Are you a professional dancer or a pre-professional dance student who wants to learn more about the ideal weight of a dancer? Have you been relying on an ideal height and weight chart to dictate your goals? If yes, then keep reading.
Ideal body weights for dancers is a topic that comes up often in my work as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. In a previous article for Dance Magazine, I dispel the confusion around ideal body weights especially because dancers commonly (and mistakenly) turn to weight as a predictor of achievement (more on this here).
However, attempting to control our body weight leads us to an uphill battle against biology. It also feeds into a culture of systemic oppression and bias (a topic I talk more about here). Nonetheless, let’s discuss the reasons why ideal body weights and ideal weight charts are destructive for dancers.
The Flaws of BMI (Body Mass Index) Charts
If you’ve been to a doctor recently, then chances are they’ll be measuring your BMI (or body mass index). This represents your body’s ratio of weight to height. Medical doctors and clinicians alike often use BMI as a marker for health. In other words, varying ranges define whether a body classifies as “underweight,” “normal weight,” “overweight,” or “obese.” According to this paradigm, using BMI as a tool to measure health follows a J-shaped curve where increased disease risk falls on both ends of the spectrum (underweight and obese).
Though it’s a common tool, BMI as a measure of one’s physical health is misleading and inaccurate. Not only do we know that body weight is not a direct predictor of health but also, BMI does not take into account body composition. This is especially important for dancers. Here’s why:
What is body composition?
Bodyweight, as a measured number, encompasses a spectrum of components including the weights of:
- Muscle mass,
- Body fat,
- Organs, and
So when reading that number on the bathroom scale, you’re actually reading a number that represents multiple components (both controllable and uncontrollable) of body composition. BMI does not factor in the physical weights and physiological roles of each of these elements.
Let’s break it down further. Since we have no control over the weight of our bones and organs, we’ll focus on the three (somewhat) controllable constituents of body weight: muscle, fat, and water. Water is the body’s most basic medium needed for all biological reactions and makes up to 60% of the human body. You’ve heard it before, but let me repeat it: hydration is essential to health.
This leaves us to discuss the dynamic duo that fuels diet culture’s marketing scheme: muscle and fat. Diet culture conditions us to believe that building muscle and losing fat are the most prominent goals for achieving health. In our fat-phobic culture, however, we forget about the important roles that fat upholds in the body. From hormonal regulation and reproduction to the health of our brain, bones, and even skin, body fat is a key player alongside muscle mass. Lastly, diet culture ignores the simple fact that muscle weighs more than fat, and when you engage in strength training activity (like dancing), your body weight is naturally higher. To learn more about the role of fat on the body, click here.
The Risks of Controlling Your Body Weight
Maintaining a body weight that is too low for your natural body type fights basic biology. Your set-point weight is a range at which your body feels most comfortable. In other words, it’s your body’s *happy* weight that is controlled biologically and pre-determined genetically. But when the body’s fat stores are reduced to a size below one’s individual set point, such as with a calorie-restricted diet, the body signals a hormonal response in an attempt to restore its reserves. In other words, when you follow a restrictive mindset, your body fights back. Read more about this hormonal response and metabolism here.
Despite today’s overabundant food supply, your body doesn’t know that food is (literally) available 24/7. Instead, your body is equipped to survive the biggest threat to its survival: famine. In this pursuit, your body stores energy when it’s under-fueled (such as with low-calorie dieting and over-exercising) and prioritizes its most basic metabolic functions. Hormonal shifts “mute” secondary processes (like reproduction) further impair hormones like estrogen and testosterone (both of which play a role in bone health, among others). The biological and psychological costs of this self-imposed energy deficit are vast. Click here to read about the risks of attempting to maintain a body weight that is too low for one’s genetic blueprint.
How should dancers redefine “health?”
For starters, separate health from the scale. We now know that weight is not an indicator of health. We also know that weight cycling (a common result of dieting and a restrictive lifestyle) is a risk factor for a multitude of negative health implications.
