If you struggle with body image as a dancer, you're not alone. Some of the biggest stars of ballet have opened up about their own difficulties. There's a lot of pressure to look a certain way, and awareness of that fact emerges early—sometimes even before puberty. Maybe you've received direct comments from an artistic director or a teacher, or you compare yourself to your peers or other dancers on social media.
When you feel overwhelmed by aesthetic pressure, it can steal the joy from your art. Not only can obsessing over your appearance distract you from working on your technique and artistry, but it can also lead to self-critical thoughts or disordered eating. If you're feeling stuck in a loop of body negativity, it is possible to stop the destructive cycle. In my work as a holistic health coach for dancers, cultivating a more positive self-image is a big focus. Here are some practical actions I guide my clients through that you can implement to shift your body narrative.
Reframe Your "Flaws," and Remind Yourself of Your Strengths
Think about the body parts you criticize most often. What if the physical attributes you considered a hindrance were in fact part of your gift? They're part of what makes you unique, and they shape the way you move.
If you worry that your thighs are "too big," consider all the power you have for jumping. If you're concerned that your legs are too short, think about the speed they might allow. Whatever your perceived flaw, reflect on how you can view it as a positive.
In addition to this reframing, bring attention back to the things you do well. If you have brilliant footwork, flowing port de bras or expressive artistry, put your focus there. Research has shown that people who focus on their strengths are happier, less stressed and more fulfilled.
At first, you might struggle to believe these positive mental reframes. If that's the case, it can be helpful to view your fellow dancers through this positive lens as well. Stop searching for things your friends could improve upon and start looking for the qualities in their dancing you admire. Releasing yourself from your tendency to judge others can allow you to ease up on yourself.
Rewrite Your Body Story
Your body story is the way you view your physical attributes and whether you define them as good or bad. The story started forming when you were quite young as you began to notice the world around you. As people say things, perceptions form. If your body story is negative, or mostly negative, it's time for a rewrite.
First, outline your current story. Think back to the earliest memories that shaped your perception of what a body in dance should be. Write down comments you heard over the years about your body, focusing first on those that created a negative perception. You'll also include comments that may have been directed to your class or other individuals if they informed the way you view yourself. It can be emotional recalling each of these experiences, but once you've done it, you can take your power back and start to shift the story.
Next, write down memories of teachers who were particularly encouraging, positive and supportive, too. Who saw your potential and made you feel like you could succeed and achieve your dance goals? Go into as much detail with these memories as you can.
Once you've compiled the negative and positive memories, rewrite your body story with a focus on the good. What would it have looked like if you only had positive, supportive experiences? How would you feel? Would your approach to auditions, taking class and casting be different?
While you can't change your past experiences, you do get to choose what they mean to you. Believe the good, and decide to trust the people who encouraged you along the way. The naysayers may be projecting their own negativity onto you or are a product of a broken system that has too long favored an unhealthy body ideal.
Start Your Day With a Body-Image Boost
This simple exercise is a great way to start the day. I developed it for clients in my Whole Dancer program using elements from yoga, meditation and affirmations. You can even do it while you're still lying in bed.
Place one hand on your heart and one on your stomach. Tune in to your breath. Allow the hand on your stomach to encourage deep belly breathing, which promotes calm and relaxation.
Next, bring your thoughts to gratitude. Thank your body for carrying you through life. Call to mind specific things to thank different body parts for. You might thank your legs for allowing you to jump, or your arms for facilitating port de bras.
It's often helpful to direct gratitude towards the parts of your body that you struggle with. Focus on an area that you've deemed "wrong," and send extra love and gratitude there. If you incorporate this exercise into your daily routine, big shifts are possible.
For Lasting Body Positivity
Changing your body narrative doesn't happen overnight; it's a process. Sustaining a positive body image is ongoing too. Just like building up muscle strength and improving your technique, you have to come back to these exercises regularly to see progress. If you'd like more help on your journey, consider enlisting support from a psychologist or other mental health professional. Many of my dancer clients work with both a health coach and a psychologist simultaneously.
Putting the time into cultivating true self-love and respect for your instrument will make you happier, healthier and more confident as a dancer and person.