Elise Kissell: Dancers- Love Your Body For What It Can Do, Not How It Looks

Introducing the second guest writer of the blog, Elise Kissell, who is also a student at UW-Madison. She’s been dancing since the age of 3, and has learned over time that growing up in the dancing world can have a huge impact on a girl’s self-esteem and body image. Read on to hear what she has to say to dancers everywhere:

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I’ve been dancing my whole life and I’ve grown up with an image of the perfect dancer body engrained into my head. This tall, graceful and stick-thin girl is the stereotypical ballerina that I’ve seen so many girls strive to look like, myself included. Coming to terms with the body I have is something I’ve definitely struggled with. No matter how hard I worked, I was never the thinnest girl in the class. I spent hours a day in front of a huge mirror comparing my body to the bodies around me. It didn’t help that the trend in dance costumes had become “less is more” and the typical practice uniform covered hardly any more than a Victoria’s Secret model. I understood that the purpose of wearing sports bras and booty shorts to practice was to be able to clearly see bodylines and focus on perfecting movements. However, there is a fine line between enforcing uniform movements and enforcing a uniform body type.

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            My instructors put pressure on me on top of the pressure I put on myself to have a perfect dancer body. At a dance camp one summer, the instructor had all of us line up in the front of the room and face the mirror. She made us lift our shirts and engage our abdominal muscles as she went up to each of us and gave us corrections. She showed us one of the naturally muscular girls in the class and told us to copy her example. While the intent was to teach us an important part of dancer posture, my 14-year-old self stood there and compared every inch of my stomach to the other girls. By the time I went home that day, I had forgotten the feeling of which muscles to squeeze in my stomach, but I’ll never forget the feeling of my flaws being put on display and criticized.

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Dancers are incredible athletes and artists, but unhealthy body images are running rampant through the dance world and young, vulnerable girls are getting hurt. A study from the Division of Adolescent Medicine in the University of California and the University of Maryland found that ballet dancers reported characteristics of anorexia and bulimia significantly more often than control groups did. Another study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found that professional female ballet dancers weighed 12% below their ideal weight for height. These women are role models for young girls everywhere, and the message they are sending is that you have to push yourself to unhealthy lengths in order to be successful.

The truth is that dancers need to eat in order to have the strength to perform. I’ve witnessed girls faint or throw up at practice because they hadn’t eaten enough that day. It’s natural and healthy for dancers’ weights to fluctuate due to increasing muscle mass and other factors. Being strong is a good thing, and the most beautiful and captivating dancers put strength and emotion behind every movement.

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Melanie Moore has received criticism about not having the “typical” dancer body. However, her body type didn’t stop her from winning Season 8 of So You Think You Can Dance!

            I want to send out a new message. I challenge all dancers to love our bodies for what they can do, not how they look. Stop setting goals to lose weight or fit into a smaller size costume and start setting more goals to perfect a new leap or turn combination. The best dancers are the ones that focus on strength rather than being thin, and in no way does being thin make you a better dancer than someone else. Love your body for its ability to produce the beautiful art of dance.

Sources:

Hamilton, L. H., Brooks-Gunn, J. and Warren, M. P. (1985), Sociocultural influences on eating disorders in professional female ballet dancers. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 4: 465–477.

Jacquelyn R. Braisted, Laurel Mellin, Elizabeth J. Gong, Charles E. Irwin Jr., The adolescent ballet dancer: Nutritional practices and characteristics associated with anorexia nervosa, Journal of Adolescent Health Care, Volume 6, Issue 5, September 1985, Pages 365-371

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