Ideal Weight Chart for Professional and Pre-Professional Dancers
A healthy weight is one that can be maintained without constant dieting, without restricted food intake, and without obsessive exercise routines. Rather than using food as a tool to control body weight, enjoy food as an experience. If you need help, a licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is your best source for advice. When we allow cultural norms (like the glorification of dieting and hard-core exercise routines) to define our individual ideal body shape or weight, we risk the weight (pun intended) of body dissatisfaction.
Easy for you to say Rachel… you’re thin.
I cannot deny that, by society’s standards, I am thin. I am aware that I experience thin privilege as a result of my body type – by bearing a close-in-size resemblance to most of the media’s depictions of “wellness.” Yes, it is arguably easier for me to move through the world than for someone whose body type is not as celebrated by the mainstream. I do not know how it feels to live in a bigger body, and I do not know how it feels to be on the outside of diet culture’s social standard that unfortunately glorifies thinness. I will be the first to say that I do not know how it feels to walk into a store that doesn’t carry my size, and although body shaming happens to all types of bodies, including us “thin” folk, I by no means equate the shaming that I feel on the same level as the systemic, fat-phobic, and epidemic of shame placed on larger bodies.
That said, I know how it feels to be judged about my body type, and ironically, I get targeted because I happen to write about the power of food freedom and intuitive eating. I am passionate about my platform’s messages around eating, and to be judged about the way my body responds to food feels unfair because my body type is out of my control. I recognize that being shamed for being thin holds a different social stigma than being shamed for having a larger body, and again, I don’t claim to understand that experience first-hand; but despite my size, I know how it feels to live life with a chronic dissatisfaction over my body and, more often than not, I still have days when I don’t feel good in my skin. Years of restricted food intake, years of over-exercising, and years of self-imposed “rules” did not feel like a privilege to me. They did, however, inspire me to find another way to view food, and those difficult years fueled my passion for my life’s work.
Years of restricted food intake, years of over-exercising, years of self-imposed “rules,” did not feel like a privilege.
Body Dysmorphia Among Dancers
Body dysmorphia is the preoccupation with body appearance and particularly refers to one’s dissatisfaction over a physical ailment that others cannot necessarily see. Though not entirely understood, body dysmorphia may stem psychologically alongside other mental health disorders such as anxiety. Body dysmorphia can also manifest environmentally, such as from a childhood inundated with excessive criticism about body types. Dancers often begin to train as young as six years old and therefore, are particularly vulnerable to the ostracizing messages surrounding body weight and body shape.
Your ideal body weight is a weight that can be accepted by YOU. Yes, YOU are in charge of your body and therefore, YOU need to feel good in your body. But body acceptance is hard when drenched in a culture that glorifies any one type of ideal weight. For dancers, the emphasis on thinness is exacerbated due to antiquated philosophies surrounding an “ideal dancer’s body.”
To flourish as a dancer, it’s important to heal your relationship with your body. Self-confidence helps us access full expression within our art. First, realize that the pros of maintaining a healthy (set point) weight outweigh the consequences of striving for a lower controlled weight. Then, dismantle the exhaustive lifestyle of body dissatisfaction and aim for body neutrality. To learn more about body neutrality, check out this article.
Small Steps Lead to Big Changes
The dance world is a concentrated version of our weight-obsessed culture. Encouraging dancers to follow non-restrictive lifestyles that promote their set point weight, no matter the number is the goal. As a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for dancers, I encourage you to sign up for The Healthy Dancer® community to learn more about supporting your ideal.
Dance and performance should never be denied to anyone; movement is a universal language that has room for all shapes, sizes, religions, ethnicities, ages, and EVERYONE. Remember, “normal weight” doesn’t exist. Everyone is subject to body criticism and it’s our job to rewrite the script. For dancers, this means shifting the focus away from the body and rather to artistry.