What is body image?
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), body image is how a dancer sees themselves in the mirror or when they picture themselves in their mind. Body image is a reflection of:
- One’s beliefs about their appearance
- One’s feelings towards their body shape, including their height, shape, and weight.
Body image can also involve how one feels in their body, including physical sensations and how their body moves throughout the world. Body image is created starting at a young age and often reflects internalized messaging, which sets the stage for the development of either a positive or negative body image.
Why are dancers prone to struggling with body image?
Dancers at all levels struggle with poor body image. In fact, research demonstrates that more than 75% of dancers feel pressure to lose weight with stress often originating from:
- Comparative mirror thoughts
- Tight-fitting uniforms (like leotards) and costumes
- Beliefs that lower body weights offer a performance advantage
- Casting (many dancers feel a lower body weight might correlate with a better role).
There’s no doubt that this vulnerability to negative body image is a direct result of antiquated body ideals that unfortunately saturate the industry. Body ideals in dance exist because of biases— preferences, and opinions about what is considered to be “acceptable.” These set the stage for standards that are often harmful, and for most dancers, unattainable without the use of restrictive dieting and/or exhaustive exercise routines. Body dissatisfaction and body dysmorphia commonly result from negative body image and can lead to the development of disordered eating and/or eating disorders. To learn more about the negative implications of diet culture and weight stigma in the dance world, click here.
How can dancers improve their body image?
Improvements in a dancer’s body image will depend on the individual dancer, those in charge (like educators and choreographers), and the dance industry as a whole. I’ve previously discussed the role that dance educators can take to support healthier habits in their studios.
It’s also important to note that body acceptance might feel like an overwhelming goal for dancers who have experienced years of stigma against their bodies. In fact, I don’t teach dancers how to find body acceptance. This is because as a multi-privileged dietitian and dancer, I acknowledge my own blindspots in this work. It is therefore essential that dancers also seek support from those with lived experience (check out more resources for dancers and practitioners here!)
From my past experience with body dissatisfaction, I share how I’ve learned how to build a supportive body image in my program The Healthy Dancer. Through this work, dancers can begin the journey towards feeling confident in their bodies. This involves shifting perspectives and utilizing compassionate curiosity to understand their here-and-now bodies, along with reconsidering body goals that they might be striving for. Let’s dive into a few actionable tips for dancers to consider in building a supportive body image.
Body Neutrality and Body Image Resilience
Our thoughts, emotions, and experiences each play a role in how we feel about our bodies. Unfortunately, the dance industry is saturated with idolized body beliefs that can challenge a dancer’s body image and self-confidence. When we spend much of our time thinking negatively about our bodies, we become conditioned to think that these thoughts are our reality. Negative self-talk is both unhelpful and likely to contribute to disordered eating habits.
To begin the work of improving their body image and ultimately feeling confident in their bodies, dancers need to consider tools that will support the journey. But with terms like “body positivity,” “body neutrality,” “body acceptance,” and “body image resilience” being tossed around social platforms, it can be difficult to decipher which to focus on. This article will deconstruct these various terms to help dancers strategize their journey towards body confidence.
What Is Body Positivity?
We commonly attribute body positivity to feeling joyous and happy about our here-and-now bodies. But Colleen Werner, a therapist, and mental health coach explains that this version of body positivity is “diluted.” According to Werner, body positivity is actually rooted in social justice and “created out of the fat liberation movement first led by fat queer Black women and femmes.” Bottom line: it’s “much bigger and needs to center marginalized bodies.”
Is Body Acceptance The Ultimate Goal?
Striving for body acceptance and even body confidence can feel overwhelming when immersed in a culture that unfortunately idealizes only one body type. Werner encourages dancers to consider “fostering body neutrality over body acceptance.” Werner believes that “language is key in empowering folks to heal their relationships with their bodies, and the word ‘neutrality’ over the word ‘acceptance’ has a less intimidating connotation.” According to Werner, “…striving for neutrality can often feel much more approachable and less intimidating.”
What Is Body Neutrality?
Body neutrality is a tool that allows us to live as we are, without over-thinking our body’s weight, shape, and size. It alleviates self-judgment and internal ridicule. Body neutrality also lessens the pressure of having to wholeheartedly *accept* or feel confident in our bodies, but can simultaneously be part of one’s journey towards eventually getting there.
If you’re experiencing a day when self-love or confidence seems a bit out-of-reach (this can be hard to avoid in our culture!), then striving for body neutrality versus body acceptance or body confidence can make you feel less discouraged. Werner provides us with two journaling prompts for fostering body neutrality. Ask yourself:
- Who is profiting off of you hating your body?
- What is something that your body does for you that you are grateful for?
What is Body Image Resilience?
Body image resilience, like body neutrality, is another helpful tool that can be utilized throughout one’s journey towards body acceptance. Building resilience towards the inevitable: triggering messages surrounding body image and diet culture. You can learn more about this here.
