Body Image, Eating Disorders and Identity in Dance Culture

Leighah Beadle-Darcy. The Body in Culture, Politics and Society.







The body is generally the primary means of expression and representation in Western Dance (Thomas, 2003).  In Western Society in general there is also the heightened concern with body appearance and presentation, which is shown by the vast increase in the amount of diets, exercise products and programmes, cosmetics and other appearance enhancements and body modifications, along with the advertisement of these things. The message of being slim and good – looking permeates the present Western Culture. With the addition of the internet and social media we have more and more venues for the multiplication and increasing intensity of this, with millions of messages about the ideal way to look and present oneself reaching out to consumers every second of the day, twenty- four hours a day. Techniques such as airbrushing and photoshopping can produce images of so-called ‘perfection’, along with consequent increasing availability of ways and products to reach these impossible ideals of ‘perfection’. This affects cultures within the culture, and for the purpose of this essay, the Western dance training and performance cultures. Issues around body – image, the struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating (Middleton, 2007) and the effects of body- image issues and demands on dancers will be explored, and placed within the wider context of current Western society, whilst also looking back a little into some of previous Western society.


Body Image in Western Society


Western culture has tuned into its now inherent consumer culture, with preoccupation with the body and appearance, and entices people through various means to take measures to prevent natural inevitable decay of the body. Ageing has become an anathema, not only for reasons of health and longevity, but also for reasons of remaining physically youthful looking and attractive. There is the push to not only ward off death but also any natural ageing process. The idea of the body as an instrument of pleasure and self – presentation is mobilised (Thomas, 2003). The emphasis on the body as being a vehicle of labour or usefulness by the work that it does, or childbearing, or for getting around, is now the ‘representing body’ (Thomas, 2003) brought about by this shift. Postmodernists point to a shift from a modern society based on production, to a postmodern society based on consumption, in which the consumerist body and self has become a primarily performing and presenting self, with image and appearance paramount, and of display and impression management. What we look like and how others see us has become the emphasised factor. How impressive we are, how beautiful we are, how young we look, how well we defy age and consequent death, how much we can continue to attract by means of appearance become central features of living in today’s Western society and what it means to be successful and desirable. It is as if the body itself has become a status symbol that we carry with us daily to prove our worth in society.

According to Thomas (Thomas, 2003), body maintenance and appearance in consumerist culture implies two basic categories: the inner body and the outer body. ‘Inner’ refers to concern with the health and optimum functioning and repair in the face of disease, abuse and deterioration accompanying the ageing process. The ‘outer’ body refers to the appearance as well as the movement and control of the body within the social sphere. Featherstone’s (1991) construct of the ‘outer body’ relates to what Douglas (1975) called the ‘social body’ and what George Herbert Mead (1934) called the ‘me’, what Cooley termed the ‘looking glass self’ (Cooley, 2003), and Turner (Turner, 1992) referred to as Korper. The idea, or concept, of body image first appeared in 1935 in a book by Paul Schilder called ‘The Image and Appearance of the Human Body’ (Schilder, 1935). His definition of body image was: ‘the picture of our own body which we form in our mind, that is to say the way in which the body appears to ourselves.’ The definition by Schilder was expanded by Slade (Slade, 1988), to include ‘the picture we have in our minds of the size, shape, and form of our bodies, and the feelings concerning characteristics and our constituent body parts’.  It appears that in current Western society, the definition has expanded to include ‘the way others/society sees our body’, so that not only one’s own image of their body is of importance, but how they perceive others see them, and whether others’ judgement of one’s appearance is positive or negative and matches societal images of ‘ideal’. The problem, however, is that societal ideals have changed over the years, and keeping up is almost an impossibility, and of course, the body cannot be shaped to fit so easily. More than ever, however, we have the tools to shape to fit. ‘Shaping to fit’ is often an issue in some of the dance world, and whilst this shape and style may not be changing like in Western society, it is still upholding so-called ‘ideals’, which are not possible, or not possible without great lengths and even damage to the body for some dancers. Current Western society has joined the dance world in a plight towards ‘thinness’, with current trends like the ‘thigh gap’ (women’s thighs not meeting all the way down, but having a gap as the ‘ideal’) appearing daily on the internet and social media. Diet pills are more available than ever before, some of which are not checked for safety standards. Thinness is especially prevalent as the ideal for women, although men are bombarded with issues of body-image in terms of the ‘six pack’ abdominal tone, and being muscular in general without excess body fat. The pressure is on, and in current Western society we have increasing means to try and achieve these current ideals. The question is, at what cost? The price many pay is often high and may entail difficulties and losses. The question ‘Who am I?’ now appears to so often be answered by ‘I am who societal ideals and media tells me to be’. Becoming the ‘ideal’ put forth may well result in a loss of self and identity, or identity may be mostly defined by the image the person is portraying as put forth by society. Any authentic self has little chance of being encountered, discovered or rediscovered in the midst of this.


