Ballet and Eating Disorders



“The body is your instrument in dance, but your art is outside that creature, the body”.

-Marta Graham


Ballet, an activity that can be exciting, beautiful, magical or even disturbing behind the stage. There are more than thousands of ballet companies around the world and more than hundreds of dancers that need to follow an art that demands a lot from your body than any other activity. The human body is the key for dancers to achieve most of the movements and steps the dancer does. Sometimes, the physical and emotional aspects of the dancers are highly demanded to be perfect, causing them struggle in the dance world with eating disorders. This topic has been a major conflict throughout the history of ballet, and recent searches have declared it goes more than just a ‘perfect type’, it is related to something neurological. Researchers have found that ‘perfectionism’ is the cause of eating disorders industry. Not only in the ballet world, but also in those women who find themselves the need to become perfect. The goal of this paper is to make people conscious of how harmful those physical demands are.

In addition, the paper is organized into three sections, with subsections in each one. In the first section, its provided the ballet stereotyped dancers concerning the old-school requirements and the ‘ideal body’ demanded throughout the last decades. In the second section, its discussed the current company’s policies in relation with the Pa De Deux ancient thoughts; which is related to the old-school requirements from section one. The paper end with a third section that describes the eating and mental disorders consequences and changes in the ballerina life that question researchers about how this topic has, and still impacts in the dance world. However, before the examination of the three sections, the ‘perfectionism context’ will help understand how everything starts developing in the dancer’s minds.

Perfectionism Context

According to psychologist Rice, “perfectionism is a high personal standard that some people have” (“The Many Faces of Perfectionism,” 1). Failing to meet those standards is more stressful for the latter than the former. Perfectionism has been clearly demonstrated to be a significant risk and maintaining factor that ballet has hypothesized their dancers to develop perfect technique, perfect body and perfect performances (Egan and Penniment 1). The desire dancers have about presenting themselves as ‘perfect’, has led severe consequences on the psychopathology features of a human being. Making even harder the rehabilitation treatments ballerinas try to get better. According to researchers, there is strong evidence that it becomes a ‘clinical perfectionism’ disorder in which personal standards become aggressive thoughts about their actions and mistakes they are prone to experience throughout their life (Egan and Penniment 1).

Stereotyped Dancers

Female dancers, at an early age, are taught to be just like the principal dancer of their company. Usually, it means for the little girls to keep in mind that you must be tall, with long legs, thin and with beautiful skin to show the audience your grace and beauty (Edwards 3). Unfortunately, people had been the ones who cooperated to build these ideas of the ‘normal ballerina.’ In addition, being in front of a room, surrounded by mirrors while doing exercises and comparing yourself to others, makes the dancer question herself if she ‘fits’ in the ballet standards. It makes them aspire for the ideal body although the ways to reach it might not be consider healthy. These stereotypes, are sometimes the cause dancers develop eating disorders.

A Perfect Struggle

On their daily basis, dancers are reminded to always keep themselves perfect. This mean, they should remember ballet is built of technique that demands a lot from the body aesthetics. Ballet dancers have a significantly higher risk of developing eating disorders than their non-dancing peers (McConville 1). ‘A Perfect Struggle’ would infer that dancers are more likely to experience eating disorders because dancers need to accept the stereotype of the ‘perfect dancer’, and it shows how aspiring dancers are compelled to spend several hours a day in front of large mirrors and compare themselves to their peer group of competitors. There have been several documentaries showing the Old-Schools Requirements. One of these documentaries is called ‘A Beautiful Tragedy,’ under the direction of David Kinsella. It shows the sacrifices girls in Russia still have to make to become a recognized or ‘at least’ a good dancer because they maintain the old-school style.

Old-Schools Requirements.  To be successful in the business, companies claimed basic requirements for anyone who aspires to have ballet as a career. For most of the dancers, enter a ballet classroom and not be complete sure about who will succeed after 14 years of preparation is what scares them the most. The obligatory requisites, in the past decades, pursued and encouraged female dancers to fit into ‘measurements’. It started to make ballet dancers ‘fit’ on a ‘weight obsessed’ environment subculture; suggesting that depending on the ballet school you were attending your possibility on relapsing on an eating disorder might be higher than others (McConville 2). Margot Fonteyn, in the Old-School ballet days, met the requirements. She had the aesthetic no one else met. However, not many years later, these ‘requirements’ did not ‘fit’ with the new standards. Even though aesthetic features cannot be ignored from the visual art form; the perspective of having the ‘ideal body’ according new choreographers were the beginning of new ideas about the perfect ballerina for the art industry (McConville 2). Therefore, female dancers have struggled since, to fit these requirements.