It’s important to understand that while these tools (body neutrality and body image resilience, specifically) might be helpful at the individual level, they aren’t enough to dismantle the institutional weight bias and systemic oppression of those in larger bodies. Neither should derail us from our need to challenge implicit biases. One’s use of body neutrality and/or body image resilience should include a reevaluation of oppressive body standards and challenge systemic fatphobia. To learn more about the harmful implications of diet culture and weight stigma, read this article.
Use of body neutrality and/or body image resilience should still include a reevaluation of oppressive body standards and challenge systemic fatphobia.
#1 Reclaim Your Story
First, grab a journal and pen. Now, think about your body’s history. Do you remember a specific time when you began to second-guess the shape or size of your body? Where did this thought originate from? Was it the result of a comment from a teacher, director, or choreographer? Maybe it was a family member or a friend? If you were told to lose weight, then who was it that suggested this to you? Perhaps it wasn’t a person, but rather an image or social media post you stumbled upon. Once you identify the origin(s) of your negative body image, we can work to strip away the criticism. Journal these thoughts and comments. Let’s face these words together. Body image resilience towards triggering content can be a helpful tool in this step. Here’s an article that dives into the process.
Disclaimer: This is not easy and may require support. Consider my 5 Days To Body Confidence Challenge for a network of dancers rewriting their body script. It is also encouraged that you reach out to a licensed professional such as a Mental Health Therapist or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if you’re body image struggle is impacting your relationship with food.
#2: Identify Unhelpful Thought Patterns
There are numerous types of mindset distortions that can leave dancers feeling disconnected from their here-and-now bodies. Some of these patterns of thinking include:
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Magnification and Minimalization
- Negative Filter
- “Should” statements
- Jumping to conclusions
- Emotional Reasoning
Have you ever discredited a compliment? For example, if someone praised your new haircut, have you brushed it off as “thank you, but it wasn’t what I…?” It’s common for dancers to focus on negative talk. Identifying your thought patterns is a major step in rewiring our emotions and reshaping our behaviors.
#3: Rewrite Your Narrative
Cultivating a mindset that encompasses kind and compassionate thoughts is one of the best ways to transform our beliefs and create a new mental script. If you’re looking to move closer to a place of self-love, then sign up for my 5 Days To Body Confidence Challenge. You’ll join hundreds of dancers who are making strides toward feeling more confident in their bodies.
In order to transform negative thoughts and feelings, we can shift them with more supportive alternatives. Affirmations. By definition, affirmations describe factual attributes that offer emotional support. Whether you believe them or not, take a second to build a list of personal affirmations. Over time, these thoughts can help you condition yourself to a more neutral and subsequent useful mindset. Building a list of affirmations will help you neutralize and rewrite your mental self-talk. Once you construct your positive conversation, consider writing yourself daily reminders. My favorite technique? Adding these affirmations as reminders on my phone. Here are some examples:
- I may not love my body yet, but I can feel strong in my body no matter its size.
- The number on the scale doesn’t reflect me or my dance abilities.
- My body makes me special and unique.
- Body acceptance is a journey and I’m on it.
- I enjoy feeling good about my body.
- If I don’t feel good about my body, I can strive for body neutrality.
- My current self is enough.
- I am grateful for my body.
- I am thankful for my strength.
- I don’t have to love my body, but I can respect it.
- My body deserves nourishing food, always.
- My body allows me to experience the world; that’s awesome.
- My body deserves to be taken care of with nourishing meals.
- My body doesn’t deserve negative ridicule.
- I am learning how to love my body.
- I love delicious food and there is no shame in that.
- I want to treat my body with love and respect.
- I give my body permission to change.
- I am more than the food I eat.
- I believe that I can find peace in my body.
- I believe that I can truly love my current self.
- The foods I eat do not reflect my self-worth.
- I give myself permission to feel satisfied with my food choices.
- There is no such thing as one perfect or ideal body type.
- What I ate yesterday does not dictate what I eat today.
- I possess the qualities needed to be successful in whatever I choose to do.
#4: Make a Mindset Shift
Compassionate curiosity. I say this often because it’s critical to understand: that body neutrality and body image resilience are only part of the journey…. they’re not a final destination. Because our culture places so much emphasis on body size and the use of food to manipulate it, the task of rewriting our thoughts and reshaping our beliefs can feel overwhelming. A working relationship with your body is one that is ever-evolving and not stagnant. It also involves a very proactive approach to challenging implicit weight bias, fatphobia, and the systemic oppression of larger bodies.
#5: Keep Doing The Work
Whether it means journaling your new body truth, adding daily reminders to your phone, or perhaps turning to a helpful app for inspiration (I like ThinkUp!), you’ll have to continue the work in the long run. For additional resources, read the following articles and comment below. I want to hear about the first step you’ll take toward building a supportive body image!
- Actionable Tips from a Licensed Therapist
- A Lesson To Learn From Colleen Werner
- Defining A Dancer’s “Healthy” Body Weight
- Stop the Comparisons
Key Takeaways: Body Image Support for Dancers
There are multiple tools that can be utilized in the process of building a supportive relationship with your body. This article deciphers between:
- Body positivity
- Body acceptance
- Body confidence
And the specific tools an individual can use to get there:
- Body neutrality
- Body appreciation
- Body Image resilience