Western Dance Culture and Body Image


Whilst some may claim that dance enhances body image and self – esteem, some research shows that it sometimes causes dancers to develop negative body – image and/or eating disorders. This would fit more with the current climate of body-image in Western society and ‘ideals’, with some dance cultures being cultures within a culture that emphasises body ideals. Nothing exists in a vacuum and Western culture in general will affect the dance culture, however as we will see, dance and in particular ballet, has also for some time held a culture and ideals of its own with its own body ideals.

In the professional Western dance culture, including many professional training schools (in particular, ballet), body – image is not solely about maintaining an ‘ideal’ weight for dance, but also about perceived flaws. There is an expectation that dancers be slim, toned and ‘in proportion’, and in some companies and schools, certain shapes of legs and torso and other aesthetic qualities are elevated as better than others. This puts a great deal of pressure on dancers, and artistry and proficiency of technique alone are not seen to be enough. It is not merely a question of fitting or being acceptable in the ballet world, it has a higher price, one where dreams can be shattered if the dancer does not fit the body-ideal, where the training or career they hoped for in dance cannot be pursued.

George Balanchine, founded of the American Ballet School and New York City Ballet came up with the concept of an ideal ballet body for his ballets and is often credited with the idea of the ideal ballet body. He considered one of his dancers, Suzanne Farrell to be the ideal and many dancers went to extreme measures, including eating disorders to try and achieve this. A ‘Balanchine body’ is a body with narrow hips, very little fat deposits, long, lean legs, a short and slim torso with minimal fat, small breasts and delicate arms.

Gelsey Kirkland writes in her book ‘Dancing on my Grave’ (Kirkland, 1987) about the influence of Balanchine’s ideal based on Suzanne Farrell on her and her sister, Johnna:

‘Yet Johnna and I both measured ourselves against a more alluring and more formidable adversary, Suzanne Farrell, the absolute standard of beauty, the one who had been chosen by Mr B. to be the goddess of our age.

Like the rest of our fair company at New York City Ballet, my sister and I were constantly engaged in imitation. We young dancers were envious of Suzanne’s appearance and style. Her long neck and legs, her exotic line and delicate feature, made her Balanchine’s perfect instrument.’

She recalled another encounter with Balanchine which played a major role in the etiology of her eating disorder:

‘He halted class and approached me for a kind of physical inspection. With his knuckles, he thumped my sternum and down my rib cage, clucking with his tongue and remarking, “Must see those bones.”

I was less than a hundred pounds even then. Mr. B did not consider beauty a quality that must develop from within the artist; rather, he was concerned with outward signs such as body weight. His emphasis was responsible in part for setting the style that led to some of the current extremes of the American Ballet. I allowed him to use me to that end by trusting his advice. He did not merely say, “Eat Less.” He said repeatedly, “Eat nothing.” ‘

With the ballet culture beginning to create this ideal via Balanchine, it was difficult for dancers to resist reducing their body size to fit this ideal and be considered more successful as a ballet dancer.  Whilst being challenged at times today, this ideal still prevails amongst much of the ballet world and within the minds of ballet dancers. It is an ideal that even with some current challenging in the dance world, has become relatively engrained and part of the prevailing ballet culture.


An article in The Guardian about dancers and their bodies, discussed public and dance profession arguments, about whether ballet has pushed the ideal of ‘slender, supple body type’ to such an extreme that ballet as an art form has become a breeding ground for Anorexia Nervosa (Bruch, 1979, Middleton, 2007). A century ago, weight was not such an issue in dance. Ballerinas were inclined to be more slender than the average woman, but no – one considered it remarkable nor was it an ideal put forth for dancers, and they were not expected to be excessively thin. These women were slender more because their bodies had been tortured and shaped by years of training and were more physically active than most other women given their dance training and dance work. In paintings and photographs of dancers in those days, they were rarely, if ever, underweight, and many boasted healthy curves, but were not clinically overweight.