Ideal Body. According to Angyal, “Ballerinas are athletes, but they’re also artists, and they put the “line” first: most defenses of extreme thinness claim that ballet is simply more pleasing to the eye when the shapes made by a dancer’s body are uncluttered by fat and flesh” (“Dance and Eating Disorders: The Search for the Perfect Form,”1). To make the audience believe that ballet dancers achievements are based on ‘perfection’, is the final goal of them. In the early beginning of ballet, being curvy with rounded legs were just ‘perfect’. Throughout the times; George Balanchine, regarded as the foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet; was the first bringing and supporting the idea that female dancers were supposed to be thin and delicate to the audience’s eye (“George Balanchine,” 1). In addition, ballerinas have been demanded to satisfy the following measurements to be the ‘standard ballet dancer’; high arches, flexible torso, small heads, small busts, slim hips, small ankles, long arms and legs and do not forget, to be thin. (“The Ideal Ballet Physique Body,” 6). Occasionally, thinness and restricting expectancy were measured on the forty-four-item thinness and restricting expectancy inventory (Eagan and Penniment 2). Many prospects have been declined from elite ballet companies for not gathering the require measurements. To always be concerned about the flaws and the correct technique one should accomplish in and outside the dance floor, causes questioning the ballet dancers if they are worth the way they look for this industry.

Current Companies

‘You need to fit in’. Ballet companies are currently looking for the new ideal ballerina, they are no longer looking for the ‘thin dancer’, instead they find more perfect the ‘slim dancer’ (“The Ideal Ballet Physique Body,” 5). However, what is the difference between slim and thin? According to researchers, being ‘thin’ means the person has too little flesh or fat on the body; and being ‘slim’ means to have little fat and look attractive in a certain way (“Difference Between Thin, Slim, and Skinny,” 2). Moreover, each ballet company has their own idea of the ideal physique and aesthetics they are looking for in each dancer because some likes to maintain the basics for the partnering moments (“The Ideal Ballet Physique Body,”6).

Pa De Deux Ancient Beliefs. Pa De Deux what in English stands for ‘Step for Two’ or understood better as the partnering moment where dancers share their dance, had an ancient belief about how the partners should be, to transmit the perfect glance to the audience. The female dancers are usually supposed to be ready and jump to her male partner; take positions where she practically floats in her male partner arms (“Pa De Deux,” 1). The male partner usually acts as a ‘third leg’ for the female dancer. Consequently, the ancient belief of the big renown ballet companies was that females should be petite in contrast to the male partner (“Ballet Scene: Art of the Pa De Deux,”1). It was not only because the female dancer had to develop a perfect technique while jumping, turning, getting lifted or doing promenade; but also, because the audience had to perceived an illusion of the female dancer as a ‘rag doll’ that shows elegance, grace, perfectionism with her partner.

The Copeland Effect. If you look up any picture of the great ballerinas of the 19th and early 20thcenturies, and you will amazed at their comparatively stocky figures (Edwards 2). The new trend has been impacted by Misty Copeland; a professional ballerina of thirty-three years, made history in ballet, breaking down the barriers of the ‘perfect’ stereotypes, becoming the first African American to be named principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater ‘ABT’ (Walters 1). A new body beauty proportion was recognized by the Artistic Director Kevin Mackenzie from the ‘ABT’. She is now the role model and the figure of thousands all over the world (Walters 12). In 2014, ‘The Copeland Effect’ started to grow. She redefined the idolized female dancer type on an Under Armour commercial, showing her sculptured body with muscles and fibers. Through it, her name became influential to the concept of the perfect body for ballet dancers.

New Generation Struggles. The new generations are facing two standards to follow; ‘The Copeland Effect’ and the ‘Perfect Ballerina’ style that old ballet schools still pursue. However, a several ballet group of audience, are casual viewers of the ‘fragile’ typical ballet dancer, and the other percentage of the audience expect to see a healthy, less attention to shape dancer who can still dance perfect (Edwards 3). This labels, from the spectators, creates the confusion in the progress of the new dancers pursuing a ballet career since they are teenagers (“The Perfectionism Problem,” 1). According to researchers like Dr. Hamilton; the new generations should be taught how to understand the tendencies in the dance world and answer ‘at what point does perfectionism goes bad’? That is why a key recommendation for the new generations is setting high realistic goals to succeed in this career (“The Perfectionism Problem,” 1).

Eating and Mental Disorders

            After creating an environment where dancers get haunted with a weight-obsessed subculture; they start developing eating disorders (McConville 4). An easy definition presented by ‘The National Institute of Mental Health’ says, that eating disorders are “A lifestyle choice”. Common eating disorders often include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. (“NIMH: Eating Disorders, 1”). Ballet dancers are committed to the ‘lifestyle’ they have chosen, to become the ‘perfect ballerina’. However, ballet dancers not only develop eating disorders, they as well develop mental illnesses due to live stressful and tiring hours of work while dancing.

