I began dreaming about being a ballerina at age six, and I began dreaming about being skinny at age twelve. It seems to be common knowledge, a stereotype turned fact, that ballet dancers have a higher tendency to develop eating disorders than non-dancers. The word “ballet” itself is surrounded by a stereotype. When people hear the word ballet, what images come to mind? Little girls in leather slippers, twirling around aimlessly? A stick-thin woman tip toeing to the beat of Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairy? Whatever the image may be, I guarantee it doesn’t involve someone overweight.
At the age of twelve I still had the body of a little boy, and I was okay with that, considering I lived in leotards and tights and had absolutely no desire to gain an ounce of body fat anywhere. I knew I wasn’t “ballerina skinny,” but I also knew I wasn’t fat. I was skinny enough to excel as one of the top students in my class and to be accepted into prestigious summer programs, so that was good enough for me. It never occurred to me that my instructors noticed my weight or my body; I thought they only noticed my clean technique and strong stage presence.
Just as ballet dancers are expected to conform their dancing in the corps de ballet, they are also pressured to conform to the “ballet body” stereotype. This pressure is common knowledge in the ballet world. Ballet schools and companies are aware of the issue, but why do they condone it? The Royal Ballet School in London posts an online Eating Disorder Policy explaining that students are “compelled to spend several hours a day in front of large mirrors and are inclined to compare themselves to their peer group” (Royal Ballet School). The policy also lists ways to identify students with eating disorders and how to help them, but what preventative measures can be taken? If it wasn’t for this constant comparison, this manipulation, this scrutiny, would eating disorders still be so prevalent among ballet dancers?
When I was in seventh grade, my instructor called me out in the middle of the left side of our plié combination. She yelled out, “Anna! Are you eating?” I was startled and quickly replied, “No!!!” while making sure I didn’t lose count of the combination in my head. I had a habit of chewing on the inside of my cheek when I was concentrating, so I thought Miss Rebekah was referring to the chomping movement my mouth was making during the combination. After the music ended, she proceeded to question me: “So, you’re not eating? Are you being serious?” I responded “no” to each question, mortified that she thought I would dare eat something during ballet class! I was confused by the startled expression on her face, then realized moments later that I had made a huge mistake. She didn’t think I was saying no to eating right now; she thought I was saying no to eating at all.
“You look a lot thinner, “Miss Rebekah continued, “You should come to my office after class.” I was mortified. I felt beyond stupid for my naïve interpretation of her questions, and I couldn’t avoid the side glances I received from my peers for the rest of the lesson. The misunderstanding was ultimately resolved, but the comment continued to eat away at my mind for years to come.
Ballet dancers are six times more likely to suffer from anorexia than the general public, and 83 percent of ballet dancers experience some sort of eating related disorder (Royal Ballet School). Surprised? I’m not. The comment that was made to me on a random Wednesday in 2009 has stuck with me to this very day, almost ten years later. I’ve been haunted by this experience so much that I still feel the need to write about it, to express the impact a single statement can have on a person’s life.
Being that I was only twelve at the time Miss Rebekah made her accusation, eating disorders were not the first thing on my mind. I was much more concerned about checking my phone after class to see if the cute boy from pre-algebra texted me than I was with seeing my ribs protrude from my lavender leotard. I knew ballerinas were supposed to be skinny, but until that day the idea of harming yourself to achieve this goal was never at the forefront of my mind.
I was taking multiple classes every day, six days a week, in the same uniformed leotard and tights. Miss Rebekah saw me every day in that same leotard and tights. I had a hard time understanding what about my body looked so different that afternoon than it had the night before. “Not eating” doesn’t have overnight effects on a body, so had she been watching me for a while now? Had she scrutinized my body so closely that she could identify a weight fluctuation from Tuesday night to Wednesday afternoon? This encounter also made me wonder if I was fat before and just simply didn’t notice it. I was even too embarrassed to go to ballet class the next day, and I never missed class.
My best friend at ballet happened to be by far the skinniest girl in our class. I was always a little self-conscious dancing next to her, but now it was even worse. I was embarrassed because I knew Miss Rebekah would never call her out for not eating; she had always been and will always be very, very skinny. She was born that way, with the perfect New York City Ballet (NYCB) body, and I was constantly reminded of it.
