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Ballet's enduring body image issues

Credit: Getty Images/Digital Vision Vectors/Keith Bishop

Emily Harrison's client, a teenage ballet student, didn't understand the problem. She'd been doing her best to follow her teacher's instruction to "pull up" and "lengthen" her lines, but to no avail. She badly wanted to comply and had spent the past year working on her technique, "practically lifting up her eyebrows in class," Harrison told me.

Still, the teacher wasn't satisfied. It was on Harrison, a nutritionist and herself a former ballerina, to translate: In ballet, " 'Lengthen' doesn't mean get longer, it means get thinner."

Today's ballet teachers and company directors know they can no longer simply instruct their dancers to lose weight. But that doesn't mean they've relinquished their rigid, narrow vision of what a "good" ballet body looks like: They simply swathe that ideal in the gauzy, feel-good messaging of fitness culture.

For decades, the prevailing attitude was to lose the weight, no matter how. In her memoir, "Dancing on My Grave," New York City Ballet principal dancer Gelsey Kirkland recounts an incident in the late 1960s when the company's co-founder and de facto dictator, George Balanchine, stopped a class to examine Kirkland's body and "rapped his knuckles" down her sternum. "Must see bones," he told her. At the time, Kirkland weighed less than 100 pounds. "He did not merely say, 'eat less,' " she remembered. "He repeatedly said, 'eat nothing.' "

In the 1990s, ballet's high-pressure and eating-disorder-friendly culture came in for some unwelcome attention. The press spread the word about anorexia and bulimia running rampant among teenage girls; gymnastics and figure skating also came under scrutiny. Harrowing tales of dancers starving themselves, of smoking or snorting their appetites away, made for bad PR as the nation moved toward a new, tenuous "body positive" culture in which emaciation was no longer considered the height of feminine beauty.

The bad old days of ballet teachers telling their dancers to eat nothing, or telling them exactly how many pounds they should lose, are largely over. The focus now is on optimum performance, on strength, on food as fuel. Companies encourage dancers to cross train at the gym, on top of heavy rehearsal schedules and classes.

Today, women are permitted, even expected, to be muscular — but never bulky, just lean. They are expected to be the "right kind" of strong, in the right places; they have to look "athletic," but not like water polo players or shot-put throwers. "Strong is the new skinny," as long as you're still skinny.

Even the weight loss industry has rebranded: Now, you're less likely to hear marketing about pounds shed and "fat pants" thrown away, and more likely to encounter friendlier marketing that emphasizes health, fitness and, of course, "wellness." In 2018, Weight Watchers changed its name to "WW," purportedly to focus on participants' overall health — but its program still requires tracking food intake and assigning a "SmartPoint" value to what you eat.

Amid a wider culture that purports to care about health but glorifies slenderness, ballet companies guard their reputations: It's not a good look to be caught telling dancers explicitly to lose weight, or firing them for failing to do so. But the demands remain unchanged. In ballet, "long" is the new skinny, but skinny still reigns supreme.

Chloe Angyal is the author of the forthcoming "Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself." She wrote this piece for The Washington Post.