Dance and Body Image: Answering a Mother's Question

A few months ago a friend from "back in the day" (I think we met in junior high? We hung out most in high school…) has a daughter that has been begging to take dance classes. Another friend of her was once a gymnast and has enough bad memories of feed restriction and body image pressures that she has unequivocally stated that she would never let a daughter do gymnastics.

My friend reached out to me to ask how my experience with dance affected my relationship with my body, saying she was worried about body size pressures and thinking martial arts would be a better route.

This was a fun challenge for me, to put my emotions and experiences into words that had the impact I wanted. This was what I came up with:


So, did dance give me any body image issues? Yes and no. I didn't start to feel the pressure directly to be thin until I started getting competitive, and that was in high school where your tendency to be swayed is fairly set. 

Early on, the only pressure I felt to be thin was from seeing pictures of skinny ballerinas in pictures, posters, and magazines and knowing I didn't look like that. My teachers never put that energy out there. 

In high school, the message from Buchner was "be thinner", and that message got stronger especially as I became more prominent on the dance team. The problem was that no one told me what that means. Be thin vs be heathy vs be strong. I wish someone has better delineated the difference and that eating healthy doesn't equate to eat less. 

That said, women get those same message regardless of their hobbies. Magazines, TV, friends, etc. Kids call each other fat as an insult before they really know what it means. I think the friends someone runs with has more effect on that. 

The few girls I knew who  suffered from anorexia or other eating disorders were products not of the dancing, but of "stage parents" or otherwise overbearing homes where the kid was pushed really hard to be perfect in school and dance. Anorexia, binging, and bulemia were often symptoms of low self esteem, not feeling good enough, and needing some element of control in their lives. 

Now the other side:

Dancing gave me an indescribable level of PRIDE in my body and what it could do. It gave me an outlet and a a form of expression that stayed with me through grad school. It was something I could fall back on when things were tough. It was something to enjoy when things were good. It was something that I could always work towards and perfect and something I could revel in at whatever skill level I was at. 

Additionally, it gave me the foundation to excel in nearly every other athletic endeavor that I have tried since. The body awareness in dance is unparalleled in most sports, with the exception of perhaps martial arts. The dedication it takes to perfect and fine tune something as simple as how to project while walking makes other physical tasks seem relatively easy. 

If I could do it all again… 

Suppose I were to have progeny of my own. Given unrestricted time, access and/or resources, I would put a daughter into both dance and judo/jujitsu. (My thoughts on why grappling is ideal for women is a whole 'nother essay.) My first year in judo is when I stopped equating a scale number with beauty. It's also when I stopped having those nightmares where someone is chasing you. 

With the popularity of shows like So You Think You Can Dance, you see images these days of dancers who aren't stick thin. They have thighs, they're athletic and strong. If you look at dancers with groups like Alvin Ailey or Alonzo Lines, they're contemporary dance troupe, but they're anything but skinny ballerinas. 


1) My inability to be swayed by "be thin" messages were a product of loving, non-overbearing parents with solid messages of self worth.
2) Dance gave me a fantastic foundation to spring off into other physical endeavors later in life. Set a be-active mentality from a young age. 
3) Dance gave me pride in my abilities and a physical and emotional outlet. 
4) Teach her what nutrition is and the importance of calories as energy rather than only discussing restriction. 
5) More girls should do judo/jujitsu :)