counseling Centre at the University of Virginia, the development of this disease is generally at the age of 11 or 18, the beginning of adolescence and the end of adolescence, both beginnings to a new phase in life. Approximately sixty percent of anorexics develop bulimia an eating disorder where the patient will binge-eat followed by self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives. About twenty percent of anorexics die; however, with psychiatric help, approximately one third over come this disorder, as observed in Something Fishy.

An anorexic is diagnosed by having a body weight twenty percent below the expected body weight of a health person at the same age and height of the eating disorder patient. The patient demonstrates a fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat. They may feel too fat even though their body weight is well below the normal weight for their height. An anorexic shows all signs that she suffers severely from malnutrition.


Anorexia is triggered by many different events. The first cause of anorexia in a girl is perception of her weight. Anorexics know they are heavier than the rest of the people around them or they feel that they are heftier and they want to do something about it. They feel that the quickest way to lose weight is to not eat at all. They think that if there is no food going into their bodies that eventually the body will use all of the stored energy, fat, and then they will be thin. This is a fallacy. Ironicaly, when a person stops eating, the body goes into starvation mode (meaning that the body believes that the body is starving and will utilizing less energy to operate) losing very small amounts of weight. It conserves food. When the body receives food, it then stores it away until the next time food is obtained. At first this method may seem to work and the subject loses weight, but as the body adjusts to the lack of food, it learns to use the energy it is given stingily.

Another reason for becoming anorexic is the need to obtain perfection. A perfectionist desires excellence in all aspects of her life. She will stay up all night to make sure her closet is in order alphabetically or iron all of her clothes once a week to make sure they do not become creased. A perfectionist will scrub her nails each morning to make sure they shine. She will stop eating to fit her opinion of the ideal, impeccable person. A perfectionist seeks flawlessness and when she finds that flawlessness is not met she will do something to make it ideal. If an obsessive person thinks to be perfect is to be thin, then she will diet. A perfectionist also likes to be better than her equal. If she sees someone with a waist an inch smaller, her waist must be two inches smaller. She must be better than all others.

Anorexics sometimes desire control over their lives. People who fall towards anorexia for control feel they have a lack of control in their lives and the only thing that they control is what they put in their bodies. Their teachers control their marks and their parents control what they do, wear or the time they must arrive home at night. Their friends control where they go and that leaves one thing left in life to control: their diet. A person desiring control feels that her life is out of control and she is falling out of control. They feel that they have no life, no meaning and they feel that nothing is theirs. The one thing they find that is theirs is their body. They can control their body, put what they want into it or put nothing at all. Anorexics also shows signs that they feel incompetent. When a person feels that she is no good at anything and find she has the control not to eat for extended periods of time, she find she is good at something. If a person who gets poor grades in school, is told by her parents that she will never do anything worthwhile, is told by her siblings that she is stupid, it hurts the person and makes her feel incompetent. When they start to lose weight and people around them say they look good or that they are finally doing a good job at dieting, the person is inclined to please even more. "If people like me like this, wait until they see me a few pounds lighter. Then wait until I am even lighter than that."

A person who feels dependent on other people in her life can also be driven to anorexia. If an adolescent feels that her parents are choosing her clothing, friends or controlling public behavior she may seek independence. Some youths may choose to rebel by getting their bodies pierced, but others may look for the a secret and more subtle independence. People who seek independence and achieve the feeling of independence through dieting generally come from loving families. Few anorexics are unloved and are unwanted by their families, in the situation where they are unloved abuse is usually involved. These youth need room to grow up. They find this by relying on themselves to lose weight and put into their bodies what they want when they want.

Some reasons for anorexia are deeper than a need for control or independence. Some people have deep emotional conflicts that are unresolved. Children of abuse have a higher incidence of anorexia than a child who comes from a home where she and other family members are respectful to each other. When a child has been abused physically or sexually she is accustomed to the abuse and feel that is the only way life is. If the abuse stops when she is older she feels that because nobody else is abusing her, she has to abuse herself. She does this through abstaining from food. A child who grows into an adolescent who is still being abused may be told by their abuser that they are fat and ugly. They may be told that they have to lose weight and the fastest way for them would be to not eat. Their abuser may drive them to this saying they eat too much and should not have another piece of pie.

Deep emotional conflicts can contribute to the disease. The saying sticks and bones may break your bones but names can never hurt you, is fun to say when you are younger or to say it to youngsters, but names can affect a child emotionally until they get help to deal with these unresolved feelings. When a child is told that she is fat, ugly or unintellectual often enough she believes those comments. As she grows into an adolescent her hips begin to widen, acne appears on her face and fat begins to deposit in places that it never has before. These names that she was called as a child begin to become true in her eyes. She looks in the mirror and sees a fat girl. She feels she has to do something about her appearance. She buys cleansers for her face and starts to wear make up so she will color her apparent ugliness, but to get rid of the fat she diets. Just a little at first but as she looses weight her hips are still big and she decides to stop eating to acquire small features similar to when she was younger.

