My wife and I recently attended a wonderful Pacific Northwest Ballet performance in Seattle. “Season Encore” was a retirement celebration for two of their soloists. I hadn’t been to the ballet for a long time and thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful leaps, bounds and spins.
But it was also disturbing.
Most of the women were stick-thin and whittled down, while the men had normal, athletic bodies. I get it. There is a classical ballet aesthetic — skinny, long-legged ballerinas. But many of these women looked gaunt, otherworldly and unhealthy.
I am the father of two daughters, a psychologist with 40 years of experience, and for 25 years ran one of the largest behavioral health departments of a multi-specialty medical clinic in the Northwest, The Everett Clinic.
My wife was a modern dancer in New York during the 1960s — dancing with some of the greatest dancers of that generation. She started studying ballet when she was child and, at 72, still takes two ballet classes per week. I am no stranger to dance.
My oldest daughter was told, when she was 8 years old, that she didn’t have the “right” body for being serious about gymnastics, despite her joy and enthusiasm for the sport. She received the same message from her ballet teacher.
As a teenager, she developed bulimia — an eating disorder characterized by restricting her eating, binging and then throwing up. She chiseled away body fat by following strict rules, became famished, binged and purged.
Ultimately, through the serious study of yoga, she worked her way out of this darkness. Helplessly witnessing her despair over her body was one of the most painful periods of our family’s life.
Today, modern dance companies cultivate a different aesthetic, showcasing many types of bodies that are able to perform amazing feats of beauty on the world stage. These performers show children that art, athletics and an ordinary body can all come together.
But what about ballet companies? The message they send is girls must be stick-thin to be beautiful and graceful. This message is delivered by advertisers, movies, television and the performing arts. Indeed, performers are at the highest risk. One study in 2014 noted that 16.4% of ballet dancers struggled with eating disorders and had three times the risk of developing an eating disorder.
Clearly, social pressure and cultural norms are only one part of the complex set of causes of eating disorders. We also know that body image problems can also lead to disrupted eating. Some studies have indicated that 40-60% of elementary school girls have body image concerns. Increasingly, boys are falling in line with their female friends. Being called “fat” by peers can precipitate a full-blown crisis in a vulnerable child.
So what can we do?
Make your voice heard. Let the advertising and performing world know that we want to celebrate ordinary men and women. We don’t want to see starved models, actors or dancers.
Promote healthy living. Healthy eating, exercise and a healthy body image comes from a sensible approach to life. Our worth and value as human beings doesn’t come from our appearance, but from who we are and how we live.
Be sensitive. Be aware. Our children are sensitive. Be thoughtful about the words that come out of our mouths without thought. We want our children to approach their weight and shape in a healthy way — through self-love. Those initial messages come from us.
Most importantly, heal ourselves. So many adults are plagued with weight and shape issues. We have to work on ourselves first. Our children will absorb our joyful and loving attitude toward ourselves. My daughter’s thoughts: “It’s not about the body you are striving for. It’s about finding joy and power with the body you have.”
We have to be what we want our children to become.
Paul Schoenfeld is a psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.