In the mid 1920s, there was a change in attitude to dancers’ bodies. This was during a time there was a societal shift and pressure on women’s bodies, and at that time a zeitgeist around the ‘flapper’ fashions, designed for the appearance of boyish hips and flat breasts. This was underscored in ballet by a changing aesthetic in choreography. Abstraction was emerging in dance, as it was in all the visual arts. Choreographers, including George Balanchine, were attracted to movement as shape and line rather than story – telling and character expression, and to emphasis this, the design of the ballet costume moving towards the more skimpy and revealing tunic, and the emergence of the leotard, all which added more body -consciousness, or self – consciousness of the body, despite never having previously considered these things, or dieting, previously.

Ballet, and dance in general, as in sport, has reached a climax of technical expertise, that requires a finely tuned body, and in dance, in ballet in particular, with a minimum of body fat, supple bodies and extremes of technique. The difficulty for many aspiring dancers of ‘less than dance ideal’ body is that if they want to be able to pursue dance beyond amateur level, they need to be within a certain size and sometimes fit certain shapes, particularly in the ballet world. The question arises for them as to whether to alter their body in order to pursue the dream of being a ballet dancer/professional dancer, or to relinquish the dream at that level and keep the body that is more healthily and authentically natural to them.


Dance, the Body and Identity


Dance has been known to both enhance and undermine body – image. A study carried out in 2010 (Langden and Petracca, 2010) included the role of identity as a dancer, saying that most of the previous literature had neglected this area. The study assessed 77 female modern dancers in terms of general and dance specific body-image factors as well as dance identity. In comparison to non-clinical college women, this sample had higher body appreciation and lower drive for thinness and self-objectification. White dancers had a positive correlation between dance body acceptance and efficacy, whereas non-white dancers had negative levels of this variable. Identity as a dancer had a negative correlation with body perceptions and was not related to number of years in the dance field. The research found that of general and dance specific body-image, body appreciation emerged as the unique factor, however the researchers said the findings warranted further research on positive body-image, modern dancers and identity is required. Given this study was undertaken with modern dancers, it is interesting how this compares and might differ if carried out with ballet dancers in relation to body-image and identity with the ballet culture having more stringent and specific requirements in terms of weight and body-type, and particularly at professional training school and professional performance level.

It has been suggested that there are associations between dance participation and body-image. A study was undertaken with 82 female dancers varying in dance type (ballet versus contemporary dance) and dancer level (beginner versus advanced) ( Swami and Harris, 2012). They completed measures of body appreciation, dancer identity, and included details of body mass index and age. Variances analyses revealed that beginner ballet dancers had significantly higher body appreciation compared with advanced ballet dancers, whereas advanced contemporary dancers had significantly higher body appreciation compared with beginner contemporary dancers. Both advanced ballet and advanced contemporary dancers had significantly higher body weight discrepancy than their beginner counterparts. This study also revealed that body awareness, body responsiveness, dancer identity, and time as a dancer did not significantly predict body image once dance type and level had been accounted for. The ballet dancers at higher levels/with professional aspiration in ballet appear to struggle with body-image issues more than contemporary dancers or other dance forms like modern dance. This makes sense considering the high demands on ballet dancers in terms of weight and the ‘ballet body ideal’ in the professional ballet culture. So, whilst dance can enhance body appreciation for some, at higher levels and in professional dance, and particularly in the ballet world, there are demands that may have a negative affect on some dancers, their perception of their body, their self -esteem and their identity as a dancer if they allow their body-image to be closely linked to their ideas and ideals for themselves as a dancer.


Eating Disorders, Dance and Society


Eating disorders are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s Western society, and there has been an increase in eating disorder diagnosis, treatment and counselling in recent years. (Middleton, 2007) There may be a number of reasons for this, including exposure to social media and more preoccupation in Western consumer culture with the body Thomas, 2003).

Eating disorders are a common issue amongst the demographic of elite performers of certain physical activities, including dancers. Less is known about non-professional or aspiring to towards professional performers and eating disorders, though there is more evidence as previously discussed amongst those that aspire to professional performance or train at a more advanced level than beginners. However, in one study (Ravaldi et al., 2003) non-elite ballet dancers reported the highest prevalence of eating disorders (Anorexia Nervosa 1.8%, Bulimia Nervosa 2.7%, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified/EDNOS 18%). The percentages for ballet dancers were higher than for gymnasium users, though there was also a significance amongst gymnasium users (Anorexia Nervosa 2.6%, EDNOS 18%). This points to the pressure for the ‘ideal’ ballet body in the ballet culture. In addition the study showed that amongst non-professional performers of physical activities emphasising thinness or muscularity, such as ballet and body-building there was a high degree of body uneasiness and inappropriate eating attitudes and behaviours, whether diagnosable eating disorders, or not diagnosable but resulting in disordered eating and negative self-evaluation about body-image or striving for an ‘ideal’ body type according to the sport or dance.