A common reason for older patients of anorexia to develop the disease is depression. Two aspects from depression can contribute to the disease. The first is when a patient becomes chronically depressed, all she thinks about is herself. She has no time for her relatives and she has no time to eat properly. A depressed person can just forget to eat for long periods of time. Once she has not eaten for a while it feels right for her, by then she is anorexic as well as depressed. The second reason a depressed person can develop anorexia is that they are self absorbed, usually trying to figure out some mid-life crisis. One thing that might contribute to her feelings of self worthlessness is that she is over weight. She sees the opportunity that her life will turn around if she does not eat for awhile. If she were a few pounds lighter she too would be happy. The lack of food usually makes depression patients even more unhappy for now they are hungry, underweight and depressed.

Causes due to outside Pressures:

With many pressures on a ballet dancer, the greatest pressure is on being lean. This pressure is what drives a dancer to be anorexic. A ballerina has many pressures on her but the pressure to be thin comes before all others. The pressures of media are the first pressures that a young girl will notice when developing into a young woman. She will be looking through a catalogue looking for new clothes and see that all of the models have beautiful, little figures. She will see pretty girls with no acne or noticeable birth marks. She will get the impression that the pictures are how people should look when they become older. As a young dancer gets older she will see pictures of the best dancers in the world. They are characterized with narrow hips, little or no fat deposits, slim middle, small breasts, delicate looking arms and their height is short. A young dancer who views this feels that unless she shares these characteristics she will never be the girl in the picture. The media pressure girls to be perfect. They do not display people who are anything but the ideal and this can have a lasting effect on young girls.

Dance teachers also pressure their young students to be like their slender heroines. In classes they are told to hold up their stomachs, making them look thin from a side view. Once during class, Kristi, a girl who was interviewed, was told by her dance teacher not to eat before class because it made her look fat. This put her off eating because she went to over seven classes a week, this left no time to eat. The girls look up to their dance teacher, whom as their mentor has the control to forecast the girls' outcome of eating patterns. If she makes it an important issue, to the girls, to be thin to be a good dancer then the girls are more likely to become anorexic and lose the weight to satisfy their teachers expectations. If the teacher does not pressure the girls to be thin, they have a better chance of not falling into the cycle of anorexia.

Pressures put onto a girl from her parents are hard to deal with. If a girl entering adolescence still has some baby fat on her, she may not realize that the fat on her will be used wisely by her body to fully mature into womanhood. This lack of knowledge may deter her, and think that she has to get rid of this extra fat that she has. If parents tell their children that they are fat and need to lose the weight the children listen. As far as they are concerned their parents are always right and would never tell them something that did not need to be done. Parents who allow their daughters to feel fat because of something they may have said are just as much to blame for the development of the disease as the daughters. This is because the daughters have always looked up to their parents. Then if their parents start to find fault with their daughters and their figures the daughters will immediately respond by loosing weight immediately.

A great pressure on girls to be thin are the boys around them.. When girls reach adolescence boys start to become interesting and important to them. The problem is that girls feel boys want a slender, beautiful girlfriend. The girls feel that they are not a desirable weight they will not have a boyfriend if they weigh too much. At the age of adolescence, boyfriends are very important to the girls and if the girls feel they can not have a boyfriend because of their weight, then they will diet. Boys also contribute to the cause of anorexia because girls at the age of adolescence values the opinion of the boys. If the boys say that they are fat then they will believe it. This can also drive a girl to anorexia. The third reason that boys may contribute to a dancer's anorexia is because a professional female dancer is lifted and carried by the male dancer. If the female dancer is too fat then the male dancer will not be able to lift her effortlessly. A girl at a young age may feel that if she is fat now that no boy would be able to lift her when she is older. This is important to a young dancer. (back to top)

The ballet physique:

A ballerina could start her training as early as four years old and through the years that she comes out of being a toddler to becoming a school girl into adolescents she notices many things.. She will see a lot of changes in herself. Some of these are good, boys become cute, her breasts start to grow, hips widen, her menstrual cycle begins and she becomes taller. Some things about growing up are not good. For one thing there is the problem in a ballerina that her breasts will grow too big to conform to the figure of the perfect small ballerina. Hips start to fill out and the "ballet bum" begins to lose its shape. Girls see that all of the famous and really good ballerinas are the thin ones, with no breasts, no hips and no stomachs. Why is this shape the desirable shape for the ballerina?

The origin of the dance figure was in the eighteenth century. A young dancer by the name of Marie Camargo became a prominent figure on the stage. She was light footed sure of her steps and shorter than all of the male dancers on the stage. Her timing for her career was perfect. This was about the time that it became fashionable to go to the ballet. Camargo became famous and every young dancer in the world wanted to go to the same dance company so that they could share in her lime light. The company would not let any new dancers in who were taller than their star performer. As girls reached five feet five their dreams would be smashed at the realization that they would never have Camargo's figure. This new dancer also redefined the shape of the classical ballet dancer. Before her debut on the stage the ballet dancers were not traditionally small, but due to her popularity, the new figure became mandatory to succeed in the world of ballet.

