I’m back in the studio for the first time in six months — the longest I’ve gone without stepping inside one since I was 8 or 9 years old. The feeling is nothing short of euphoric: to hold a real barre and not my dining room table, to travel across an open space, to turn on real marley. There’s just one thing that mars this bliss — I can’t look at myself in the mirror.
This is nothing new or unique to my experience: Dancers so often hyperfocus on their bodies because they are the tools with which they create their art. In ballet especially, being extremely thin is the aesthetic standard, something that developed over time similarly to the industries of fashion and modeling, and was perhaps concretized by the advent of the Balanchine aesthetic. Thinner lines, better art. Staring into mirrors all day critiquing positions and movements, too, contributes to an obsessive focus on one’s body, all of which is incredibly damaging both physically and mentally. Ballet typically requires that one start training at a very young age. Thus comments from teachers about how “I can see your lunch sticking out!” (a line I’ve heard countless times) as well as the general pressure of the industry and the world come during formative years and shape our thoughts and perceptions. Those kinds of thought processes are difficult to break; friends who have long since quit dancing still tell me how much they struggle with their body image, unable to escape the mentality drilled into them.
Body dysmorphia is defined as “an obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in one’s appearance,” most commonly on one’s shape, size, or weight. “Perceived” is the operative word — individuals who struggle with body dysmorphia perceive their bodies to look a different way than they actually do, which often causes distress and or leads them to take drastic action to change the way they look. And dancers, who tend to be immensely driven and determined individuals, often will do whatever it takes to improve, to get ahead, to be a better dancer. We live to perform, to create and share this art, and to do so “successfully,” one must please an artistic director, a company, or a casting director. As a result, dancers go to great lengths to stay thin, lose weight, or even stave off puberty because having the body of a child is what is desired by this industry. Studies have shown that dancers are three times more likely than the general population to suffer from an eating disorder.
In some ways, there’s even something enticing about giving your body up to the art, allowing others to dictate or shape it, and feeling like it is serving a larger purpose. But this artistic pursuit isn’t worth it when the price is your health. In a recent viral video, ballet star and popular Youtuber Kathryn Morgan discussed her decision to leave her company after they repeatedly denigrated her for being “too large” to perform in their shows. “No company contract, or title… is worth your mental or physical health,” she stresses in her video. For Morgan, the health consequences of undereating and overexercising were particularly severe due to the autoimmune disorder that had kept her away from dance for almost a decade prior. The harshness of their demands in asking her to lose more and more weight (“I was a size 2,” Morgan says), as well as the toxicity of the way in which they treated her (casting her in roles then pulling her two days before the show), carries echoes of countless other stories on the sometimes exceedingly negative environment in ballet. In fact, after Morgan posted her video on Youtube, it and the accompanying Instagram post were shared widely across social media, and countless other dancers began to add their experiences to the narrative.
Morgan’s Youtube channel has always been about transparency, sharing insights into the ballet industry with aspiring young dancers who look to her for inspiration. This video, and the resulting furor, might feel like yet another point on the laundry list of issues that the ballet industry, and the world, needs to grapple with. Yet it is exactly in this time of incredible social upheaval that I am most hopeful for change. There may be, to an extent, certain traditions and aesthetic standards that ballet must hold itself to, but at the end of the day this work is fundamentally about expression, storytelling, and emotion. It should be a dancer’s performance, movement quality, and artistry that ultimately determine their success, not their body shape or size.
Morgan is a beautiful performer, as evident in the clips she shared of rehearsal and stage in her video, and no matter what any company director thinks of her body, she is every inch the ballerina when she dances. Let’s remember what this art is really about, and stop leading students and working artists to damaging mental and physical spaces by making the body into the be-all-end-all. Let’s bring the joy and beauty back into this art form for those who make it what it is — the dancers.
—Sara Komatsu '23’s column “Backstage at the Ballet” explores anything and everything ballet-related, from its moments of joy and despair to the broader, systematic issues within it.