Anorexia Nervosa was rare until the second half of the twentieth century. It could be argued that there was less reporting of it before this time, less medical availability, psychotherapy and counselling had not yet been as firmly established or made available, and there were fewer media venues where the prevalence of both diets and body-ideals could be advertised. However, given the zeitgeist of current society, prevalence of eating disorders is more likely the case, and these other factors adding to that.

Current Western culture has been said to be one of the aspects of the etiology of eating disorders (Miller, 1999). The professional dance, and in particular, ballet culture, as we have seen, will clearly be a culture that contributes to that etiology for some people, given the ideals of body and form, and the focus on ideal body-image for success. A number of studies have identified sociocultural factors within American society (which is one section of Western society) associated with the development of eating disorders. Eating disorders have been associated with Caucasian upper socioeconomic groups, with a ‘conspicuous absence of Negro patients’ (Bruch 1979). A study by Roland, however (Rowland 1970) found more lower and middle class patients with an eating disorder within a primarily Italian sample, with a high percentage of Jews and Catholics. Roland suggested that these cultures emphasis food more and so this may cause a higher risk of eating disorders. However, Robinson et al (1996) discovered in a study with Hispanic and Asian American girls that there was greater body dissatisfaction than white girls. However, this result was not accounted for in terms of the variables that may have caused it. It is possible that the girls with Hispanic and Asian heritage have bodies more shaped to their heritage which may differ from the American Western consumer culture ideals of body type and body-image.

Anorexia Nervosa is possibly a culture-bound syndrome with roots in Western cultural values, ideals and conflicts. There is no surprise that Western dance culture, which includes classical ballet as a significant form of Western dance (and also having spread to the East) has a significant rate of eating disorders within it. Not only Anorexia Nervosa, but other types of eating disorders may be said to be culture-bound syndromes, reflecting Western values and conflicts and being an expression of the struggle in the West today to keep the body within the ideals of the zeitgeist of these times. In addition, there is the increase in diagnosis of binge-eating disorder (Middleton, 2007), where the person consumes vast amounts of food without purging or exercising to remove the food or burn off calories. This often, but not always has links to emotional eating, and is less around issues of keeping within current cultural ideals of a slim or ‘ideal’ body type according to the current trends in Western culture. However, in current Western society there is more availability of food and it is often available quickly, and doctors are recognising issues such as sugar addiction given the increase and availability of high sugar foods in current Western society. This is a whole other area in the study of the body, body-image and current Western culture, but is not within the focus of this essay, with binge eating without purging being rare in the dance culture, given that binge eating alone leads to obesity. Eating disorders may be becoming more prevalent in more cultures than previous recognised or accounted for, with Western values becoming more widely accepted and even taken on by some Eastern cultures, and this includes Western dance with its ideals.




Both dance and the body can contribute to one’s identity. Dancers may see their identity as intricately tied to dance, and/or dance as intricately tied to their identity, especially because dance and the body are so intricately entwined. How tied to identity may depend on certain variables, including dance type and level of dance. Eating disorders may be tied to dance for some, especially those in the upper levels of ballet where the body ideals are so closely linked to how far one can pursue dance, and how ballet culture, the body and identity can be so closely tied.  Given today’s social/cultural climate, including social media, body image is a more central topic and focus than in previous times. Given that there is a level of mortality with eating disorders, it can truly be said that some aspiring and professional dancers are dying to dance.





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Ravaldi, C. et al. (2003) Eating Disorders and Body Image Disturbances among Ballet Dancers, Gymnasium Users and Body Builders. Psychopathology, October 2003, 36 (5), pp.247-254.

Robinson et al.  Are Hispanic and Asian Girls at Increased Risk for Eating Disorders? Journal of Adolescent Health, 1996, 19, pp. 384-393.

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Swami, V. and Harris, A.S. Dancing Toward Positive Body Image? Examining Body-Related Constructs with Ballet and Contemporary Dancers at Different Levels. American Journal of Dance Therapy, June 2012, Volume 34 (1) pp. 39-52.

Thomas, H. (2003) The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory. Palgrave Macmillan. Hampshire.

2 thoughts on “Body Image, Eating Disorders and Identity in Dance Culture”

    1. will add a couple of dance images, yes. It is a bit long and a bit academic, but it was written for the university and it will make sense to those who are dancers or deep in the professional dance world and struggling with body image and eds there xxx


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