The look of the dancer is the "genre of the veritably, length of spine, the open stance and the lean look" (Street, 1994). This is derived from the court dance which attempted to portray a regal demeanor. (back to top)

Why dancers have such a high incidence of the disease:

A ballet dancer is very aware of what her body looks like. At each practice she attends she wears skin-tight clothes and dances strenuously in front of large mirrors. A dancer has to look at herself for many hours in a day and this can cause a realization in the dancer. The general public may look in the mirror for a few minutes a day, hardly aware of what they really look like, but a dancer has no choice but to stand in front of a mirror and compare herself with others in the room. Seeing others thinner than she, could prompt a dancer to lose a few pounds to look as small as the other dancers in the room. As each one does this the room of dancers becomes very small. Anorexia seems like the best way to become the smallest dancer in the class.

Another reason dancers would want to be small is that they have to jump high, spin fast and balance on their toes for extended periods of time. If a dancer weighs much or her weight changes frequently these steps are difficult to execute. A dancer has to know her body weight and be able to balance with no exterior problems. "Extra weight changes the balance of the body. It takes more strength to get up in the air, more time to do the move, and it's harder to land." (Chiu, 1996) A dancer also has to be conscious that a man has to be able to carry her for extended lifts and holds. Knowing she can dance better with a smaller weight convinces a dancer that she must stay thin at all costs.

A dancer is usually seeking perfection in the steps that she executes. If she does not she will never reach a professionals level. Because a dancer is a perfectionist, she has to be flawless and better than her peers. A young anorexic dancer, when interviewed stated that, "she had something that other people wanted. They wanted to look like her and it was a sense of power, control and accomplishment that she could be like that." (Dyson, 1995) This also gives the dancer a feeling that she has an edge over the other dancers and sometimes this edge is important.

The ultimate goal for a dancer is to become a professional. The truth is as stated by a dancer, "In the real world people who are not thin do not get jobs." (Emily Martin, personal communications, December, 1995) In the dancing world this is true. All dancers know that to get into a dance company of choice they have to look like the other girls in the ballet world so that when they get on stage they all look the same. The dancers know this and before applying for a dance company make sure that their bodies conform to the ideals of the dance company. The edge (being smaller than all other) that is gained through anorexia may be what gets them into the dance company. Those girls that do not have the figures have to find something else to do with their lives. For some this can be too much and that will drive them to anorexia to get into the company the next audition.

Dancers are usually from a moderately high socio-economic background. As discussed previously, the children from the high socio-economic background have a higher incidence of getting anorexia than any other group. With the pressures of their family life and of dancing these girls are at a higher risk than any other group in society (of getting anorexia).

The primary reason that a dancer will develop anorexia is traditionally a ballet dancers are slender. When it is known throughout the world that the best dancers in the world are thin and only the thin ballet dancers get jobs, it is easy for a dancer at a young age to think that anorexia is the only way for them to become and stay thin. To a dancer the pressure to be thin is very great. Before anyone looks at the way they dance or the way they move, the way they look is the first thing noticed. "An ideal has been set in place in the dance community which reflects the general publics desire to see thin women on stage." (Dyson, 1995) (back to top)

Effects of Anorexia Nervosa:

The effects of anorexia nervosa are severe and sometimes irreversible. It can cause three changes external, internal and psychological. The external changes are: Thirty percent or more of body weight to be lost leading to emaciation, dry skin, hair loss and growth of fine body hair. The internal changes that occur in the body are: Irregular or complete loss of the menstrual cycle (amenorrhea), low blood pressure, Oedena (swelling), loss in bone density, liver damage, dental problems, infertility, loss of insulating layer of fat leading to extreme temperature sensitivity, cramps, diarrhea, dehydration, slowed or irregular heart beat and dilation of intestines. The psychological changes in the body are: Withdrawal and isolation in society, impaired neuromuscular functions, fainting spells, insomnia, weakness, hyperactivity, depression, electrolyte imbalance, psychological, physical and biochemical disturbances, and eventual death. It is said that up to thirty percent of anorexics die from complications due to the eating disorder, or commit suicide as a result of the emotional turmoil in their lives.


Although eating disorders can affect everyone, the incidence in dancers is almost one hundred percent as estimated by the CAAWS. "Most dancers have been through some kind of eating disorder, it's just that we don't see it. We don't discuss it." (Kehree LaCrosse, dance teacher, personal communication, January 1996) The ballet dancers in our society have been told by the general public that if they are not thin then they will not be considered ballet dancers. Because of pressures put on a dancer to be thin she will find her peace in developing an eating disorder. These disorders can cause many disturbances in the body sometimes resulting in death. Why do we put one elite group in our society through such emotional and physical turmoil? Do we really need to have thin, frail girls dancing across a stage? Our society is killing a group on individuals because of the traditional way we view the ballerina. (back to top)

by: Kristi

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