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sarsdad

History of distorted body ideals?

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musicgal23

Dear parents,

 

As a parent of an apprentice with a ballet company I would like to add my 2 cents worth to the body type discussion. My daughter has studied at 6 different summer intensives, 3 major ballet schools and now a company. If all those who are in charge of hiring , beginning with girls age 16 and above, required that dancers submit a medical form attesting to the fact that they get a REGULAR MONTHLY menstrual cycle we would all of a sudden see many more robust (no pun intended!) dancers. If the girls do not get a regular menstrual cycle they should not be hired pending a more thorough examination to make sure body weight is not the causative factor in lack of menses. My daughter has had to take numerous health exams as a matter of course, both for regular school and also ballet school, but not one of the forms asked about REGULAR menstrual cycles, only if a girl had BEGUN to menstruate. If that answer is yes then the assumption is that the menses occurs regularly and no further questioning ensues. My daughter knows many girls who get their period, meaning they have so little body fat that it occurs maybe once or twice a year, and she knew one girl who got her period once at age 14 and then never after that. So this girl "got" her period. This is more typical these days than girls who are so skinny as to be anorexic. But I believe it is almost conspiratorial in nature that this very important medical question is not asked. If the directors and administrators of these advanced schools and companies required a normal period as a prerequisite for hiring or acceptance then they would reject many of the girls who qualified as being too heavy for ballet. Of course there are those naturally thin girls but I have sadly come to believe that most of the time this is the exception rather than the rule. Anyone else agree or disagree? If it is medically risky for young women to have so little body fat then why aren´t those who are responsible for the hiring and firing being held to account for fostering such unhealthy images?

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Mel Johnson
If all those who are in charge of hiring , beginning with girls age 16 and above, required that dancers submit a medical form attesting to the fact that they get a REGULAR MONTHLY  menstrual cycle we would all of a sudden see many more robust (no pun intended!) dancers.  If the girls do not get a regular menstrual cycle they should not be hired pending a more thorough examination to make sure body weight is not the causative factor in lack of menses.

 

Disagree vehemently! Does anybody besides me see the legal ramifications of such a practice, especially from a privacy and anti-discrimination point of view?

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spinbug
It is also interesting that the average woman is getting larger as in their waists, rib cages and height.  I have old patterns from the 40s and 50s and the female body has really changed.  I'm not really talking about weight but bones.

 

Remember too, that those dresses were made to fit over the common girdles still worn at that time. Those proportions may not have been natural.

 

Candi

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BW

musicgal23, though it is probably not possible to have this kind of question asked from a legal stand point, I certainly can understand the point of your post and thank you for it.

 

I do believe that there are some programs and companies that do have intervention programs but they may well be in the minority, that I do not know. The PBS special, "Dying to Be Thin" comes to mind. There is a discussion about this film which can be found here: Dying To Be Thin .

 

As to the changes in the ballet aesthetic - when and how they came about, I know there was a lengthy discussion about this at some point in the past...though it may have been before Ballet Talk split into the two different boards. From the days of Louis XIV to Margot Fonteyn's time and through today there certainly have been many changes.

Edited by BW

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sarsdad

Though it is perhaps legally difficult, the point of musicgal23's comment was (if I may be so bold as to paraphrase) that the ideal in ballet these days is often at direct varience with what we know to be basic proper health lifestyle for women. One easy external way to judge if a woman's body fat content is very low is to ask if she menstruates regularly. The difficulty is there are other factors that can cause young women to not menstruate, and even if the vast majority of young ballet dancers who do not experience a regular cycle do so because of excessive thinness, it is hard to not imagine litigation.

 

The point to musicgal23's comment however remains - in the current ballet world, it seems that by and large the body shape ideal is not commensurate with a woman's "normal/natural" state, and is in fact fairly unhealthy; even if not taken to the tragic extremes of eating disorder.

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Mel Johnson

To return to an earlier iteration of this difficulty, let's look at the institutions of higher learning. I don't know what they look like these days, but I clearly recall filling out a medical history for college admission that included practically the entire Physician's Desk Reference list of diseases, syndromes, and conditions. Among the list were, "amenorrhea" (lack of menses) and "dysmenorrhea" (difficult or painful menses). Now while it is possible for universities to require this sort of personal health information, any EMPLOYER who maintains these sorts of data places itself back into the HIPAA hopper, and the confidentiality provisions thereof. Furthermore, since we have employers who are already dismissing employees for smoking at home, raising this as a bar to employees gets into even nastier questions of privacy and discrimination, in violation of the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution, even though the entity collecting the information is not government, but employers. We seem to have fallen from the standard of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" to having to fight for the standard of "My Body and None of Your Business".

