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 dissatisfcation 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!)
As a multi-privileged dietitian and dancer, it’s not my place to teach dancers how to find body acceptance
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.
#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.
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 Them
Build a list of affirmations that will help you neutralize and rewrite your mental self-talk (learn more about this technique here). Once you construct your positive conversation, consider writing yourself daily reminders. My favorite technique? Adding these affirmations as reminders on my phone. Schedule them as alerts throughout your day and/or week. Hold yourself accountable for the changes we work to build!
#4: Make a Mindset Shift
I say this often because it’s critical to understand: that improving your body image and ultimately feeling confident in your body is a journey, NOT a 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. There will be days when you feel great and there will be days when you feel not-so-great. But if you let those negative days overpower the positive ones, then you’ll risk falling into unsustainable habits. This is when we risk dancer burnout.
#3: 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!
- Body Neutrality for Dancers
- Actionable Tips from a Licensed Therapist
- A Lesson To Learn From Colleen Werner, Dancer and Leader in the Body Positive Movement
- Defining A Dancer’s “Healthy” Body Weight
- Stop the Comparisons