Founded by George Balanchine, the “Father of American Ballet,” NYCB breeds perfect dancers. Balanchine choreographed his pieces with a specific dancer in mind: “young, tall, and slender to the point of alarm” (Ideal Ballet Physique). Balanchine “liked to see bones. He liked to see ribs. He liked hyperextension and strength that was mechanical yet lithe. It is Balanchine’s obsession with this impossible ‘structure’ that is often blamed for the destructive eating and body disorders that plague the dance world” (Ideal Ballet Physique). New York City Ballet is still known for having the thinnest of thin dancers. This is because most of their dancers come from the company’s training program, the School of American Ballet (SAB). What SAB does is find super skinny little girls and train them to be ballerinas. They accept girls from a very young age based on body type, not technique, because technique is something that can be taught and being skinny isn’t.
I always thought that if it was me with the perfect ballet body I’d already be in New York at SAB, but I, while not “fat” by any means, was born with an average body. A body I would work so hard to transform into the closest specimen of a ballet body I was capable of in the years to come. I would be accused of skipping meals and other unhealthy behaviors because I wasn’t supposed to be this thin naturally, and in return that made me question if I should even be doing ballet.
I didn’t fully grasp how major the eating disorder epidemic was among ballet dancers until I spent my summer after freshman year of high school at The Rock School for Dance Education. The Rock School is a prestigious ballet school located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Rock offers a year-round boarding school program equipped with online high school and accepts only highly elite, trained ballet dancers. The Rock School also offers one of the most highly regarded summer intensive programs in the country. Aspiring ballet dancers audition for the program at one of the many locations and are denied or accepted into a certain level directly following the end of the audition class.
My audition for The Rock School was at Ballet Chicago on a blistery February morning. I woke up at five that morning already running on adrenaline at the thought of taking a class at the Ballet Chicago. I did my bun first because that was by far the most important aspect of my appearance. I slicked my hair back into a high ponytail and sprayed it until it crunched at the touch. I then divided my ponytail into five small sections. I tightly wrapped each coil around the crown of my head, sticking at least a dozen bobby pins in each coil. By the time I was done my arms felt limp and I had achieved a perfect, flat “Balanchine” bun. Then I hair-sprayed the life out of my bun because I was fully opposed to hair-nets and topped it off with a small white bow sticking out of the right side of my head. Next, I coated my eyelashes in mascara, blushed my cheeks, and put on my performance diamond stud earnings. Last came the simple black leotard and brand new pink tights. My Lycra leotard was smooth to the touch and slimming to the eye. I yanked up the sides of the leotard over my sharp hip bones, elongating my legs and shrinking the appearance of my torso. I was extremely pleased with my appearance and knew my dancing would follow suit.
I waltzed into Ballet Chicago with my game face on. I held my audition photos in one hand, my overstuffed dance bag weighing down the right side of my body, while I attempted to walk with the best posture possible. I signed in and handed my audition photos to the Ballet Master who would be teaching our audition class that afternoon; she smiled as she flipped through the photos and whispered “lovely arabesque” through her grin. My confidence immediately soared; I was ready to take on the warm-up room. Girls were stretching in every corner of the room, asking their parents to lift their leg above their head or stand on their feet to stretch them out. I followed suit and contorted my body every which way in hopes of intimidating the competition.
My audition class was the 12-16 age range, and I was fourteen at the time, so my youthful appearance worked to my advantage. I looked like I was about twelve and that was fine with me. I was placed in level 4 of 6, which from The Rock School’s standards would be considered slightly above average for my age. What pleased me the most about this placement was that I looked so much younger than the other girls in my level even if we were the same age. Ballet is all about being as young and as advanced as possible.
While at The Rock School that summer I remember hearing about how one of the students had not eaten for days and was not going to be allowed to perform at the end of the summer showcase until she had noticeably gained her strength back. She was a full-time student at the school, so the directors knew her well and her peers discussed her situation in an oddly nonchalant manner. Whispers about her condition filled the hallways:
“Yeah, she’s just not eating again. Nothing new.”
“She thinks her arms look fat in the sleeves of her Le Corsaire tutu.”