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Fiz

musicgal23, though it is probably not possible to have this kind of question asked from a legal stand point, I certainly can understand the point of your post and thank you for it.

 

I do believe that there are some programs and companies that do have intervention programs but they may well be in the minority, that I do not know. The PBS special, "Dying to Be Thin" comes to mind. There is a discussion about this film which can be found here: Dying To Be Thin .

 

I have not seen this but I intend to! On ballet.co.uk, we have a book discussion group and one last year was American published in the 1980's - the photos made me so ill - there was one girl called Tracy Gozo and she was anorexic and she was still being called a 'fat cow' and similar - she was the same age as my daughter! If they want anorexic dancers, they can have them, but not for long - their bodies and minds will break down. The dancers of Imperial Russia were women not underfed schoolgirls! (Has anyone else read 'Little girls in Pretty Boxes about the way girl gymnasts and skaters are trained? They all break down. When is the ballet world going to wake up to that? I love Mel's comment about 120 pound girls being straight arm lifted ' Then you shouldn't be dancing if you can't do it! Way to go, Major Mel!) :ermm: Fiz.

Edited by Fiz

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balletbooster

Really great comments on this thread! Thanks to all for the substantive discussion.

 

I did want to return to the original post asking about Balanchine. I would have to take some exception to the notion that he did not have a profound affect on 'shaping' the ideal ballet body type.

 

If you read Ms. Farrell's book, you will find that he was constantly saying things to her regarding her weight which were psychologically quite disturbing. Now, if he did this with his most famous muse, I would daresay that many others were also subject to this sort of ridicule.

 

I have been told by several who danced with Mr. B at NYCB that weight was often used as a threat or bargaining chip by Mr. B to let them know who was boss. I know of two former NYCB ballet dancers (one a soloist, one a principal) who can recount specific discussions Mr. B had with them concerning weight (both were and still are pencil thin) and how in one case a veiled threat about continued employment (the dancer at the time was already under weight) that was tied to the dancer needing to lose a few pounds. I was told that often Mr. B didn't really think the dancer needed to lose any weight, but he knew that the suggestion would throw them off and shift the balance of power clearly back into his court. I've also been told how he often delivered these 'zingers' via someone else, such as a costumer or administrative staff person, with the message that they overheard Mr. B say this or that or Mr. B told them...

 

So, I think that there is some truth to the story we hear so often about Balanchine and his obsession with the skin and bones body that we now see as the norm. While many of his most famous and successful dancers did not achieve this asthetic, apparently many were constantly nagged about it and it was an ever-present standard in the culture of the company. :ermm:

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Fiz

I look at the opening image on the video - there is no way I can watch that :shrug: I can count all her vertebrae, individually - literally! It doesn't come as a book does it, instead of a tape? :ermm: Fiz.

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pattypirouette

I would like to disagree with Musicgal - as a Mom of an apprentice in a major ballet company - we have been through all the questions and issues associated with an irregular cycle and in my dd's case, none were related to weight. Yes, my daughter is thin by normal standards but would not be considered thin by ballet standards. If a regular menstral cycle had been a requirement of her employment - she wouldn't be employed.

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Memo

I think the weight pressure is harder on students than it is on professional ballet dancers. Once they are in a company and considered adults they all seem to look muscular and strong but students are still expected to look pre pubescent and it is hard to break that mould. The corps of ABT is quite robust at the moment and it is pleasing to see. They are beautiful and in excellent condition muscular, strong and well nourished. The students however are the ones who seem to have to be so thin to be accepted. Maybe the newer ideals will "trickle down". :ermm:

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musicgal23

Pattypirouette, I do understand that there are girls, and women also, who do not for reasons other than weight, menstruate regularly. And I congratulate you for making sure your daughter is healthy. But I maintain she may be an exception. I don't mean women or girls who get their periods every 5 or 6 weeks, or even 2 months, instead of the usual 4 weeks. I am referring to those who have completely irregular and unpredictable cycles, where the balance of body fat constantly teeters on the edge of abnormal, where years later osterporosis may be discovered. I believe the percentage of dancers is fairly high who appear to be of "normal" weight to an audience and yet are more or less in a state of low-weight amenorrhea. And yet these dancers for all practical purposes are not anorexic, as they look "normal" in class and on stage and occasionally may get a period.