According to Dr. Warren, “A student who seems to be losing too much weight is questioned quietly about what she is eating”. ”But you may, in fact, be unintentionally doing more damage. The most important thing is to know when to turn it over to a professional.” (Dunning 5).

Signs and Symptoms. According to Warren and Hamilton, “Dancers who negotiate the psychological and physical pressures of ballet training and of performing in some companies, tend to be eager to please, and may believe they are disciplined and passionate enough about their art to be able to disregard their need for food” (Dunning,”3). Here is when, as a peer to the dancers, we need to take notes about the risk factors the dancer is presenting or not. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, common symptoms include extremely restricted eating, extreme thinness, a relentless pursuit of thinness, unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and distorted body image with a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape (“NIMH: Eating Disorders,”1).

Changes in life. It is hard sometimes to identify these symptoms, but when they are identified, most of the companies required dancers to submit to ‘team involvement’ where others with anorexia and bulimia can take up and open about the ‘struggle’ they are going through (McConville 5). Ever since these days begin, female dancers start looking at their ‘friends’ as competitors in tights, and constantly becoming self-critical, self-imposed and constantly wondering if she is good enough to keep doing what she is doing as a lifestyle (“The Ideal Ballet Physique Body,” 10).

There are some traditional treatments in which anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder can get, for example; medical care and monitoring, nutritional counseling, medication, individual-group-and/or-family therapy (“NIMH: Eating Disorders,”2). Overall, if the dancer does not want to improve her health then, there are possible consequences that can lead to the end of their career.

Consequences- End of Career. There are some risk factors that the dancer can get just like any other person struggling with an eating disorder such as; mild anemia, muscle wasting and weakness, brittle hair and nails, dry and yellowish skin, growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo), severe constipation, low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse, damage to the structure and function of the heart, brain damage, multiorgan failure, drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time, lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time, and last but not least ‘infertility’ (“NIMH: Eating Disorders,”1).

If the dancer does not act quickly to find a solution to help herself about it, and if she still underweight, dancing might be stopped or at least curtailed in combination with nutritional therapy to allow weight restoration to occur. It is a fact that causes significant psychological stress, especially for a dancer who hopes to have a long remarkable career in ballet. Sometimes, supportive talking therapy is provided, and as the weight is restored, a graded, supervised return to activity may be appropriate to the dancer, as long as the person with the eating disorder is medically and psychologically stable (McConville 5). Furthermore, if the dancer does not feature ‘changes’ concerning rehab, then not even her career will be finished, but her life as well. It depends on the dancer to continue doing what she always dreamed of doing: ‘To perform’ or to ‘Give Out’ the waltz of perfectionism a dancer reflects to her audience.


            Eating disorders are not taboo in the dancer’s life, they still occur and have existed very long. Ballerinas all around the world seeking for this career, sacrifice their lives to become the perfect stereotyped that the audience in general has been pursuing and approaching for the last centuries. Getting into this ‘methods’ to maintain ‘slim’ and be perfect to the aesthetic eyes of each company policies, are not a healthy or a realistic way to become the ‘standard ballet dancer’. New features of new types of dancers are emerging thanks to ‘Misty Copeland’, but still each company ask for their own ‘type of dancer’. The only way of becoming ‘perfect’ involves dying from an eating disorder and not even with that, dancers feel comfortable and happy with the process and the idea of being just perfect.




Misty Copeland – Ballet dancer for American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Photographed in New York 11/21/2014.





















Works Cited

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“Difference Between Thin, Slim, and Skinny.” N.p., 17 Dec. 2015. Web. 7 Nov.


Dunning, Jennifer. “Eating Disorders Haunt Ballerinas.” The New York Times. The New

York Times, 16 July 1997. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Edwards, Grace. “The Body of Ballet.” Trespass Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Egan, Sara J., and Penniment, Kylie J “Perfectionism and Learning Experiences in Dance

Class as Risk Factors for Eating Disorders in Dancers.” National Center for

Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 27 Jan. 2011. Web.

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“George Balanchine.” NYCB. The New York City Ballet, n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

McConville, Sharon. “Ballet and Eating Disorders.” Eating Disorder Hope. N.p.

n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

“NIMH » Eating Disorders.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of

Medicine, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

“Pas De Deux.” Pas De Deux. N.p., 4 Sept. 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

“The Ideal Ballet Physique Body” · Dancer523.” Storify. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.

“The Many Faces of Perfectionism.” American Psychological Association. N.p., Nov. 2003.         Web. 06 Nov. 2016.

“The Perfectionism Problem.” Dance Spirit. N.p., 25 Oct. 2016. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Walters, Natalie. “An inside Look at the Historic Career of ‘unlikely Ballerina’ Misty Copeland, Who Went from ‘pretty Much Homeless’ to Dance Superstar.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 10 Nov. 201


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