“I heard she almost passed out doing fouettés during pointe class yesterday.”
I understood how someone like me could scrutinize their body, but I couldn’t believe one of the most beautiful dancers I had ever seen could possibly think these things of herself.
As the summer progressed, I found it harder and harder to avoid the body negativity around me. We would sit in the cafeteria waiting until the directors left to get our food so they wouldn’t see us eat. We would count our calories and complain about being stuck in front of a “fat mirror” during barre. I couldn’t turn a corner without hearing a voice whine about how bloated they felt that day or that their thighs touched when they stood in second position. “Are you seriously eating a Clif bar? Do you know how many calories are in those things? They’re not even healthy!” echoed through the halls. I was dumbfounded when one of my classmates asked me if I wanted to go to the gym with her when we got back to the dorms. “Are you crazy?” I asked her, completely serious. “I can barely walk after today’s rehearsal, I need to ice my feet!” “Oh, well, I just wanted to burn some more calories, I’ll catch you later!” I watched her stick figure walk away while I tried not to let my jaw drop. We were dancing eight hours a day, every day, but barely consuming enough calories to keep ourselves alive if we were couch potatoes. Every day I woke up with the intentions of pointing my feet a little harder, lifting my leg a little higher, and looking a whole lot skinnier. By the end of the summer I was obsessed with wearing light colored leotards to show off a ribcage that was quite a bit more visible than it had been when I arrived.
When the end of the summer showcase finally rolled around I was ecstatic that my class’s costumes consisted of a white leotard, tights, and nothing else. In the past I wouldn’t have thought anything about wearing a white leotard; it was something I did often and felt very indifferent towards. But this time was different—I was going to be able to show off all that I had gained—well, lost—this summer at The Mann Center in Philadelphia, in front of thousands of people. While my dancing had without a doubt improved, I couldn’t help but consider my body transformation the best thing I had gotten out of the summer. I thought to myself, “If only Miss Rebekah could see me now. She’d think I haven’t eaten all summer.” Maybe because I hadn’t eaten all summer.
I didn’t want to show off my new-found consistency in triple pirouettes, my perfect 180- degree penché, or my feet that could nearly pointe in half. I wanted to publicize my sunken chest, protruding ribs, and twig arms. I examined myself before I went onstage at The Mann Center that day; I took note of my perfectly formed French twist. My hair was hard to the touch, slicked back and up to make my cheekbones look higher. Everything in ballet is an illusion. Pointe shoes were invented with the sole purpose of making legs look longer, as were tutus. Corset tops are attached to tutus in attempt to slim the waist. And you can’t forget to top it all off with a tiara, working to add one last bit of height to the dancer, making her more visually pleasing to the audience.
Since my hair was perfect I moved on to scrutinizing my makeup, which was also flawless. I had the complexion of a piece of paper because we were dancing all day and never had time to go outside. My paleness helped when applying stage makeup because I was working with a blank canvas that allowed every speck of makeup to “pop.” Last came the body inspection. My pale skin almost looked tan against the stark white leotard, my “performance pink” professional mesh seam Capezio tights were brand new for the performance, meaning they didn’t have a single snag on them, which was hard to come by, and my point shoes were broken in perfectly. For a split-second I felt perfect. I knew perfect wasn’t attainable, but I let myself think it was while I stared into the smudged dressing room mirror. I took deep breaths to calm my nerves and watched my ever-so-visible ribcage collapse with each exhale.
I could see the reflection of girls changing in and out of costumes behind me—leotards and tights flying everywhere—but not a sign of loose skin in sight. Girls hunched over in attempt to not completely flash everyone else while performing a quick change. Hunched backs gave way to protruding spines, sunken chests, and pronounced rib cages. Such a sight of skinniness that I would never know on my own body took me back to the very first time I saw this type of skinny, ballet skinny.
Occasionally, I’ll see an image in my mind of a girl whose name I can’t remember. Honestly, I’m not sure if I ever knew her name, but she somehow managed to leave an imprint in my mind for the last fifteen years. The memory of this girl is usually brought on by an image, the type of image that is plastered across magazines and flaunted throughout online shopping sites. Images of models that resemble skeletal figures. Images of girls I will never look like.