By the way, the robust and normal looking corps these days (ABT) will appear to be very thin when viewed in street clothes. The stage, leotards, light tights, etc. add 10 lbs. to the appearance. Normal weight should not be judged from the stage but by medical factors.

We are accustomed to seeing very thin ballerinas and believe that look, and I don't even mean the exaggerated form(NYCB with the notable exception of Jenny Ringer) to be normal. It is not.

I do agree that my initial suggestion would be totally impractical from a legal point of view, but I am really talking about the morality of the situation, in which the pressure to succeed is in part predicated upon a partial compromise of the dancer's health. In short, the gray area between truly normal weight and anorexia has gotten many girls in deep trouble. And the pressure to be thin comes from all sources. It is a complete shame.

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LooseLegs2

i agree that there is more pressure on students than professionals. its a tricky thing. in my opinion, i think that oftentimes students sometimes try to make up for lack of ability in losing weight. i see it quite frequently that its often the not so great dancers who fall under the pressures of weight issues. not saying that this is always the way it is... but it is quite common. i myself have dealt with eating issues, but am lucky to be at a school where my teachers are supportive, and i have recently been told that i wont perform the role that i was expected to get because they thought that i need to gain confidence in my body, and learn to lose weight in a healthy way. for me, i feel that although im a talented dancer (or so i've frequently been told) i must lose weight in order to look good next to the not so amazing, but very thin dancers. my teachers want me to work on becoming healthy and becoming confident in my abilities before they place me in lead role in classical ballets (i.e tutu's). i think that this is all too rare nowadays. that teachers actually care enough about healthy eating as opposed to simply losing weight. but maybe it will become a growing trend if companies see that audiences dont like to see dancers who appear as if they'll break onstage, but rather enjoy watching strong healthy dancers.

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Fiz

I so agree with Musicgal - my 14 year old dd is less than 7 and a half stone and she thinks she is fat! I expect by Balanchine standards, she is, but she has a slim waist and legs that go on forever. I was a thwarted dancer and left senior school at 18 weighing 6 stone. I looked awful and spiteful people said I belonged in Belsen and other charmless remarks - I bet Balanchine would have loved me! I didn't! Fiz.

 

 

-- post edited by Moderator to remove quote. No need to quote a large portion of a post just a few posts back. Refer to the author (as I've inserted) or quote the one line you want to highlight. We need to conserve bandwidth and avoid duplication. Thanks! :ermm:

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cmtaka

I agree with Mel's our bodies ourselves. The deal being is that eating disorders are an issue that is larger than someone telling us we are too big or a number on the scale. It is when you think you are too big and deal with that by not eating. Ballet is not the only place where eating disorders live you just get to see it because you can't hide it under wearing 3 shirts.

 

That being said, having come up through dance and gymnastics I will tell you, you get a lot of positive attention for losing weight. The more you lose the more they like you. That is until you get injured and can't do anything because your body can't even repair itself. But you the human being make the decision to eat or not eat and what to eat. You know its not healthy even at 14 that's why you hide it.

 

It is a complex issue. You can diet down to a weight that is not healthy and still not have an eating disorder. What would be a healthy weight for one dancer would not be for another. There are so many variables including the mental health of the dancer.

 

What we can do is communicate to our children what a healthy body is and why a forced low weight can cause issues that will result in a low bone density, difficulty repairing muscle, problems with memory and endurance just to name a few. If a child wants to lose weight work with a nutritionist to make sure they know what healthy choices are. We know so much more than we did 30 years ago about the outcome of diet and food in long term health.

 

I think the Joffrey ballet dancer in the Nova series has passed away in her fifties. She had such bad osteoporosis that she was shown using a walker to get around. I think she died of complications from that. Then there is the Boston Ballet dancer that died in the back seat of her parent’s car on the way to Disney Land. They thought she had fallen asleep and her heart had just stopped. No one wants that for their child it just isn't worth the price.

 

Telling a 14 year old these things is like the other warnings we give our children about driving, smoking, relationships... some will listen some won't. All you can do is watch for the signs; keep talking about life beyond dance and the reasons for staying healthy for that. Allowing them to understand that if someone wants them to make a choice that will be unhealthy that they are strong enough to make an informed decision. Understanding the tradeoffs may be all you can offer.

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