I was six years old taking pre-ballet, and the only thing I can remember from this class is the first specimen of a ballet body I ever laid my eyes on. This girl was in the same class as me but happened to be two years older, which seemed like an eternity in my eyes, and I wanted to be just like her when I “grew up” in two years. She was the tallest girl near my age I had ever seen, and her legs stretched longer than my entire body. She had white blonde hair that was always formed into a perfect, low bun and wispy bangs that moved when she twirled. I was fascinated by the fact that when she turned to the side you could barely see her because she was so skinny. The other moms would whisper about the tall, blonde girl and how she looked way too thin. My mom even talked to me after ballet class one day and said, “That girl is way too skinny. She doesn’t eat right and is not healthy. You don’t want to look like that, it’s not normal.”
I was so young when my mom said this to me I didn’t think anything about it at all. What did stick with me was an image of this girl’s lanky figure associated with the words “not normal.” I kept this association in the back of my mind for the following decade. I struggled, however, to process this comparison. Every ballerina I looked up to had a body just like this girl, and, yes, they weren’t normal. “Normal” people aren’t supposed to spend hours at a time supporting their entire body weight on the tips of their toes, they’re not supposed to bend their back in half or développé their leg beyond 180 degrees, but ballerinas do it anyway. A normal body is incapable of meeting the physical demands of ballet, which is why ballerinas strive for the extraordinary, the unattainable, the idea of perfection.
When I was fifteen I was presented the opportunity to attend The Rock School’s year-round program, an opportunity I would graciously turn down. Ballet was still my passion, the center of my universe, but after spending a summer there I was almost terrified to see what an entire year would do to me both mentally and physically. There were a million factors that left me uneasy with the thought of devoting my entire life to this art form. What if I injured myself and couldn’t dance anymore? What if I actually hit puberty and somehow grew wide hips and big boobs? I would be screwed. I absolutely wanted to continue ballet, but if I went to The Rock that would be it. I would have to be a ballerina.
By the time I reached seventeen I had worn myself out both physically and mentally in my attempt to reach perfection. Ballet had consumed my entire life up until this point, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle it anymore. I still loved ballet, and I always will, but I knew if I wanted to stay sane something would have to change. The “something” just so happened to be my doing ballet. Come June of my senior year of high school I made the decision to execute the perfect Balanchine bun one more time, pick out what leotard I wanted to wear for the last time I would ever be wearing one, and tie my pointe shoes around my ankles for what was probably the ten thousandth time but most importantly, the very last. I was hanging up my tutu for good, retiring from the art form at age eighteen.
On average, a ballet dancer’s career will end by age 34, assuming they never face a tragic injury (Center for Arts). Sometimes, I think I threw it all away, all the training, all of the blood, sweat, and tears (literally), but then I take a step back. Did I really want to spend the next fifteen-ish years of my life counting the calories in chewing gum and watching my feet bleed through the satin toe-box of my pointe shoes while simultaneously being yelled at to keep my shoulders down, knees straight, and stomach pulled in? Could I have handled it without becoming another statistic? Without becoming another victim who finds her reflection in a mirror so repulsive that she thinks her only option is to harm her body? I honestly don’t think so. And that thought alone is what gets me through the days when I’ll see an old picture and start to miss ballet. A picture of a small girl leaping through the air, grinning ear to ear because for a split second she was weightless. Only smiling until gravity pulled her back down and she felt the weight of her own body once again. Smiling in the picture, starving on the inside; this girl wasn’t happy, but I am.
“Ballet Dancers at Risk for Eating Disorders.” Recovery Ranch, 7 Dec. 2010,
“Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University,
Dunning, Jennifer. “Eating Disorders Haunt Ballerinas.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15
McConville, Sharon. “Eating Disorders in Ballet and Recovery.” Eating Disorder Hope, 12 May 2013,
“The Ideal Ballet Physique (with Images) · dancer523.” Storify, storify.com/dancer523/eating-disorders.
The Royal Ballet School Eating Disorder Policy. http://www.royal-ballet- school.org.uk/media/policies/docs/Eating_Disorders_Policy.pdf Accessed on May 3rd, 2013